Sep 10, 2020 - Technology

Smartphone cameras struggle to capture San Francisco's orange sky

An orange sky as a result of wildfires is seen in San Francisco
An image of San Francisco's orange sky Wednesday, taken with a Samsung Galaxy Note 20. Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

The apocalyptic orange sky in San Francisco Wednesday was the talk of the town — and well beyond. However, many people found their efforts to capture the surreal images stymied, as their iPhones "corrected" the smoke-filled sky to a more natural hue.

The big picture: Smartphone cameras do a great job in many situations thanks to software that automatically tries to improve a shot's composition, focus, and settings like white and color balance. But those adjustments can also get in the way of capturing what's unique about some of life's most vivid images.

After waking up to the orange sky, I first tried to shoot out my back door, but found my iPhone was adjusting the sky to a much more common gray. On social media, I saw lots of others having the same experience with both still and video coming from their phones.

Around midday, I headed to Bernal Heights Park, which overlooks the city, including downtown SF and the Bay Bridge, armed with an iPhone 11 Pro Max, a Pixel 4a, a Galaxy Note 20 and my Canon DSLR.

  • The Galaxy Note 20 did the best job of the smartphones (see above) at capturing the vivid hues of the sky, but none of the phones came close to what I was able to capture using the Canon.
  • The one shot where my iPhone was able to capture the sky's hue also included our orange Honda Fit.

Yes, but: In all cases I used the device's default settings. Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier said she used the app Hallide to avoid the iPhone's color correction.

The bottom line: This was a moment for my Canon to prove that, despite its bulk, it can't always be replaced by a smartphone.

Here's what the view from Bernal Heights Park looked like through my Canon DSLR.

Bernal Heights Park under an orange sky
Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

And here is the photo where the iPhone was able to show the orange sky:

A photo of the orange sky in San Francisco taken with an iPhone
Photo: Ina Fried/Axios
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