Blue sky billboard in smoggy Beijing

Yeah, they should have been less productive even if it meant letting hundreds of millions remain impoverished.

It sure is great to get marginally out of poverty, as long as you don’t mind the huge increase in cancer and respiratory illnesses. Oh, and you don’t get out of poverty, either, because all of the profits go to the corporations, who can pay you less than one hundred dollars a month. Enjoy your “increased” standard of living! Along with your shortened lifespan. There are those who say that this is just China’s industrial revolution, and no different than ours or Great Britain’s, which is, in a way, true, but it does not excuse anything. Our industrial revolutions were brutal and horrible for anyone not at the top of the pile. So we won the cold war, and now the rest of the world wants to be just like we were, so they can try to get where we are. So damn the consequences, full production ahead!


The camera got color temperature and expousre values from bright, bluish image on the screen, severely underexposing the real-life objects and shifting colors toward yellow. This is normal for digital cameras, and photographers are supposed to correct this by locking the auto-exposure while pointing at objects they intend to look normal. On top of this, for some insane reason black level was shifted up, completing the “dirty” look – there is absolutely no possible technical reason for that, other than someone messing with contrast.

I was able to recover something close to the original colors, using white jacket and pants as the reference, and range of levels outside the screen to restore the dynamic range of the image (no matter how bad is the smog, you need yellow flakes flying through the air to alter the color of clothes on the person next to you). While it may be still smog, it doesn’t look any different from what I see in San Francisco.


I’m sorry, but this is totally counter-factual. The effect on hundreds of millions of Chinese has been far from marginal. The difference in standard of living between the Cultural Revolution or Great Leap Forward and today is stark. Yes, there has been a rise in inequality, but the fact remains that poverty in China has been eradicated with astonishing speed.

In the last 50 years China has added about 30 years to the average life span, from 43 years to 73 years, which represents an almost 70% increase in expectancy.

At the distances these people are from the photographer, the smog in Beijing will absolutely have an effect on their colour. You may not believe it, but it’s true. Like the Atlantic piece says, the smog is bad enough that it can and does have a noticeable effect indoors, within large rooms.

I don’t know if you lifted the EXIF data from the Atlantic site (I can’t do it on the computer I’m on right now), or if that data has been retained, but what time was the picture taken and what was the white balance setting? Doesn’t it seem very, very strange to you that a television screen is brighter than the sky during the day? Or that when you tried to adjust the picture to what you think are accurate contrast levels, the video screen appears as a bunch of blown out highlights (show me a picture of SFO where a video screen has blown highlights like that)? That tells you a lot about just how bad the smog is and how much light it attenuates.

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There was no EXIF data, image is horrendously re-compressed, and a simple glance at the histogram can confirm that black level is shifted, and dynamic range is pushed far outside on the bright side because of auto-exposure picking the brightness of the image in the TV screen. Even without color temperature correction, simply excluding the levels that are only present on the screen, one canproduce a normal-looking image.

It is, however, clear that color temperature of the screen is much higher than the daylight, and once that is taken into account, the result is a perfectly normal picture of a foggy city with a very bright TV.

As for TV screens in San Francisco, there are plenty of those, including one truly giant and bright on 101 close to the Oracle HQ, one much older and duller on Pier 39, etc. Considering that it’s foggy outside, very likely the picture is taken when the sky is not bright.

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If that was the case, TV would light up the fog and dust producing a glowing cloud.

Smog does not work like that. Water can’t remain suspended indoors, it would either evaporate (normally) or condense on the surfaces (if it’s cold enough). Suspended solids may remain, but will look like normal smoke and dust.

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You’re saying that you can produce a normal-looking image by adjusting the contrast. That’s true, but but in adjusting the contrast you’re essentially removing the atmospheric perspective that existed when the picture was taken. For example, in the very first picture in the Atlantic piece, you could also adjust the contrast so that it looks more “normal,” but doing so would give a false impression of what the scene really looks like.

You may not like this fact, but smog affects colour temperature. Smog is not neutral grey. Smog makes sunsets red and skies brown. Fog like you see in Beijing very much shifts colour temperature.

Sure, there are video screens in San Francisco. Show me one daylight shot where the video screen is totally blown out while the sky is “normal”. Video screens, however bright, are not brighter than the sun or normal fog. If your argument is that it’s probably quite dark, then why is it quite bright in your modified picture?

Huh? So you think that by being indoors humidity suddenly drops to 0%?

It seems pretty unlikely that you’ve experienced the pollution in Beijing. There is nothing particularly misleading about the Atlantic photographs, and your modification is more misleading than anything that appears there (again with the blown-out video screen).

Except “atmospheeric perspective” was artificial in the first place because camera based exposure and image processing parameters on the bright TV screen.

My whole point is that there was no indication of any significant smog in the first place – with or without smog, image’s colors would be shifted just because it contains a TV showing a picture at completely different coloor temperature. To put it plain, the image contains no indication of what it is claimed to show.

Smog and fog consist of suspended drops of water, not water vapor. You need 100% humidity just to maintain them in the enclosed space.

Please learn something about photography, optics, physics of suspended liquids and solids, weather, responsible journalism, history of US relationships with China and propaganda used over that time – really anything relevant before making such statements.

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There was nothing artificial about the atmospheric perspective in the photograph: you can clearly observe an incremental decrease in contrast and saturation with more distant objects, which is the very definition of atmospheric perspective. I’m not sure how the presence of a video screen would make the observed atmospheric perspective artificial.
(Please learn something about photography, optics, etc. before making such statements.)

So, if it doesn’t show smog, then what does it show? Just that pure, clean, fog for which Beijing is renowned? Are you suggesting that even Beijing’s official pollution indexes are inaccurate, or simply that this was one of the very clean, but very foggy days that Beijing supposedly experiences?

Your image also contains no indication of what you claim it to show: a foggy day. Your imposition of an arbitrary white balance is no more principled than the arbitrary white balance that you apparently think the Atlantic has used. But while you are claiming without much proof that the Atlantic has edited their photographs to reflect some biased editorial perspective, you have admitted to making a largely unjustified editorial decision in your edit. Why should we believe your version is more accurate?

And if your argument is that the video screen’s uncalibrated colour balance is interfering with the overall colour balance in some random and unpredictable way (in which case you are arguing that the photographer is using auto white balance, which seems unlikely), then we would probably expect the displayed colours shown in the monitor to be more lifelike and realistic than they are. But instead it’s pretty clear that the Atlantic photograph hasn’t been edited to reflect the monitor’s colour temperature.

And it’s possible to have indoors smog in large enclosed spaces. During London’s great smog theaters were sometimes closed because you could not see the screen due to the indoor pollution.

I’m not sure why any of these are relevant to my observation that your version of the photograph is misleading. You haven’t explained why you have presented the sky as being so bright when it means that the video monitor is extremely overexposed. Let me know how many nits you think this screen must be, given your version of the photograph, and let me know of any screens are actually that bright (I’m sure this should be easy for you given your mastery of photography, optics and physics, as well as your interest in responsible journalism). Let me know the basis for your assumption that there is likely no smog and that the basis for your apparent assumption that the existence of any smog would not affect the colour balance of light that has permeated the smog and then been reflected off of the white clothing being worn by people some 30+ meters away from the photographer.

Please also let me know how US relations and propaganda have caused Chinese authorities to self-report high levels of smog and airborne pollution in Beijing.

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