“I’m lucky that I get to travel to tell fascinating stories, but with that comes a higher than average carbon footprint. The equipment we use as photographers also plays a part: the cameras, film, chemicals, data storage, and the platforms where we show our work. Internet use and data centres account for almost 4% of global emissions (that’s as much as all air traffic!) and are expected to double by 2025.
“A lot of us have been waiting on governments and large global organisations to make the first move and implement serious change. I appreciate that my practice is barely a drop in the ocean of carbon emissions, but I wanted to make a positive impact, which is why I decided to offset every aspect of my practice to be carbon-negative.”
More and more photographers, like Marco, are beginning to think seriously about the environmental impact their practices are having and have chosen to take action to reduce their carbon footprint and energy consumption. To learn more, we asked a group of talented photographers spanning all genres, from wedding to still life, to tell us about some of the ways they are reducing their impact on the environment, and they shared some top tips for others wanting to do the same.
1. Know your footprint
“The biggest thing I did to make my business more environmentally friendly was undertaking a carbon audit,” the Australian wedding photographer Henry Paul says. “I hired the folks at Offsert to analyse how much energy my business was using. They measured my transport, postage, and even how many lights I turn on in the office. I was then able to use this report to reduce my emissions and purchase carbon offsets to make my business 100% carbon neutral.”
2. Invest in tree-planting initiatives
Russell Stafford, a carbon-negative wedding photographer, worked with Carbon Neutral to calculate his annual output and purchase carbon credits. He and his team currently output half of their minimum carbon credit, and they also reduce their net emissions through reforestation projects.
“We began planting a tree through The Carbon Neutral Charitable Fund for each of our wedding couples as a way to directly raise not only our sustainability rating but also some awareness,” he says. “If a couple selects our eco delivery option, we plant an additional two trees for them. This means that in 2022, we will be planting a minimum of 102 trees.”
3. Tax yourself
Beyond carbon credits and tree-planting, you can also build an “eco-tax” into your business model. “The easiest thing that one can do is to tax yourself to offset your environmental footprint,” the nature and adventure photographer Archie Frink tells us. “In 2021, I began doing this by donating one ton (approximately 2,000 pounds) equivalent carbon offset purchases for every print sold.
“That translates into about 15-20% of profits, which is significant. This is a highly important topic for me, and it is just the beginning. Even if all you contribute is one percent to an environmental cause or eco-business solution, that is one percent that otherwise would be consumed elsewhere.
“I wish I had known earlier how much power I had in my choices. As in any industry, when clients come to us, they are looking to us as experts in our field. As experts, it is not only within our domain but our imperative to embody our values and be sustainable. It is up to us to make our case for the planet, and as time goes on, that case is only getting stronger.”
4. Stay local…
Of course, one of the most meaningful things you can do to reduce your footprint is to cut down on travel. “Most of my projects are hyper-local, and my choice of transportation is a bicycle!” the New York-based fine art photographer Susannah Ray admits. “I don’t use much gear (one Pentax 67 body and two to three lenses), so biking is a perfect way to get where I’m going. It also allows me to take in the landscape and people in it at a much slower pace than a car, so I know when to stop, lock up, and go photograph. I do a lot of walking at that point, which is much different and more rewarding than when I used to do projects further afield and needed to travel by car.”
5. …or embrace slow travel
“Many of us have stayed put during the pandemic, and Mother Nature has benefitted from that,” the carbon-neutral nature photographer Denesa Chan says. “But as life is opening back up, it can be tempting to go wild with travel. Instead of hitting up twelve countries in twenty days, consider slowing your roll and getting to know the number one place on your list.
“Take your time there. Get to know the locals. Meander. Explore roads not usually taken. This not only cuts down on carbon and other air pollutants from air travel, but it also opens up a whole secret world of back alleys, local eateries, and hidden gems. While you’re slow travelling, you could also cut down on both your environmental footprint and hotel costs by renting or Airbnbing a local place for longer.
“Many places offer a discount for a longer booking. By avoiding staying in a different hotel every night, you reduce water and power waste from all the towels and sheets that would have been washed daily for you at hotels. In most locations, you can even find places that cater to the eco-savvy traveller. Look out for solar or other self-generated forms of electricity, green cleaning products, rainwater collection, and compost-friendly places.”
