What this article is about
It is trendy – and more important it is necessary – to reduce our carbon footprint. Let’s calculate how much a bad habit of photographers can pollute.
I am taking in average 10 to 20 thousand images per year. Many pro photographers will shoot ten times more, typically above 100 thousand images per year, if not more. At the same time, for different reasons, it happens I am working hard at keeping only the best shots. Typically, from these 10-20 thousand photos per year, I am storing only 1 or 2 thousand per year. And there is even room for improvement. I don’t think this ratio is exceptional. Other people report a typical ratio of 80-95% of useless images, whatever the reasons. However, I must confess this eradication takes me a lot of time and I do understand why people don’t do it – it should be somewhat automated. I was wondering what the impact of keeping all these useless images is. How many greenhouses gas does it generate per year ? Basically, I am wondering how much our useless images can pollute when we don’t eradicate them.
How many tons of carbon dioxide per thousand of images stored?
Simple question, difficult answer. First and foremost, there are head and tail winds: Whereas 1 Gigabytes (GB) of data require less and less CO tons every year, images are becoming bigger and bigger as new sensors let you shoot with more megapixels. Same situation for videos. It looks quite challenging to anticipate the future trends but let’s make the calculation as per today, in 2019. It is reasonable to believe head and tailwinds will not completely change the result in the next years.
Let’s try to calculate just a rough estimate…
In this article, I don’t make any calculation for videos, just for the still images. I will consider 3 categories of photographers:
- casual photographer who typically take 5 thousand images per year,
- enthusiast (20 thousand images per year)
- and pro photographer (100 thousand images per year).
Casual photographers only create JPG files from their photos in this exercise, with a 24 Mega pixels camera. So, each JPG file weights typically 5 Mega Bytes (MB) each. This means 5 x 5’000 = 25 GB per year.
Enthusiasts shoot RAW, with 36 Mega pixels camera. They convert 10% in JPG, of 7.5 MB each. This means 36 . 20’000 + 7.5 . 2000 = 735 GB per year
Pros will shoot both RAW and JPG, with different cameras and sensor. Let’s make a rough estimate at 15 MB per image. This means basically 1.5 TB per year.
To summarize, I will just consider 1 TB per year per photographer. This will simplify the calculation. It will not change the whole result and it will be consistent with the kind of photographer we are looking at for this effect (mostly enthusiasts or pros).
All these numbers are arguable but that’s a good starting point for a first estimation.
Now the key question is how much carbon dioxide emissions for 1 TB ?
Several studies have proven that we need around 100 kg of Carbon dioxide emissions to store 1 TB of data on the cloud (ref. ,  and . Again, the calculation is quite complicated, and the range is very broad, from typically 50 kg to 2 tons. I am considering 100 kg as a conservative estimation.
This means 1 ton per year for 10 TB, after 10 years of photography as it is cumulative.
What does it mean in a sustainable world?
In a sustainable world, the average individual rate should be of 3 tons of carbon dioxide per year (ref. ). We are far from that level now (US: 18-20 tons per year per person, China: 6.5 tons, …) but that’s where we are going.
It is useless to say we can’t use almost 1/3rd of our yearly quota (in a sustainable planet) just for storing images. It should not be more than a couple of percents. Once again, it proves that a sustainable world will have dramatic consequences to our life. It means we should eradicate all our useless images as they represent 80-95% of this storage emission.
It is time to reduce our data from images and videos. Besides storing too much and mostly useless information, it is necessary for living in a sustainable planet. Of course, one can object these data “might” be useful in the future, who knows ? At the same time, it is good practice to focus at what really matters and be able to retrieve this important information later when needed. Less is sometimes better. And we always find good excuses to refuse change. But this change is needed and in the long run, inevitable. It is time to be consistent and eradicate as a “pre-post processing step” most of the useless images, whatever useless may mean.
 – Carbon and the cloud, Stanford Magazine
 – Trends in Server Efficiency and Power Usage in Data Centers, SPEC 2019
 – The carbon footprint of a distributed cloud storage, Cubbit