Thursday, March 01, 2007

Considering Green Digital Photography

Note: This will be an open document that I'll update with any useful feedback, suggestions, or corrections I get.

For the last few months, I've been trying to understand more about what I can personally do to improve my digital photography practices with conservation. I want to contribute more positively to the ecological concerns I'm starting to better appreciate. Regardless of what you do or don't believe about social and natural ecology science today, personal photography practices in the studio and in the streets can easily be moulded to take better advantage of new "green" technology, and for the most part they can end up saving you a bit of money in the long haul.

Part 1. Getting Into The Habit
Part 2. Green Digital Photography Tips (jump here first, if you like)

Getting Into The Habit: How easy is it?

It's easy, but you have to be pro-active. The more self-conscious I get about the usage of my photography equipment in terms of being "green," the more difficult it becomes to take full responsibility to do all that I'm learning I could be doing. There's no end to how good you can get at this. For example, I could take my whole workspace off-grid, but I'm not ready for that just yet. Photographers have concerns that don't apply to the usual home office, such as the need to keep specially calibrated screens and printers on all the time. However, the first steps, the easiest steps, aren't as hard as you might think they are, so I want to explain my opinions and then share a few tips here, like how to efficiently use rechargeable batteries, save electricity, and recycle old gear and hardware.

But I'm already doing some of these things, aren't I?

Maybe you are, but everyone always has a blind spot or two. For example, I can imagine in my mind a typical landscape photographer who does his best to minimize any architectural or social control over nature in his shots. When he goes out into the National Parks to take some pictures, he's even careful enough to make sure he leaves no trace or disturbance in the forests: he leaves no trash, doesn't do any cooking with fire, and he goes everywhere on foot. He's aware that "wilderness" is only a poetic vision of nature. Much of the real wilderness he sees has been influenced by man's impact in some way or another, whether it's a controlled burn in the dry season, or a missing species. But then when he gets back to his studio to process his files, his green consciousness goes on cruise control and he forgets that his place in front of his Mac Pro and printer could be just as important.

At first glance, it might seem that a digital workflow is already pretty environmentally efficient and that there isn't too much more room for improvement. We use rechargeable batteries, we reuse memory cards, we print less because we're previewing everything on displays, and we know how to recycle paper. However, these popular methods can create misconceptions about just how much there is left to take care of.

The largest problems are less easy to see directly.

Electricity usage in the workflow is often left unmeasured and it gets taken for granted. The convenience of online ordering and shipping of materials has an environmental consequence just like it does economically on small local dealers who get cut out. The industrial waste and pollution from manufacturing digital equipment is rarely offset in any meaningful way by the end users. And just because fewer and fewer of us are relying on a wet darkroom doesn't mean that the chemical impact of what we do is any less important in a digital studio. Manufactured inks, coated papers, and improperly disposed hardware are still big issues. Finally, even the capacity for us to print too much increases drastically when the time it takes to create a good print decreases.

Now's a good time to get started on a smaller footprint.

Photography is getting more and more capable of leaving a smaller environmental footprint as digital technology evolves, and many of us photographers can actively improve the way we work green and adopt practices that better reduce, reuse, and recycle. And if more of us take up these habits, hardware manufacturers might reconsider their behavior and adopt even cleaner practices to get our wallet's attention.

Green Digital Photography Tips

Here's a list of things that can help you do your own small part to minimize. I'm not an expert by any means, so if you have any advice to contribute, please speak up in the comments afterwards.

1. Place some limits on your consumption: shop wisely and reduce your electricity usage

A. Shop wisely

Conserving is not only about the wood, electricity, gas, and oil that you use; it's about understanding that every product you use required a heavy environmental cost just to make it and get it into your hands. So the smarter we all shop, the more impact we'll have as green consumers.

i. Buy locally if you can. Local photography merchants are already paying for goods to be shipped to your area, so take advantage of that and support your community. We all know buying online costs less, but every time you do think of this: that money you save shopping online are funds that could have been helping your local economy.

