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Auto White Balance vs. Fiery Skies

Ian Bogost, writing for The Atlantic:

But as people tried to capture the scene, and the confusion and horror that accompanied it, many noticed a strange phenomenon: Certain photographs and videos of the surreal, orange sky seemed to wash it out, as if to erase the danger. “I didn’t filter these,” tweeted the journalist Sarah Frier, posting photos she took of San Francisco’s haunting morning sky. “In fact the iPhone color corrected the sky to make it look less scary. Imagine more orange.” The photos looked vaguely marigold in hue, but not too different from a misty sunrise in a city prone to fog. In some cases, the scene seemed to revert to a neutral gray, as if the smartphones that captured the pictures were engaged in a conspiracy to silence this latest cataclysm.

The reality is both less and more unnerving. The un-oranged images were caused by one of the most basic features of digital cameras, their ability to infer what color is in an image based on the lighting conditions in which it is taken. Like the people looking up at it, the software never expected the sky to be bathed in orange. It’s a reminder that even as cameras have become a way to document every aspect of our lives, they aren’t windows on the world, but simply machines that turn views of that world into images.

This is not a bug, but a side effect of the built-in Camera app on iOS (and likewise on most Android phones) being decidedly consumer-focused. Setting a manual white balance point is a feature in any “pro” camera app worth its salt. My favorite for iPhone is Halide — a recommendation shared by many others. From Halide’s Twitter:

We saw a lot of attention yesterday as people used Halide to take photos of the eerie orange skies in places hit by wildfires.

We got significantly higher downloads.

It feels wrong to benefit from this, so we are donating yesterday’s sales to our local Wildfire Relief Fund.

What a move.

Friday, 11 September 2020