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Real talk - can we find an alternative to silver?


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In a recent thread, there was talk of film prices rising by as much as 30%. Keep in mind that a turnkey Red Scarlet kit can be had for under $5,000. And on the very low end, a BMPCC can be had for something like $500. And those old cameras put out a lovely image. Never mind the hybrid cameras like the GH5S etc. Take your pick. This price increase will be due solely to the potential rising price of silver.

Back in the '90s I wanted to be an industrial chemist (and before that, a mechanical engineer). My school grades and lack of motivation eventually made both of those dead ends. But it was photography which was the hook. And although I had no money to speak of, I already gotten into photography by about year 9 or so. I had read about something called aniline dye (see: GAF corp.), and I thought, maybe there is a technology that can replace silver with something that you can make cheaply. So far, I don't know of any potential silver replacements.

If we don't find an alternative to silver, I don't think that film is going to last as long as it should. And I don't like that idea.

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The problem is that you need a substance which can be reactive to chemicals and withstand the test of time. 

Even if you were to make some synthetic that could do it, who would guarantee it living long time? Sliver has done a very good job thus far. 

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34 minutes ago, Tyler Purcell said:

The problem is that you need a substance which can be reactive to chemicals and withstand the test of time. 

Even if you were to make some synthetic that could do it, who would guarantee it living long time? Sliver has done a very good job thus far. 

Silver is great and all but (and I imagine you know this if you invest in Silver; I used to put a good deal of money into it myself) the silver supply is dwindling a bit each year and the values are believed (by Silver bugs, at least) to be artificially suppressed by the paper market (JP Morgan, etc.) If this theory is true, the time will come when Silver will become untouchable for creating film stock.

The approximate natural occurrence of silver in the Earth to gold is about 17.5:1. Historically, the Romans set silver as 1/12 of gold price and the USA (when on the gold standard), had silver as 1/15th of gold.

Right now, Silver is ~1/79th the value of Gold. It is possible that Gold is "overvalued" but I doubt it. With the crazy recent inflation, I would say that Gold is still undervalued. Nonetheless, even if Gold is "priced right", Silver is historically extremely undervalued.

If Silver had the correct pricing relative to its ratio in the Earth (17.5:1) and Gold is "priced right", then Silver would be ~$103/ozt. This is about a 450% markup over current pricing. Could you imagine what that would do to the price of film? Yikes.

I agree that, if possible, Silver should be replaced with a cheaper metal. Not sure if it is possible but also not sure if anyone has thought to try. 

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OP...don't know. But I subscribe to the policy of...if they could of...they would of. The Golden Age of Film is long gone. People are investing in digital innovations and not film innovations.  

Film is $ and I think it will continue its one way trajectory of higher and higher prices in the future. Ink for my inkjet printer has gone from $54 to $72 per cartridge. And I need 9 of them. Most everything has gone up OP. Gotta suck it up and move on. And if it gets too much pain for you...go digital OP. 

Edited by Daniel D. Teoli Jr.
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1 hour ago, Doug Palmer said:

What happens to  redundant workprints and worn-out release prints that could be recycled ?

Not so many of those anymore. And no more than trace silver in colour film, anyway. It's washed out at the bleach stage. If it's bleach-bypassed or proper old-style black and white, then there's silver in it, but not in normal colour film.

And yes, they recover the silver from the bleach, including just running old black and white scrap film through the bleach bath to strip out the silver.

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As Phil says, color prints do not have silver in them (unless a special process is used like ENR or skip-bleach).  In development, as exposed silver halide turns into silver, an equal amount of color dye is formed.  The bleach step converts that silver back into silver halide and then the fixer & wash steps remove all silver halide.  So the recovery of silver from color film already has happened at the lab.

Someone listed the alternatives to silver here, but I suspect the fact that metallic silver is black and silver nitrate's reaction speed to light is faster than with other metallic compounds' is probably the reason for silver being used.

https://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/101417/what-metals-have-been-used-in-photography

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Frankly, Silver is just one of many of Earth's raw materials that also are required to produce digital and solar infrastructure.  Competition for these resources will only get worse as technology advances and the demand grows.

