Last updated on September 11th, 2023
Often, we only think of the beautiful photos that come from photography, but there’s a frequently overlooked byproduct of taking those photos.
According to the EPA’s most recent report, the U.S. produced 28.88 million tons of hazardous waste in 2017. Through manufacturing, processing, printing, and discarding, photography contributes to this pollution problem, causing stress to our environment.
As we all strive to be more eco-conscious, let’s look at both analogue and digital photography to figure out if one is more environmentally friendly.
The Basics of Analogue vs. Digital Photography
When investigating the environmental impact of these two types of photography, it’s crucial to understand what makes analogue and digital photography so different from each other.
Analogue photography, also known as film photography, uses an analogue camera and physical film to capture images. Analogue cameras utilize chemical processes, instead of electronic ones, to take photos and process them.
After taking your photos with an analogue camera, the film must be processed and developed with chemicals in a dark room or photo lab. As you’ll see later, these chemicals are one of the worst offenders of environmental harm in analogue photography.
On the other hand, digital photography uses cameras with electronic photodetectors that generate images by focusing through a lens. The manufacturing of these components contributes a great deal to air, water, and earth pollution. These photos do not have to be processed using chemicals but become digitized and saved to an electronic device.
How Do Analog and Digital Photography Impact the Environment?
Let’s take an in-depth look at each step of analogue and digital photography and how they compare in terms of environmental impact.
Everything starts with the production of materials, but manufacturing is one of the most significant contributors to pollution.
Producing Analogue Photography Equipment
Manufacturing in analogue photography involves the production of the camera and all of the equipment needed to take a photo, including film, its cartridges or cassettes, and its outer packaging.
The various steps of the production process generate fumes and toxic wastes that can be hazardous to the environment. In particular, the silver used in creating a roll of film’s emulsion can be very detrimental. Dartmouth College reports that it’s very toxic to aquatic life, like fish and zooplankton, and can upset their ecosystems.
Much of the film’s outside packaging is plastic, which is known for filling landfills and polluting oceans. The Plastic Pollution Coalition reports that Americans alone produce more than 30 million tons of plastic every year. Environmental disadvantages of using plastic include
- Chemicals that leach from the plastic can end up in waterways
- Wildlife may ingest plastic, become trapped in it, or suffer habitat destruction because of it
- Plastic may contain chemical additives, like BPAs, that release their own toxins into the environment
To cut back on waste, many manufacturers filter air released back to the environment from the factory. They also eliminate waste through incineration. These producers recycle as much as possible, including purifying silver, which makes good use of such a potentially toxic substance.
Manufacturing Digital Cameras
Digital cameras have much more technologically advanced electronic components than analogue ones. These pieces make manufacturing digital cameras more hazardous to the environment and even require the mining of precious metals, like gold and silver, that causes air contamination, deforestation, and soil and water contamination from acid and mercury.
One of the most hazardous materials used in producing digital cameras is lead. Many cameras contain circuit boards and microchips made from lead, which is toxic when not disposed of correctly. According to the EPA, lead can appear in soil and waterways. It is extremely toxic, leading to decreased growth and reproductive rates in plants and wildlife.
Another issue in digital camera manufacturing is the semiconductor, an integral component of digital cameras whose production is highly hazardous to the environment.
Semiconductor production facilities generate several dangerous compounds, including fluorinated greenhouse gases like perfluorocarbons and nitrogen fluoride. The EPA reports that these gases have high global warming potentials and have a significant impact on climate change. Perfluorocarbons alone can last for 10,000 to 50,000 years in our atmosphere.
Eco-Friendly Manufacturing Efforts
Fortunately, many companies are working towards greener manufacturing processes in digital cameras. For example, Canon releases a sustainability report every year. They are working on several initiativesto reduce the environmental burden of their company and abide by an environmental charter for sustainability.
Unfortunately, despite these efforts, digital photography, in comparison with analogue, has a harsher effect on the environment when it comes to manufacturing due to its electronic components and their impact on the atmosphere and environment. Analogue photography is more environmentally friendly as far as equipment production goes.
Opposite from manufacturing, analogue photography is much more stressful for the environment than digital when it comes to film processing.
Developing Analogue Film
There are several ways that analogue photography can impact the environment during film processing.
Use of Chemicals
Most significantly, developing analogue photos requires the use of a variety of potentially dangerous chemicals, several of which are toxic to the environment. There are three chemicals needed for processing photos: developer, stop bath, and fixer. Each of these can be a variety of specific compounds, including:
These chemicals have differing levels of toxicity. For example, prednisone has relatively low toxicity, but metol and hydroquinone both have much higher toxicity. According to Baylor University’s Health & Safety Guide, developer chemicals can cause severe poisoning, demonstrating how dangerous they are for the environment.
Fixer usually contains silver ions, which are highly toxic and harmful to the environment. Much of the problem surrounding these chemicals has to do with their disposal. A 2012 study showed that silver ions do not get completely cleared from water at wastewater treatment facilities. It then contributes to wastewater sludge, which causes environmental harm.
While there are regulations in place to control chemical waste disposal, there’s always a chance of pollution if chemicals end up down the drain. From there, they can also infect ground soil and wildlife, causing further damage to the environment and human health.