6. Use sustainably sourced materials
“Although printing albums for clients obviously has an impact, we found out that not all album suppliers employ the same techniques,” the carbon-neutral wedding photographer Russell Stafford tells us. “Some companies will actually print each page multiple times, select the best of each page, and discard the rest. Others don’t recycle their inks, and everything simply goes in the trash.
“We use Atkins Pro Lab and Vision Art for our album suppliers. Both these companies don’t use volume printing selection and correctly recycle their inks. Vision Art additionally offers vegan album coverings, encouraging couples to move away from animal products (leather) for their album designs.
“Similarly, the photos we deliver to clients have always been delivered in a beautiful custom wooden keepsake box. After some digging, we discovered our previous box supplier didn’t use sustainably sourced wood. We have since moved to a combination of sustainably sourced wood, as well as reclaimed/recycled timber from right here in Sydney.”
7. Be mindful of packaging
“I’ve reduced waste by reusing the packaging that I receive from different orders or the album packaging I receive,” the Paris-based documentary birth, family, and wedding photographer Dagmara Bojenko says. “I reuse bubble wrap, and I re-cut cardboard boxes to resize them if needed to create smaller boxes. I mainly use zero-waste alternatives such as materials from older curtains, clothing, or second-hand material with pretty patterns for wrapping.
“I also use a local album and prints manufacturer, and everything is handmade by a small team near Grenoble. I looked hard for an album provider that was located in France and does all of their printing and production in-house. This avoids additional transportation and helps the local economy.”
8. Try alternative processes
“I became environmentally conscious about my practice while working on my project Among the Tides,” the Connecticut-based artist Elizabeth Ellenwood explains. “This series focuses on ocean pollution, and it became abundantly clear to me how consumerism impacts our environments. Realising my choices as an artist matter too, I began looking closer at the materials and processes I was using.
“I now search for recycled paper and expired darkroom paper and film, and I make the effort to reuse materials as much as I can. I embrace that expired paper and film are not necessarily ‘bad’; it just means the project needs to account for the outcome. Less contrast, light leaks, colour shifts, and the possibility of surprises can open up a beautiful approach to working.
“I also try to focus on processes that are environmentally friendly, like anthotype and chlorophyll printing. These two processes use plants and sunlight to create images and have brought a whole new appreciation to my Mother’s garden! Aside from photographic materials and processes, I also focus on environmentally conscious subject matter. A cyanotype of a plastic bag weathering into pieces, petri dishes full of microplastics and sand, fishing lines entangled in seaweed, and anthotypes depicting coral reef bleaching all call attention to the pollution issues our oceans are currently facing.”
9. Keep your gear as long as possible…
“I have been practising eco-conscious photography for several years now, with much of my work responding to the human impact on the Earth,” the photo-based artist Josie Purcell says. She also hosts the Photopocene podcast, which is devoted entirely to the subject of eco-friendly photographic work. “Even though I tend to make camera-less work–such as anthotypes, cyanotypes, and non-fixed lumens–the big challenge comes in digital equipment for me,” she says.
“I need a computer and a phone for the process of creating and/or sharing my work and raising awareness of the topics my work responds to. I address this issue by keeping my equipment for as long as possible. I’ll look at passing old equipment on in some form too. One of my favourite cameras is a film camera from the 50s: no batteries, no major mechanisms, no chips needing minerals, and so on. I get great images with it. You don’t need all the gadgets to be a great photo artist, so just buy and use what you need and repurpose it where you can.”
10. … and buy used
“Get off the rat race of always having the newest, shiniest gear and having more lenses than you know what to do with,” Denesa advises. “That creates unnecessary waste and ends up with more old gear going into landfills, which can leach dangerous toxins and heavy metals into the groundwater, poisoning both humans and the environment on which we all depend. As digital waste is heated up in landfills, it also releases chemicals into the air that harm our atmosphere.
“Instead, repair your old gear for as long as possible, and if you must buy something new, make it a new-to-you, pre-loved piece of used gear. For bonus eco-friendliness points, buy local (to minimise the carbon generated from shipping). Another tip is to choose a camera system that uses the same mounting style year after year, decade after decade. That way, you have access to several decades worth of lenses.
“Finally, rent gear that you’re considering buying to try it out first. If you love it, then you can find a used version of it. And if you don’t love it, congratulations, you’ve just saved one piece of gear from a one-way trip to the landfill. Renting is also a great way to add pieces to our collection that we would only occasionally use. It saves money and is better for the planet.”
