Thoughts on shooting film and the environment

shoot-209“Ugh! You shoot film! That’s horrible for the environment!”

I have several green friends, and most of them are pretty put off by my film usage. What I find weird is the fact that they all assume the digital is a superior choice from an environmental standpoint.

The truth is, photography has been a filthy business from the very start. Plates used to be sensitized using fumes from mercury and images were fixed by using potassium cyanide. Photographers used to have much shorter life expectancies. We have come a bit of a ways since then.

“Film doesn’t biodegrade!” This actually made me laugh. It is true. Film doesn’t biodegrade, largely because it’s not supposed to. It’s an archival material. You don’t want to record an event or moment of time on something that will disintegrate under direct sunlight or dissolve in water. Film lasts hundreds of years because that’s what it was intended to do.

“All those empty plastic canisters rolls of film come in end up in the land fill.” Well, not all of them. I reuse mine and I have friends who take any ones I’m not using off my hands. The canisters are apparently just the right size for model paints and organizing little bits and bobs for crafting. “You don’t have things like that to throw away with digital cameras.” Actually, you do. I’ve had memory cards and batteries go bad over time. Neither of those biodegrade either. While batteries can be recycled, they almost never are. The electrolyte in them is pressurized and flammable, which makes it cheaper to just make a new battery rather than deal with the old.

shoot-210“All those chemicals are bad.” It’s true, some of them are. But you can make choices that minimize any effect on the environment. For instance, when developing black and white I use Kodak HC-110. It’s shelf stable for long periods of time so I never waste any. The developer itself is non-toxic. I can vouch for that after accidentally reusing a funnel before washing it. I can also vouch that it does taste like ass and cat food. My stop bath is white table vinegar and water. The fixer is problematic, though. It uses ammonium thiosulphate. It’s toxic, and when it is exhausted after use, it has silver halide held in solution. It should never be poured down a drain. Anywhere that processes film will take spent fix and recycle it for you, though. It’s not that they’re altruistic, they can extract the silver back out of the fix and sell it. Expecting people to recycle because it’s good for the environment is one thing, but giving them cash to do it is a bit more realistic.

The C-41 process is similar, but with more chemicals that need to be recycled. I have heard that E-6 slide film is the most toxic of them all, but I don’t know enough about it. I haven’t shot slide film in years.

There are problems that digital cameras present to the environment that film cameras do not. The image sensors, the LCD glass, the processors inside them, these all contain rare earth metals. Rare earth metals are, well, rare. They are mostly found in parts of the world that are less developed. Worker safety and benefits for the miners who extract these metals is not always the best. They are largely not mined in a fashion that considers the environment, either. In some cases, they are conflict minerals. Like blood diamonds, the proceeds from their sales support governments that commit human rights violations from forced labor to genocide. Enforcing the bans that are in place is problematic.

The short answer to these worries lies in making choices that are considerate of the environment. If your trip is less than 5 miles, ride a bike instead of driving a car. Take the train for intercity travel rather than the airplane. Those two choices alone will have a far larger personal impact on the environment than choosing film over digital or vice versa.



Side note: XTOL would probably be a better developer, from an environmental stand point. I’ve never used it, however. It was banned from the darkroom I used to use since it apparently goes bad with little or no warning. Caffenol would be an excellent choice as well.


  1. October 1, 2014

    Well said, Andrew. Also I think it’s worth pointing out that shooting digital entails getting caught up in cycles of technological obsolescence. Of course, someone could choose to keep shooting with the same DSLR for years and years, but realistically people tend to continually upgrade bodies and lenses, etc. So that stuff keeps getting manufactured. Whereas even the most GAS-ridden collector of film cameras is buying stuff that was already made sometime in the past, and will remain usable for years (or as long as there is film). This also factors into the costs of film vs. digital as well. People balk at the costs of film, but they may not be considering the costs of replacing one’s digital camera every few years (and then upgrading the lenses to cope with the higher-rez sensor, etc.).

    • Andrew
      October 2, 2014

      Also some good points. Thank you. Digital is a pretty brutal upgrade path. I’m glad I’m off of it.

  2. March 15, 2015

    Well said. I think people forget the mountains of digital detritus left after people burn their feet on the upgrade treadmill.

  3. January 23, 2016

    “Film lasts hundreds of years because that’s what it was intended to do”

    You do know the dyes in color film do fade, unless you shoot Kodachrome, but good luck finding that. And even if you do get your hands on it, you can’t process it at home, because not only the equipment and chemicals for K-14 is very expensive, the chemicals themselves are highly toxic.

    The only way color negatives and slide can be archival is if it is stored in a cold dark place(and I mean COLD, i.e. your fridge). The colder, the better. And in specialty acid-free containers.

    • Andrew
      January 23, 2016

      I live one state over from where Dwayne’s Photo is, and took part in the rush to shoot Kodachrome before the line shut down in 2010, so yes, I’m aware of what Kodachrome was. I didn’t care for the way it did skin tones, but it was good for landscapes.

      I find I’m not shooting color much anymore, but I knew it faded. I have some negatives from the 60s that are worse for wear.

  4. Micah Ortez
    October 22, 2020

    I think in general, taking on hobbies that stimulate a tactile more deliberate process will help you to appreciate slowing down and being appreciative of resources in general. I shoot much less pictures after starting on film, I’ve stopped obsessing over new gear, I’m on social media much less. Overall it has enabled me to reduce my consumer instincts. Which I believe to be the true problem affecting the environment. I sincerely hope that the industry makes strives to make the environmental impact smaller. Doing so will bring appreciation and gratitude from a growing, and more thoughtful audience.

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