The Greening of Photography

Scott Griesel 'going green' - thanks to Lightroom - in Costa Rica. (Gregg Brekke photo)

Happy Earth Day 2012!

Do you remember the good old days of photography? Rolls and rolls of silver emulsion-coated celluloid running through our cameras ready to be processed in chemical baths that could take the rust off your Buick’s bumper?

Well, I have more nostalgic memories of the days of film photography too. The craft of working really hard to get the correct exposure, color balance, and composition so that no darkroom tricks were required to produce a good image. The smell of the chemicals – ahhh, the chemicals – knowing that they would soon “develop” and “fix” those carefully aligned silver ions so neatly arranged on your film stock. The anticipation of looking through a wet negative strip and just knowing the frames you were going to print. The magic of seeing the image come to life in the developer tray.

Then came the best part: Dumping all those chemicals down the drain when the development session was finished!

I’m kidding of course. But I’m not alone in this admission. Nobody gave much thought – at least on a home or small commercial level – to disposing of photo processing chemicals via the city sewer lines. Outside of silver reclamation, which had a financial incentive, this included most one-hour development sites too.

There was a common argument that basic photo chemistry was no more harmful to the environment than toilet bowl cleaners. I don’t dispute that. But specialized chemicals like selenium, potassium ferricyanide (er, cyanide…), and chromium had more of an impact.

On a home hobbyist level, I’d agree that these processes had a relatively low environmental impact. But on a professional and/or commercial processing level, the impact of manufacturing film, transporting it, developing the film, and printing each frame had to be huge.

Another thing I don’t dispute is that the environmental cost of manufacturing digital cameras, rechargeable batteries, and storage devices is higher than the environmental¬† costs for manufacturing film cameras. Even then, as film cameras became more advanced in the early 2000s the gap between the two narrowed.

I found this study on the “Environmental Impact of the Retail Photoprocessing Industry” interesting. Not only did it show decreased usage of film processing facilities, it showed a more efficient “per film unit” environmental cost in newer equipment. That’s good news for people still using film (there are many) and for those producing prints from their digital files.

What I didn’t find was any hard data on the average environmental costs associated with film and digital imaging, I’ll make a few observations and recommend a Masters or Doctoral project for someone in the environmental sciences…

The total environmental impact of imaging via purely digital means has high up-front costs that include:

  1. Manufacture of digital cameras, batteries, and micro-storage devices (or “digital film” as it was once known)
  2. Manufacture of computers to process and store digital images

There may be negligible difference between the manufacture of digital and modern film cameras – as on the pro camera level, they cost nearly the same – so that may not be a huge consideration.

Ongoing costs is where things really start to add up though, especially if we assume a pure digital (no printing, only soft proofing) and pure film (no soft proofing or digital storage, only prints) workflow.

Ongoing costs and associated environmental impact for digital imaging includes:

  1. Electric consumption for charging batteries, operating computers, and associated devices like hard drives.
  2. Purchase of additional storage

Ongoing costs and associated environmental impact for film imaging includes:

  1. Manufacture of film
  2. Development and printing of film
  3. Transportation costs for film development (personal or by the lab)

The 75,000 images I have stored on about 1tb of hard drive space represent over 2,000 rolls of 36 exposure film. The cost of said professional-grade film would have been around $12,000. Developing and producing 4×6″ proofs from these 2,000 rolls of film would have been around $24,000 dollars.

Despite what those nearest to me think about what I spend on photography, I haven’t spend anywhere near $36,000 on cameras, computers, and storage since I went fully digital in 2007.

The economics of digital imaging make a lot of sense for me. But what is a little harder to come by is the environmental cost of the switch. So, all you aspiring environmental engineers out there – here is some information I’d like to see.

What is the environmental impact (carbon footprint, silver/gold consumption, etc.) of manufacturing film vs. digital cameras? What is the environmental impact of manufacturing a computer needed to process and store digital images? What is the environmental impact of manufacturing a roll of film? What is the environmental impact of developing/printing a roll of film? What are the ongoing environmental costs associated with digital storage? How can carbon costs of electricity be assigned to both of these processes?

We could get pretty close to the environmental cost/benefit of digital imaging using a simple equation if these variables could be identified – assuming 15,000 annual images and the environmental impact of computer manufacturing amortized over 4 years…

CameraD + ((Computer + Storage)/4) + AnnualElectricConsumption = EnvironmentalCostofDigitalImaging

CameraF + (416 x film manufacturing) + (416 x film developing) + (416 x film printing) = EnvironmentalCostofFilmImaging

I sincerely doubt those of us who have made the switch would be willing to go back to the days of film. Yet I’m aware that – at least on a global scale – I’ve merely transferred the pollution/environmental cost of being a photographer from Lake Ontario (Kodak in Rochester, N.Y.) and the Gulf of Mexico (where my discarded chemicals were ultimately deposited) to the Sea of Japan, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the South China Sea.

OK engineers – help us answer this question!