11. Take a minimal approach to shooting and storage
“One thing that can lower your footprint quite a bit and something that I am still working on is being mindful not to overshoot,” Dagmara says. “We sometimes have a tendency to take too many shots of the same scene–‘just in case.’ It takes time to acquire confidence in your work, but I found that it actually helped me to keep in mind the environmental impact of the digital files that I create and then that I have to keep on several hard drives. This takes up a lot of space, and the electronic impact is quite high. In addition, the more you click on your camera, the faster it ages, especially with SLRs.
“Another thing that I do is delete my digital files regularly to make space on hard drives. This is something that most photographers have trouble doing. We are very attached to our photography, but the fact is that I rarely even look at my unselected RAW files, let alone use them again. After every shoot, once I finish retouching and I’m sure of my selection, I delete the RAW files that were completely unusable. I keep the rest of the files for a few years, but I go over older files every year and delete them, only keeping the retouched HD files.”
12. Beware of NFTs
While 2021 was inarguably the year of the NFT (non-fungible token), it’s worth noting the staggering environmental footprint associated with most blockchain technologies. With that being said, not all blockchains are created equally, and those that operate on a “proof of stake” system rather than a “proof of work” system are less damaging to the environment. If you’re selling digital artworks, do some research and look at your options. If you do ultimately decide to enter the world of NFTs, do it with a marketplace that runs on an energy-efficient blockchain.
13. Leave no trace
As a nature photographer, Denesa is well aware of the vulnerability of her surroundings and their inhabitants. “There have been so many times I’m on location—in tropical rainforests, in sensitive wetlands, filming lava or the world’s rarest sea lions, even in the Arctic—when other photographers show up ignoring the basics that we all know we need to respect,” she admits.
“Those basics include staying on marked trails when hiking, leaving no trace (packing everything up that we bring in), leaving a place looking better than we found it (e.g. taking any trash we find there out with us), practising fire safety (which in many locations means refraining from lighting fires to begin with), not cutting trees, respecting and never harassing the animals (this goes for drones too), not feeding wildlife, and so on.
“When in doubt, follow the signs posted, or ask a local ranger. It’s pretty easy to cover the basics. If you’re tempted to deviate from this, just ask yourself, ‘What if a couple of million people did exactly what I’m thinking of doing? What impact would it have?’ If the answer is anything other than a positive impact, then please don’t do it.
“I also recommend joining a group that helps photographers help our planet. Nature First and Leave No Trace are two great organisations that are doing excellent work to educate people about the steps we can take to minimise our impact on our Earth.”
14. Eliminate plastics on set
“I certainly don’t think photography is the greatest offender when it comes to environmental abuse in the arts, but there are always ways to be extra conscious,” Molly Cranna, a portrait, fashion, and still life photographer who splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, tells us. “I love working with production teams who use recyclable plates and forks and encourage reusable water bottles on set.”
When hiring a team, look for people who share your values and are willing to make changes that add up over time, whether it’s something simple like serving plant-based meals or ambitious like switching to solar power. “I also try my best to be efficient with seamless usage and recycle or donate leftovers,” Molly adds. “I don’t buy unnecessary gear, and I’ll often try to buy used grip equipment.”
15. Educate your clients
“Beyond the changes I’ve made to my own business, I spend a large amount of time educating my wedding clients on how to plan more eco-friendly weddings,” Henry explains. “Whilst this doesn’t impact my business’ carbon footprint, I’ve helped hundreds of couples reduce their wedding carbon emissions through the art of education.
“I’ve invested time and money incorporating my values around sustainability into the Henry Paul Photography brand, and it has paid off in dividends. Roughly half of my clients are having plant-based weddings now, and over 200 couples have downloaded my Ethical Wedding Checklist to help plan their weddings. If there is one thing I wish I knew when I started my business, it’s that your personal values are your competitive advantage in a saturated market.”
16. Donate what you can
“Consider giving back to our Earth,” Denesa urges. “For example, I donate 50% of profits to projects doing tangible, meaningful good for each ecosystem or species featured in my work. Be sure to meticulously research each organisation and project. Not all NGOs are created equal, so it makes sense to ensure that your hard-earned donations are doing the most good.”
17. Volunteer your time
“I volunteer my time to projects that are environmentally-oriented and organisations who work in the environmental sector,” Dagmara tells us. “For example, last year, I volunteered my time over several months to document different environmental projects. I teamed up with a nonprofit organisation that needed documentary images of their projects but did not have much of a budget. As it was in line with my personal beliefs, I decided to give back, even if in a small way.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.