Film was artificially cheap when it was the dominant medium.  A Kodak rep told me back in the 1980's, they sold Color Negative basically at cost or a loss because the print stock volumes were so enormous and profits so high.

Shoot what you can, while you can, is the only really practical philosophy I have come up with to date.

Worrying about it is futile.

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I'm also not very sure if replacing the silver is likely to reduce the cost significantly. Do we know how much silver there is in a foot of film? Even if we found an ideal low-cost replacement, the manufacturing process is still hugely complex and demanding of exquisite precision, not to mention based in a high-income country. Could it ever realistically be cheap?

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1 hour ago, Simon Wyss said:

Traditionally it is reckoned with five grams of silver per square metre. That corresponds to oz. 0.17637 per 10.764 sq. ft.

Wouldn't it be 0.16077 oz. since precious metals are measures in ounces troy? (1 ozt = 31.1 grams)

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OK, let's do the numbers.

A 400-foot roll of 35mm film has an area of (400 × 12 × 25.4 × 35) ÷ 1000000 = 4.267 square metres. This overlooks the value of the silver in any material punched out to create sprocket holes. I bet that's recovered, although the cost of doing so will affect the value of recovered silver in ways we can't predict.

Assume price of silver is about US$0.742 per gram. Assume 5g per square metre.

4.267 × 5 × 0.742 = 15.853.

B&H charges $327.50 for a 400-foot roll of 5219, so even if we found an ideal, no-drawbacks replacement that was free, it would make film less than 5% cheaper.

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16 minutes ago, Phil Rhodes said:

B&H charges $327.50 for a 400-foot roll of 5219, so even if we found an ideal, no-drawbacks replacement that was free, it would make film less than 5% cheaper.

This is both encouraging but also aggravating. It is good because it shows that the price of film shouldn't be that closely tied to the price of silver. However, it is aggravating because silver has long been a (at least partial) justification for why film costs so much to make. This here proves that story was a load a BS. So where is the costs of it? Labor? Is the labor actually difficult or is this more BS like the silver cost fallacy?

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19 minutes ago, Matthew W. Phillips said:

So where is the costs of it? Labor? Is the labor actually difficult or is this more BS like the silver cost fallacy?

I don't know and Kodak won't tell you, but it's reasonable. It's not just slop the gloop on the plastic ribbon. The chemistry has to be mixed and coated on there with incredible precision, or the density of the pictures would be all over the place. Even black and white film now has a handful of layers to control its contrast, while colour films have a handful of layers per colour. I'm speculating, but I'd be fully prepared to believe there's an unavoidable need for some pretty qualified process control people and some very exacting equipment maintenance.

I think the real risk for Kodak is someone in China deciding to do it. As Ferrania found, setting up to make colour film is extremely non-trivial, even when you're an ex-manufacturer with most of that manufacturer's facilities and people available to you, but it's not impossible.

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1 hour ago, Phil Rhodes said:

4.267 × 5 × 0.742 = 15.853.

B&H charges $327.50 for a 400-foot roll of 5219, so even if we found an ideal, no-drawbacks replacement that was free, it would make film less than 5% cheaper.

Phil, thank you for doing that. That was very illuminating. It shows us that the price of silver is not a significant cost.

But now let's go to Matthew's post where he proposes that the price of silver might go as high as 450% from here. So roughly that's a four times increase in the price. So, let's assume that the cost of silver is now 4 x $15.853, which equals 63.412. We already have $15.853 worth of silver in that 400ft roll, so let's add (63.412 - 15.853) to that, the difference being $47.559, which comes to $375 or so. The price increase is 14.5%, rounding it up to 15%. Not stupidly huge, but it will add up to lots of dollars over time.

18 minutes ago, Gautam Valluri said:

Aren't there precious metals in trace amounts in digital camera circuit boards?

AFAIK they all have either gold or copper or both.

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3 hours ago, Phil Rhodes said:

I don't know and Kodak won't tell you, but it's reasonable. It's not just slop the gloop on the plastic ribbon. The chemistry has to be mixed and coated on there with incredible precision, or the density of the pictures would be all over the place. Even black and white film now has a handful of layers to control its contrast, while colour films have a handful of layers per colour. I'm speculating, but I'd be fully prepared to believe there's an unavoidable need for some pretty qualified process control people and some very exacting equipment maintenance.

