Which is better for the environment – digital or film photography?

digital camera more eco friendly than film photographyI’ve been doing a major declutter and recently came across a load of old photographs.

I’m now pleased to say they are organised in albums – at last!

Some of the images go back decades to my teenage years and my daughter and I have spent many a happy evening looking at the hilarious ‘big hair’ of the time and questionable fashion trends!

It got me thinking about the environment too, because I came across a load of old negatives which I no longer want AND some black and white processing equipment which I’ve now sold on eBay.

When I was in my twenties I converted part of my kitchen into a dark room and loved spending evenings developing rolls of films – to see the images come to life before you is quite something. And it will never be matched by the instant gratification of a selfie on a smartphone.

But it has a huge toll on the environment. Photos are developed with several chemicals, many of which are toxic. Processors then rinse these chemicals away with water; which – in a domestic set up – simply gets washed into the watercourse. For every roll of 24 photos processed, four ounces of chemicals get washed into the water. And I was astonished to discover that 40% of all the silver consumed in North America is connected to photographic materials. While we might think of silver as being inert, silver ions can be more toxic to aquatic life than mercury.

My infamous ‘Big Hair’ of the 1980’s!


After that you have empty film canisters to get rid of (though they are great for storing small items such as herbs and spices, paper clips or safety pins), spent negatives, all the photos that don’t come out quite right – therefore lots of photographic paper… the list goes on and none of this I realised at the time as I indulged in my favourite hobby.

Digital photography may appear to have less of a negative impact on the environment. I imagine not many people actually print hard copies of their smart phone snaps so there is definitely less chemical, photographic paper and water wastage. But on the other hand you have to balance it with the hardware. I bought just ONE analogue camera, and never thought to upgrade it. I simply added a couple of lenses when time and budget allowed. But digital gadgets are often designed with inbuilt obsolescence in mind and are cheaper to throw away than fix. AND they contain a myriad of precious metals which, unless you recycle properly, can end up wasted and leaching into the environment after 18 months – 2 years when you decide to upgrade your camera or phone.

And don’t talk to me about batteries! That’s my biggest gripe with my current digital camera; in the end they only last for half a dozen high resolution snaps. The best thing here is to use rechargeable batteries and keep a couple of spares fully charged so you never get caught out at that ‘picture perfect’ moment!

So there’s no clear cut answer here. Whether digital or analogue photography is more eco friendly depends on how you use it. If you upgrade your digital camera every couple of years and use disposable batteries then that carries a significant environmental footprint. If you develop every single roll of film you take and use a service provider who doesn’t understand how to dispose of their chemicals properly then that too has a significant detriment to the environment.

All of these are things to keep in mind when taking your own photos or hiring a professional photographer. If you’re planning a green wedding for example, and are looking for Wedding photography then ask some searching questions. Photographs are such an important part of your wedding because you’ll keep them for years to come and they will become one of your most treasured possessions, but you don’t want a guilty conscience. One of the best ways to reduce both cost and limit the use of resources is to ask your photographer to send your images via CD or DVD. You can spend all the time you want looking at your images before deciding which ones to print. You may choose to print just a couple of large images for wall portraits, a few for the family album and keep the rest on your computer to share with friends.7

In this way you get to say ‘I love you’ to the environment as well as each other.