Freitag recycled bag, very sturdy.

ii. Look for eco-friendly papers, inks and gear bags. It's always been possible to print on handmade paper and linen. The results may be highly subjective and you have to experiment with fine art papers, but they're often manufactured with better standards in place by small companies with a eye for clean source materials. Red River Papers' Green Pix Matte Photo Paper is made from 100% post-consumer material with no chlorine bleaching, is heavier than typical inkjet photo paper (62lb), and it works with regular dye or pigment printers. Viastone is a unique company that is starting to manufacture photo paper from minerals rather than pulp, an alternative process that yields some interesting results. An upcoming technology is Zink that has color crystals embedded in the photo paper so that its printers only activate them and don't require any inks, which saves on wasteful packaging. Which is also why you should always try to buy the largest capacity ink cartridges (preferably pigment based), so that you go through less. And small companies like MIS and Jon Cone are making some nice custom archival pigment inks for inkjet photo prints. Of course, for when you use regular office paper, at least look for Green Seal paper, like Wausau, that contains no bad chlorine and has at least 30% recycled content. One area where common sense is to avoid recycled products is with archival boxes, but most good paper archival boxes are doomed to be made with special bleaching processes and use no post-consumer recycled paper in order to be safe, but that's not very green, so go metal when you can (which can be recycled). Otherwise, buy a regular recycled paper box and line it with a barrier of acid-free and lignin-free paper. Oh, and Freitag messenger bags made from recycled shipping tarpaulins are expensive, but they're really sturdy. If you need something lighter, you can find Domke-esque messenger bags made from hemp. And don't forget to recycle your trimmings and scraps.

iii. Download your software and read a PDF manual. Adobe and other software developers typically make their software available for purchase and download over the net. This is one area that make sense, because it saves packaging and shipping, and you can usually get the manual in ebook form, so that you're not wasting any paper. And if you do print out those manuals, I hope your using both sides of the recycled paper, right?

B. Reducing electricity usage

With anything you have to plug into an outlet, you can measure your electricity usage and plan time off for your gear. You can get a Kill-A-Watt, the Watt's Pro, or the Wattson to find out how much your hardware is sucking down, and then use a smart plug to kill idle currents when devices are shut down, like the Smart Strip, Mini Power Minder and the Wattstopper.

The Eneloop battery.

i. Batteries. If your flash or your camera uses AA's, (like the Pentax K100D) find the highest capacity NiMH (2500 to 10000mAh), such as those from Green Batteries or use smart batteries, like the Hybrio or Sanyo Eneloop, that hold their charge while not in use, so you recharge less often (regular NiMH lose at least 4% of their capacity each day in storage... but they're not as strong). And NiMH and alkaline are better than NiCD because they don't have the harmful Cadmium content, just the way it's better to use zinc batteries than mercury cells. For rechargeable lithium packs, consider a solar charger (more on that in a minute). And, consider programming your camera to turn the LCD off more quickly so you don't rip through those batteries so fast.

P3 Kill A Watt electricity measuring outlet

ii. Computers. Measure your computer's daily electricity usage. Consider a timer or a threshold switch to turn off power drain when the appliances aren't on. Desktop towers and CRTs use the most electricity, so consider a using a laptop if it can suite your needs. Make sure you have the energy saving settings properly set up on your computer and put it to sleep or shut it off as often as you can. If you use a regular CRT, consider switching to an LCD display, or if you use a specially calibrated CRT, plan when you can turn it off (most CRT's need time to warm up and need to stay powered to keep their calibration over a period of days). You have to make a point of figuring out when it's possible to have them off line and then actually do it.

iii. Printing. High-end printers tend to work best if they stay powered on, so schedule that they get some time off. Other printers only need power when you use them, so be mindful that you can turn off a powerstrip once in a while. Same goes for scanners.

iv. Backups. If you use more than one hard drive, make sure they spin down when not in use. If it's an external drive, power it off when you're not using it. Use CD-RW and DVD-RW discs for non-archival or semi-archival backups (the ones you write again every week or month). Again, use cheap archival boxes and portfolios made from recycled material and line them with acid-free paper yourself. When you do the labels, consider using pens made from recycled materials, like Remarkable Pens and Pencils - they even make great recycled pencil cases and mouse pads from recycled tires.

v. Albums and Frames. Novica and are just a couple of the many stores that sell quaint photo albums out of recycled pieces and handmade paper, like the Merdeka line.

Lite Panel LED systems.

v. Lighting. Bounce and reflect as much as you can with either pro materials, like the Wescott Illuminators, or something homemade from foil and cardboard, and you'd be surprised what you can do with 10 watts. Around for while now, LED lights, like those from Lite Panels and CameraBright, are capable of giving up to 6000K, using far less energy and outputting much less heat than traditional lamps and strobes. Compact fluorescent light bulbs are a great first step to reducing your home's energy bill, but they might not be what you would want to use for photography. However, some of them are now colored to match daylight and tungsten colors (look for full spectrum CFL bulbs). Although more expensive, new household LED bulbs are now available in daylight white and reduce electricity even more. Using your camera's manual light balance, you could try them out as another continuous alternative. But overall, try to use strobes more than hot lights.

