A decade ago, Jim Bumgardner discovered that a composite photo averaging any number of any images on Flickr always yields the same color: orange. Bumgardner offered a few theories why what he termed Emergent Orange exists on his blog, Krazy Dad, including:

  1. Colors blue and green do not occupy large areas of most photographs (pictures of sky and greenery aren’t that exciting, are they?), hence the red shift.
  2. Cameras today are calibrated toward warmer colors.
  3. Photos in artificial light or using flash lean spectrally toward yellows and whites.
  4. The sun is a hot yellow star, so daytime photos lean toward its color.
  5. People like to photograph Buddhist monks whose robes are orange.

More recently Bumgardner suggested that the photos reflected “the average chemical composition of the subjects being photographed.” Others have proposed their own theories, each reflecting their professional biases.

Do Sunset Photos Cause Emergent Orange?

As I read The Atlantic article about Bumgardner’s discovery, I thought the explanation was a no-brainer: the phenomenon was caused by the pervasiveness of sunset pictures, whose color profile, of course, leans toward yellows, reds, and oranges (sunrises are similar, if a bit colder in that regard, but they are photographed much more rarely). Perhaps this idea reflects my own bias: as a traveler I have taken a few photos of sunsets myself and seen a fair share of sunset pics on blogs and social media. Not even jumping photos come close to the popularity of sunset photos (332 million search results as I write this).

By the end of the piece, however, my simple explanation was dispelled: the root cause of Emergent Orange remains a mystery.

The Metaphoric Properties of Everyday Phenomena

As a writer and the owner of a vivid imagination, I care less about scientific explanations for various phenomena than their metaphoric properties. Even though the percentage of sunset photos among all images may not explain Emergent Orange, I ran with my hunch anyway—into the sunset, as it were. But, rather than attempting to explain the orangeness of the internet, I focused on sunsets and sunset photography:

  • Why are sunset photos so popular?
  • What motivates so many people to photograph sunsets so many times?

Sunsets are generally considered an aesthetically pleasing, if not beautiful, natural phenomenon. People like to photograph beautiful things, and sunsets are a ready-made, easily approachable subject. If you miss one, there’s always going to be another one, wherever you are. Moreover, sunsets are the low-hanging fruit of photography. It’s hard to screw up a sunset photo, I’ve heard someone say.

Is there something about the colors of sunsets that makes them attractive to humans? In color psychology and symbolism, the color orange signifies warmth, happiness, emotional strength, vitality, energy, adventure, endurance, and health; it is optimistic, uplifting, vibrant, rejuvenating, extroverted, stimulating, and uninhibited. Orange is also said to appear as a hot color, which produces the sensation of heat, and to increase oxygen supply to the brain, which produces an invigorating effect. “Orange is the color of life,” writes Bumgardner in the same vein. We like sunsets because of the properties of the color(s) they produce. Sunsets make us feel excited, alive, and energetic. But there’s more to it than that.

Even a mediocre sunset generates the sensation of having witnessed something important, something that, though it takes place every day, will never be repeated. Indeed, even though all sunsets are the same—if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all—every sunset is different. The same location can produce a different sunset and different sunset photo every time, depending on the season, weather, camera settings, or the observer’s state of mind. It is this difference, this supposed uniqueness, that makes us snap the shot. We aim to capture the singularity of the moment that’s as epic and predictable (and safe) as nature can offer.

Nevermind that everyone who has a camera of any kind takes and shares sunset photos; nevermind that, as pretty as they are, sunset photos are the epitome of lazy photography, a stereotype of themselves, social media fodder whose value and ubiquity equals that of the penny.

Each snapshot is also an attempt to record our own presence, in time and in space, against the backdrop of a spectacular natural phenomenon that has taken place every day since the Earth came to be and will take place every day until it’s gone. That we see sunsets, and particularly that we document and share them on social media, means we exist. It is the photographic equivalent of carving “PK Wuz Here 1/18/2016” into a tree. More importantly, that we are alive here and now means that we matter.

One could consider every photograph to be such a record, so why do sunset pictures do a better job than other photographs? The color of the sky remains mostly unchanged as the sun travels across it during the day. But in those final few minutes of the trip, cool blue changes into an array of yellows and reds and oranges and red-hued blues and purples. With the exception of aurora borealis, which is confined to a sliver of the planet, the light show sunsets throw is as exciting as the sky gets. It is because of the excitement sunset colors generate that we value the phenomenon. The color of life reminds us that we are alive. We attempt to capture on camera that burst of life precisely because it will be gone in the next moment, replaced by its opposite. The setting sun portends the day’s end, the coming darkness. This cycle of day and night conjures the cycle of life and death; just as the day dies at sundown, in each sunset we die a little. In sunsets, we see our own demise.

And yet, at the same time that sunsets reminds us of our mortality, they contain hope. The sun may be leaving now and gone for the night, but it will return in the morning, and on and on for billions more years. We may die some day, but surely we’ll wake up again tomorrow. It’s just another day.

Keeping the Mysteries Intact

Like Emergent Orange, sunsets and sunset photographs are here to stay, as are their respective mysteries. Sunsets represent the mystery of the Universe and our existence in it, as a sentient species and as individuals. Sunset photos, in turn, represent our attempt to embrace and solve that mystery. No one else can do so but us. And so we keep pressing the shutter release—and emerging orange.