Digital Cameras

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 12 digital camera brands and give our Best Buy recommendations.

We also look at how camera companies fall behind on supply chain management, conflict minerals, links to the military and surveillance and profile GoPro.
 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying a digital camera:

  • Does the brand score well for its conflict minerals policy? Conflict minerals are associated with a number of issues including poor workers rights, pollution and the funding of armed conflicts.

  • Does the brand score well for its toxics policy? All electronics contain potentially dangerous toxic chemicals. We expect companies to have a policy that commits to phasing out the worst of these.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying a digital camera:

  • Does the company support the hunting industry? Does your camera brand support hunting either through the sponsorship of hunting events or through it own marketing of hunting equipment?

  • Does the brand support trophy hunting? Many companies in this sector also sell sports optics such as gun sights or binoculars. These are often promoted to hunters and the companies sometimes sponsor hunting activities.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Digital camera sales are in steep decline, with the market size having dropped by 84% between 2010 and 2018.

The switch to smartphone cameras has meant that producers of standalone cameras have focused more and more on high-end models aimed at professional photographers and amateur enthusiasts (the blurring of the distinction has led to the portmanteau ‘prosumer’ – between professional and consumer).

In recent years, however, even sales of premium cameras have declined. The rate of innovation has plateaued, with new features more abstruse and less groundbreaking, and many photographers are happy to buy second hand or to keep using the camera they have already.

The ongoing trade dispute between China and the US has also impacted sales due to additional tariffs applied to Chinese manufactured devices.

Nevertheless, while some of the more niche brands have fallen away, many of the major players are going strong; not least because they are active in many other sectors. As always, the camera industry is heavily dominated by Japan, with eight of the eleven companies rated in this guide headquartered there.

Lens of the rising sun

Japanese dominance in the camera industry dates back to World War II, when the country’s military relied on optical apparatus and great advances were made in optical glass manufacturing.

After the war, Japan’s economy recovered quicker than Germany’s allowing Japanese camera companies to gain the upper hand over the German manufacturers who had dominated the camera market before the war.

The digital camera industry is subject to the same ethical problems as the electronics industry as a whole, including exploitative labour practices, use of conflict minerals and resource consumption. In addition, there are also links to the hunting and surveillance industries.

Table highlights

Workers’ rights in the supply chain Workers’ rights violations are endemic in electronics supply chains, where intensive manufacturing in countries with little protection leads to exploitative practices.

Compared with some other mass-produced electronic devices such as smartphones, digital camera producers typically carry out more of the manufacturing and final assembly ‘in-house’ rather than outsourcing to other companies, although many companies do own manufacturing plants in countries known for cheap labour such as China, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Complex electronic devices require a myriad of materials and components and this necessitates a large supply chain.

The companies assessed in this guide were found to be behind the curve on Supply Chain Management, with every company receiving our worst rating except Panasonic, which received a middle rating.

Conflict minerals

As with all manufacturers of electronic devices, Ethical Consumer expected camera companies to have a strong policy on the sourcing of conflict minerals.

Again, many of the companies assessed were found to be lacking in this area – Sony received our best rating; every other company was rated worst.

Toxics

As discussed in our guide to TVs on page 28 electronic devces typically contain a number of chemicals known to be toxic to humans and the environment. Only Samsung and Sony in this guide received our middle rating for toxics, every other company was rated worst.

Compact, mirrorless or DSLR?

Compact or ‘point-and-shoot’ cameras have typically been the most popular type for consumers; cheaper and small with an in-built lens, but the rise of the camera phone has diminished their usefulness.

Digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) and mirrorless are two types of interchangeable lens camera, meaning a range of different lenses can be fitted.

 DSLRs are typically bulkier, which makes them more cumbersome but allows them to fit more batteries in and last longer. They were once the only choice for professional photographers, but mirrorless cameras now offer similar levels of quality.

Wildlife shooting

In 2018, Ethical Consumer explored the strong links between optics manufacturers and the trophy hunting market in our in-depth ‘Shooting Wildlife II’ report. In the UK, a 2019 poll found that 75% of the public supported a ban on trophy hunting.

Of the companies rated in this guide, Nikon, Leica and Fujifilm were all listed in the reports producing specialist hunting equipment, including rifle scopes, and glorifying trophy hunting in their marketing campaigns. Pentax was also found to promote hunting in its marketing, although it did not make specialist equipment.

