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The Day the White Balance Died: How Canada’s Wildfires Confused Cameras Along the East Coast

The Day the White Balance Died: How Canada’s Wildfires Confused Cameras Along the East Coast

If you're living in the northeastern part of the United States, unless you've been under a rock the last day or two, you've probably noticed that the wildfires from Canada are turning the skies a funky shade of yellowish orange. The thing is, your cameras probably haven't noticed.

I messaged with a few photographer friends who noted that their phones, cameras, and drones were just not quite getting colors right all day. I gave it a go myself and lo-and-behold, I came to mostly the same results. Despite the world looking like it had been dipped in orange, for the most part, my photos made everything look like a normal day. Even the main photo on this article, taken in lower New York on Wednesday, June 7, required a bit of tweaking to represent the colors as I saw them and not as my DJI Mavic Mini captured them.

As it happens, this is mostly by design. Cameras are designed to balance the colors in their photos such that there aren't extreme color shifts that don't reflect reality in the final photos. I tell my students that in most cases, modern day cameras will get it right with automatic white balance. Today, that wasn't the case. As Pulitzer-winning photographer Bob Sacha pointed out in an Instagram post from the day, you'd have to force the camera to think it's getting it wrong by setting a manual white balance for something like daylight:

Sacha writes: "Today in NYC, my iPhone failed me, color correcting the apocalypse at 2pm to look like any other day. So these are from my Sony dslr set to “daylight” with no color correction at 2pm. #photoaday #climateapocalypse #bobsacha #sonyalpha"

As a photojournalism professor, I always tell my students to edit photos to reflect reality, and it's crazy to think that climate change has created a situation where I'd have to edit in what feels like an almost backwards way, taking a photo that the camera thinks it's "fixed" and pouring some additional color into it to show what I actually saw with my eyes.

Whatever algorithms were programmed into my iPhone weren't doing any better than my actual cameras, drones, or 360 cameras. In back-to-back shots, you can see the wildly different white-balances:

The iPhone had no idea what to do with the smokey skies in the northeastern region of the U.S. on Wednesday.
The iPhone's default app doesn't allow for white balance adjustment while you're shooting, and so, if you'd want to force it in-camera, you'd have to use a third-party app such as ProCam.

Were you caught in the haze this week? Share your own photos and techniques in the comments below.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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I'm not sure of any kind way to say this but that was the first thing I thought of. It's kind of surprising to hear somebody who has been around for awhile is using auto WB.

I mean - camera tech has advanced so much - it's like refusing to shoot autofocus because you think you can do it faster than the camera when 99% of people can't. Shooting RAW as well, there's no penalty to fixing the white balance if needed.

You are missing my point entirely. IMO a seasoned photographer should instinctively understand that auto WB is likely to give colors that are not what your brain is interpreting. It isn't about whether it is easy or not. It is about being surprised when it is very well known that AutoWB tries for neutral gray.

IMO It isn't at all like autofocus. One can see focus through the view finder. AutoWB doesn't unless one is chimping.

Imagine what happens when AI is used even more by cameras to produce that 'perfect picture'. Cameras have always been both a documentation tool and a creative tool. However they are becoming less of a documentation tool and more simply a creative tool. Not too many people are talking about the decline of the documentation aspect of the camera and are simply getting swept away with how great AI is for the creation side.

The artificial sharpening and color boost in most images now has been around for a while. Many of these folks spend too much time "tweaking" their images.

Seattle has had this for the last 8 years or so. Funny that you east coast folks never mentioned that.

My Pixel 5a did a surprisingly respectable job capturing the smoke. It's only when I try to use some of the auto-adjustment functions in Google Photos that it adjusts away the yellow-orange tint.