Other Processing Waste in Analogue Photography
Analogue cameras use physical film to produce photos. This film’s manufacturing, as we’ve already seen, generates waste. After you finish using it, the film also has to be thrown away. It can’t be recycled. It likely ends up in landfills, where it may leach chemicals that are harmful to the environment.
Photographers also use water to develop analogue photos. In analogue photography, you have to rinse the chemicals from your prints. If you’re developing many photos, you may use a lot of water and produce considerable water waste.
Electronic Film Processing with Digital Photography
Digital photography produces very little waste in film processing, with the help of SD cards. After you take your photos, you can upload them using an SD card reader to editing software and publish them electronically. There are no dangerous or toxic chemicals involved.
One downside to processing photos with digital cameras is battery use. Digital cameras use more battery power than analogue ones, especially when using the flash. Improperly disposing of environmentally hazardous batteries, like lithium-ion or lead-acid, can result in chemical leaching in landfills and waterways.
To help reduce waste and chemical leaching, you can use rechargeable batteries. Recycling batteries is another smart way to protect the environment.
Both analogue and digital photography impact the environment through film printing, though digital is probably the more environmentally friendly choice.
Analogue Photography Generates Paper Waste
In analogue photography, you cannot proof your images before you develop them. In most cases, you end up wasting paper to print them and then throwing away the ones you don’t want.
This process leads to paper waste and deforestation. According to The World Counts, 93% of paper comes from trees, and enough gets wasted each year to build a 12-foot tall wall from New York to California. Managing paper waste can help preserve habitats and keep air clean.
You can reduce environmental waste in analogue photography by asking your photo lab for a contact sheet with thumbnails of each of your photos. You can then select the ones you want to print instead of processing all of them at once.
Waste-Free Printing with Digital Photography
With digital photography, you can sort through your photos on your computer before choosing the ones you want to print. Sometimes, you don’t have to print photos at all. You can publish them electronically on a website or virtual portfolio. You can also share them on social media or through email.
Even though you may not give disposal much thought, it actually impacts the environment quite a bit, contributing to chemical leaching and overflowing landfills. In this case, analogue photography is more eco-friendly than digital.
Upcycle Your Analogue Photography Gear
Analogue cameras usually last longer than digital ones, making them more efficient, thrown away less frequently, and creating less waste. Since their components use fewer hazardous materials to make, they also have slightly less chemical leaching in landfills.
There’s also plenty of opportunity for upcycling in analogue photography. Many photographers enjoy using vintage cameras and equipment as a way of preserving a more traditional form of photography.
However, discarding the film and developer chemicals can be tricky, as described above.
Digital Photography Equipment Has a Short Lifespan
As opposed to analogue cameras, the lifespan of digital ones is usually only a few years. Since they are so common and affordable, it’s typically cheaper to throw a broken digital camera away and buy a new one rather than have the old one repaired.
Cameras that are thrown in the regular trash probably end up in landfills, which, according to the EPA, are the third-highest source of human-related methane gas, a substance that’s toxic for the environment and a contributor to global climate change.
Digital cameras also frequently undergo updates, and professional photographers may find themselves upgrading models often, creating additional waste. In cases of outdated technology, a working camera may get thrown away simply because its technology isn’t current anymore, again producing unnecessary waste.
If not appropriately discarded, digital cameras can leach lead and mercury into the environment. These chemicals are toxic and dangerous if they find their way into waterways. Because of this, it’s critical to dispose of your digital camera correctly and in an eco-friendly way.
Green Photography Tips
No matter if you’re working in analogue or digital photography, you can employ methods for improved environmental friendliness.
- Sell still-functioning equipment instead of throwing it away (doing this is especially helpful for outdated camera models that continue to work well and may be of interest to novice photographers)
- Buy used gear to minimize manufacturing costs
- Use recycled materials when possible, like with photo paper
- Switch to energy-efficient lighting in your studio (CFL and LED lighting, for example)
- Unplug your electronics when you’re not using them to reduce your energy use
These are just a few simple ways to reduce your impact on the environment.
It’s almost impossible to say which of analogue or digital photography is more eco-friendly. Each one has advantages and disadvantages depending on several different criteria, including manufacturing of the equipment, film processing, photo printing, and discarding. Luckily, you can work on making your photography more environmentally friendly either way.
With analogue photography, you will want to be mindful of how you develop your film, especially when it comes to the chemicals involved and their disposal. It’s important to stay current with proper chemical waste disposal methods to protect the environment. You may also want to consider your photo printing processes, so you can try to reduce paper waste.
However, with digital photography, the priority is in minimizing manufacturing waste. You want to shop smartly, choosing companies and products that are eco-friendly or even recycled. Another useful way to cut production costs is to maintain your camera and extend its lifespan as long as possible. You can also buy used equipment and sell your old gear.
Both types of photography have pros and cons when it comes to environmental impact. The good news is that you can improve the greenness of your photography, no matter if you’re shooting analogue or digital. As the photography industry continues to focus on becoming more eco-conscious, we can look forward to even more ways to go green.