Your Phone Wasn’t Built for the Apocalypse

It looked like Mars, or the Southern Californian wasteland in Blade Runner 2049, or the deserts of Dune. Almost 100 wildfires have ravaged the western United States in the past month, scattering particles of ash and smoke into the air and forcing 500,000 people to evacuate their homes in Oregon alone. On Wednesday, residents across the West, already suffering from a pandemic, economic collapse, wildfires, and dangerously bad air quality, woke up to a dark, bronzed sky that nearly shut out all daylight. As the day wore on, the smoke thickened and receded, making the city seem red at some hours, amber at others. Masks to ward off the coronavirus now served double duty.

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….

Under the blood-red San Francisco sky, white balance doesn’t have a reference against which to calibrate accurately. Because everything was tinted red, the software assumed that the entire scene was generally neutral. People felt confused or even betrayed when their phone cameras transformed the tiger sky into images that washed out the orange, or in some cases made it look mostly gray, like an overcast day.

It’s hard to describe how distrurbing this was to experience. I also struggled to capture it, but failed.

Giraffes at the San Francisco zoo under a red sky my phone couldn't capture

I wish I could say this will be a wake up call to get serious about climate change, reducing the wildland-urban interface, and forest management. But I’m not sure it will be.