2. Don't take light for granted: Use solar power

Every photographer loves light dearly, whether they're making their own with lighting equipment or using available light. But how cool and fitting would it be for a photographer to rely as much as possible on solar power, to charge their batteries and run their hardware?

Off-brand solar charger for Pentax lithium batteries.

i. Charge your batteries with solar power chargers. You may be aware that there a lot of inexpensive solar powered battery rechargers out now, like those from SolarStyle and most can charge 4 AA NiMH in under 6 hours. If you're like me and how I burn through batteries, get a few of the $40 chargers. There's a wonderful breed of solar backpack bag, like the Eclipse Solar bags and the brilliant Voltaic backpacks. But did you know that you can also get solar chargers that can fit camera specific lithium battery packs from Nikon, Canon, Pentax and others? They're more expensive, but some shops, like Sundance Solar, include car adaptors so the charger isn't just limited to the solar panel. And you can get portable solar charging stations with portable batteries that can power a laptop or your camera in a pinch, such as the SolarPac.

ii. Consider taking your whole computer room off grid with solar panels. The steps to do this are easier than you think. First, measure the average hourly load and how many hours you use that amount per day. The average might be 300 watts every hour for 6 hours, so consider looking for at least 500 watts from an inverter and at least a 300ah battery pack, that will be good for an average day's use. The battery(s) could be fed daily by about 4 120w solar panels, which will need a 60 amp controller so that it won't overcharge. Believe it or not, this should all cost less than $3000, and you might be able to get a tax deduction for it to reduce the cost even more. It's entirely possible that it will have paid for itself in 15 years. Sound easy? Consider taking your whole studio or home off-grid.

3. Take good care of your stuff: common sense

i. Reduce what you use to a modest amount. Keeping things clean and in good shape makes them more valuable to the next person when you find you no longer need them. When was the last time you sorted through your collection to really trim things down? What you no longer need should be passed along to someone else, or disposed of properly. If it still works, sell it or find someone to give it to for a second life (try a local highschool art teacher - they'll know who to give an old camera or printer). Try to fix anything that's reasonably in reach of being restored and try to be more responsible about what's really obsolete and what isn't.

ii. Dispose of things safely. Digital cameras, just like any computer equipment, contain hazardous lead, mercury, etc. So see that you dispose of old or broken hardware and old batteries properly by inquiring with the manufacturer or your city's trash department about what to do. The landfills are getting gross enough already.

iii. Die hard green: Go Carbon Neutral. Calculate your carbon dioxide effect with your home and activities, then purchase carbon credits to offset it all.

New: To see a list of some of the items I mention that are at Amazon, click here.

Links: David Suzuki Foundation: What You Can Do At Work, SunDance Solar Store, Treehugger Blog


Anonymous said...

This is an incredibly helpful post. I had smugly been patting myself on the back for going digital and therefore reducing my use of chemicals. Your post is a reality check. I will be mining your many links for days and weeks. Many thanks, Erl

.Sam. said...

Great post. And, welcome back ;-)

Tractorboy said...

I'm in the process of greening my life and hoping to go more digital. This is a really helpful post and have referenced it on the blog I have just started (http:/// Please keep your blog going as a novice photographer who likes Pentax gear, it is a great resource. Cheers.

G Sarri said...

As someobe who works on environmental policy issues and who loves photography, I appreciated your green photography post. It takes on the misconception that digital photography is, by default, cleaner than film photography, and it offers so many useful tips.

Another dimension of green photography I am interested in is the environmental performance of the various camera manufacturers. If I get some time to do the research, and if there is a good way to compare companies, I’ll share the results with you.

Barend van Liempd said...

Hey Michael, great post about why people should be more green, I just have one comment on your article.

Did you ever consider that the production of solar cells is so energy-inefficient (and costs so much resources) that using them (and thus encouraging the market for production of them) is actually worse for the environment, compared to using the charger you get with your dSLR anyway?

Anyway, other then that, I thank you for your post!

Zack said...

Which of those energy usage monitors did you find works the best? I've used the Kill-a-Watt before but I've never heard of the others.

Mase said...


I just started a web shop where you can find solar gadget, realy nice to have a look at it.

Have a very nice day!

Renato Mimmo

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