They all still do this. Zeiss, a major manufacturer of interchangeable camera lenses, also produces and promotes hunting equipment.

Nikon has received the most attention for this, as it is one of the most recognisable names in cameras, and it has been widely denounced by animal rights campaigners and wildlife photographers.

Produces rifle scopes Shooting Wildlife report links brand to trophy hunting
Nikon Nikon
Leica Leica
Fujifilm Fujifilm
  Pentax

Links to state surveillance

As sales in personal cameras have plummeted, many of the larger photography companies have found a lifeline through applying their imaging expertise in other areas. One such area has been the medical imaging industry, but another is the rapidly growing market for video surveillance – part of the global expansion of mass surveillance which threatens civil liberties and human rights around the world.

Seven out of the eleven companies rated in this guide manufacture CCTV cameras and other surveillance equipment.

CCTV manufacturers

The latest to enter this market is Fujifilm, which released its first surveillance camera in early 2019 with the boast of being capable of reading a car’s licence plate at a distance of 1km. Canon’s subsidiary Axis Communications is one of the global market leaders in CCTV, and supplies governments around the world.

In recent decades, the huge growth in video surveillance in both public and private spaces has started to be combined with smart technologies such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence systems.

In the UK, law enforcement and private corporations have come under criticism for rolling them out, which campaigners say constitute “a threat to our privacy, freedom of expression, and right of association”. In September 2019, a UK high court found that South Wales Police’s use of automated facial recognition (AFR) was ‘consistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act’ following a legal challenge supported by the campaign group Liberty.

The use of facial recognition is similarly expanding in the US, where it has been used to identify protesters in the city of Baltimore.

China’s ‘homeland security’

In China, a massive camera network known as ‘Skynet Project’, deploying more than 170 million cameras across the country, forms part of an aggressive policy of mass surveillance over the entire population.

Facial recognition technology has been used as part of an oppressive  crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, in the Xinjiang region, where an estimated 1 million Uyghurs have been held in internment camps and subject to a program of ‘re-education’ that includes mandatory recitals of Communist Party political songs and speeches. This has been facilitated by a sophisticated surveillance network used by the government to identify and track any individual they believe to be a threat.

Hikvision, a Chinese CCTV company with close ties to the government, has profited through the design and implementation of this system of repression, and has even marketed a facial recognition camera that automatically identified individuals of the Uyghur ethnicity.

Hikvision does not feature in this guide since it does not sell cameras for photography, but it does sell CCTV cameras in the UK and US. The presence of Hikvison cameras in US government buildings has been called a threat to national security due to the US-China trade dispute.

Panasonic, Samsung and Sony were also listed as foreign-based suppliers to the Chinese ‘Homeland Security and Public Safety’ market in a recent market research report.

image: ughur women holding photos of their missing loved ones
Uyghur women displaying pictures of their missing loved ones.

Photography’s toxic footprint

People often assume that digital photography must have reduced the use of toxic chemicals, as you no longer have to develop a whole roll of film in a lot of nasty substances just to get a single pleasing shot of your cat.

However, there is good reason to believe that all that has happened is that the chemical burden has shifted from the darkroom into far darker, more hidden places – the distant places where electronics are created and destroyed.  

At the manufacturing end, many processes in electronics production involve harmful substances. Several chemicals have been linked to a range of cancers, although there is currently a lack of hard data and the World Health Organisation has called for further studies. At the other end of their lifecycle, electronics contain dozens of toxic substances, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, that can leach out after disposal. Millions of tonnes of ‘e-waste’ are still being dumped illegally in poor countries.

Following Greenpeace’s campaign on toxic chemicals, we have created our own toxics policy rating (see table below) which focuses particularly on polyvinyl chloride (PVC), brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and phthalates.

These chemicals are not only notorious carcinogens and endocrine disrupters, they are also eminently replaceable. While Sony, Nikon and Samsung all publicly state that they are phasing them out, only Sony has target dates for doing so. The other companies make no commitments at all.

Company profile

GoPro is an American company known for minature ‘action’ cams that can be mounted in various ways to record video and photos from all types of unusual angles. The company has suffered losses in recent years after its attempted drone manufacturing business failed to take off.

The company received our worst rating for the likely use of tax avoidance strategies (as did many of the other companies), and was incorporated in the state of Delaware (considered a tax haven by Ethical Consumer) despite having its headquarters in California.

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