I think the real risk for Kodak is someone in China deciding to do it. As Ferrania found, setting up to make colour film is extremely non-trivial, even when you're an ex-manufacturer with most of that manufacturer's facilities and people available to you, but it's not impossible.

I am not trying to make light of the labor that goes into making film. However, I am quite sure that tougher manufacturing problems than that have been solved in the past using even automated technology. In a world where we have 3d printers available to most any income bracket (which has precise motors on all 3-axis), I am finding it a bit tough to envision the creation of film to be that exacting. And if it were, I doubt it would be a problem solved by humans since we tend to be...error prone.

Not arguing with you, Phil, just saying that I wonder if there is either some puffery on Kodak's part or maybe it is a question of the automated systems not being worth the return?

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2 hours ago, Karim D. Ghantous said:

But now let's go to Matthew's post where he proposes that the price of silver might go as high as 450% from here. So roughly that's a four times increase in the price. So, let's assume that the cost of silver is now 4 x $15.853, which equals 63.412. We already have $15.853 worth of silver in that 400ft roll, so let's add (63.412 - 15.853) to that, the difference being $47.559, which comes to $375 or so. The price increase is 14.5%, rounding it up to 15%. Not stupidly huge, but it will add up to lots of dollars over time.

What sucks even more is that most sellers of anything precious metals related add a markup or "premium" in addition to spot price. Even if Kodak can buy at spot, you can be sure as hell that they arent selling it to us as spot. I imagine they are marking the silver portion alone up a good deal. Not much different than a coin shop or bullion dealer would.

Therefore, in the scenario I gave, I imagine Kodak would go as much as double the silver value added onto the cost of film for the movement in the spot price. 

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Thanks Phil and Dave for putting me right about prints having sadly no silver in them.  Now another bit of nonsense  for the New Year,  that just entered my brain....  If the amount of silver in a roll of film is not very large, Phil says about 5 gm a square metre ?   would anyone be willing to donate some silver to the film manufacturer of their choice  (maybe a smaller manufacturer)   I'm thinking of all the bits and pieces like old silver coins, broken 'antiques' and so on that people accumulate in life.   So all that stuff you never look at around your house gets made into film.  Rather more useful.   Assuming of course the manufacturer doesn't do a runner 😉

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5 hours ago, Doug Palmer said:

would anyone be willing to donate some silver to the film manufacturer of their choice  (maybe a smaller manufacturer)  

My opinion, not being an expert in economics: it's better to just buy the product and use it. This is what I want to do, starting this year, if the budget allows - which it should.

There's also Gresham's Law: "Bad money drives out good money." IOW, you're going to spend your fiat dollar but conserve your silver dollar, even though both have the same legal value.

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On 1/5/2022 at 7:55 AM, Matthew W. Phillips said:

I am not trying to make light of the labor that goes into making film. However, I am quite sure that tougher manufacturing problems than that have been solved in the past using even automated technology. In a world where we have 3d printers available to most any income bracket (which has precise motors on all 3-axis), I am finding it a bit tough to envision the creation of film to be that exacting. And if it were, I doubt it would be a problem solved by humans since we tend to be...error prone.

Not arguing with you, Phil, just saying that I wonder if there is either some puffery on Kodak's part or maybe it is a question of the automated systems not being worth the return?

There's no puffery;  the job is hellishly difficult to coat film to the standards Kodak has established over their History.

Think of the coating alley as a Giant steamship you have to have to push into dock with a small ski boat.  The inertia of the process is astronomical, the standards extremely exacting, the raw materials and chemicals must be totally pure and clean...

in 2012, the main coating drum of Efke Film in Croatia broke down (so I have heard) and they simply walked away from film production because they knew they could never recoup the cost of getting the coating alleys back up and operational.  Efke sole a fair amount of film and was well regarded in the still film industry.

Nothing is off the shelf, nothing is easy. 

As Phil Rhodes implies;  ask Ferrania how easy it is, even when you have some access to former employees and a small, preexisting coating alley (yes, in bad condition, but in place nonetheless).

 

 

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