Our Phones Are Colour Correcting the Apocalypse

Red skies are common after wildfires, as seen above in Australia in late 2019 (Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP, Getty Images)
Red skies are common after wildfires, as seen above in Australia in late 2019 (Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP, Getty Images)

Normally, you wouldn’t want your phone to take pictures with an overly orange cast. But, there are times when you might. Like when massive wildfires are turning the West Coast’s normally clear blue skies a violently orange-reddish hue.

If you take a gander through social media, you can find several pictures and videos of the apocalyptic skies but there’s also at least one instance where our advanced gadgets have thwarted the ability to document the situation as it’s really happening.

Take this tweet thread from @teriarchibbles. While she was able to successfully take a colour-accurate photo on their camera, auto colour correct on her phone meant the orange sky…looked a lot more like grey smog. (Still not cool, but not nearly as dramatic as reality.) “Fun fact,” she wrote. “Had to take that picture with my Canon camera because my phone keeps auto colour correcting it and doesn’t show just how gross outside it actually is.”

The above tweet is an extreme example. Jessica Christian, a staff photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle, tweeted a similar observation about her phone trying to colour correct the abnormal skies. Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier encountered the same issue and took other with and without colour correction photos as well. Based on Earther’s own investigation, not every phone may colour correct to this extent. That said, there’s a chance your phone camera may not capture the true colour of what you’re seeing.

We had video producer Matthew Reyes, who’s based on the West Coast, take a photo with his iPhone from his window. The warm tones were accentuated, the colour itself was fairly accurate. However, when he stepped outside, the phone took a much more accurate photo.

Shot on iPhone. The left was taken through the window. The right was taken directly outside. You can see the difference in the iPhone's auto colour correction. (Photo: Matthew Reyes/Gizmodo)

The root issue is white balance — a concept you might be already familiar with if you’ve dabbled with lighting or photography. But if you haven’t, it boils down to the fact that light contains different colours. (Remember rainbows and prisms?) Natural light is more bluish and warmer light is more orange/red. This “temperature” is expressed in Kelvin. The higher the number, the more blue light. The lower the number, the more red light. The human eye is pretty good at automatically correcting for colour temperature. Cameras, though, have historically needed a little help. (This is why your photos might be too yellow in certain lighting, and too blue in others.)

In normal circumstances, auto colour-correct helps the non-photographers among us take better pictures. It’s gotten so good that Google did away with manual white balance in Android 10. (It’s been MIA from iOS for much longer.) In this instance, though, our tech might be failing to do justice in documenting the things we see.

If you’re struggling to get your phone to accurately depict the apocalypse outside your window, the fix is relatively easy. Plenty of free (and paid) third-party camera apps like Lightroom CC Mobile and Snapseed will allow you to adjust white balance if you take photos within the app, or futz around with colour temperature after you’ve taken the photo. It might even be as simple as quickly whipping your phone’s camera to more neutral indoor lighting, and then back out at the orange apocalypse happening out your window. That’s what I did with my iPhone XS Max.

My phone's auto colour correction in action. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)

As you can see, my kitchen lighting has warmer lighting compared to the rest of my apartment. If I open up my camera app in the kitchen, my phone will colour-correct so I don’t look like I’m on Mars (the rightmost photo). If I have my camera app open in the living room and then walk into my kitchen, the colour is more accurate to what it is in real life (middle photo). It’s still not 100% compared to what I see in real life, but there are photo apps to correct for that.

As for why the sky is a hideous shade of bloody Cheetos, that’s also easy. One, raging wildfires. Two, the smoke from the wildfires scatters sunlight in a way that amplifies red light. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, on clear days, the shorter wavelengths of blue light are scattered more efficiently compared to other colours — hence why the sky is blue. Smoke particles, however, are larger and therefore better at scattering longer wavelength red light. That’s why sunsets can look more vivid in smoggy cities with pollution particles scattering longer wavelengths of light.

The situation over California is extreme right now, though. The towering columns of smoke over California aren’t just scattering light; they’re blocking it altogether in some locations and essentially turning day into night. Explosive fires like these are becoming more common as the planet overheats, creating health problems and displacing entire communities. Getting a good photo of the carnage may end up being the least of our worries.