Bending Reality

Many of those who follow my work and my webinars already know that I’m passionate about all things astronomical and night photography.  I’m the kind of guy that will go 10 times to the same location over a 4 year span to capture a shot that requires the elements to all be in place… the moon, a soon-to-rise sun, a coastal lighthouse, and clear weather.

A Perfect 10 [5_057646]

Why do I do it? Because it involves embracing challenges from several disciplines – mathematics, astronomy, and some hairy technical aspects of photography. I don’t know what to make, however, of the super cheesy way to get the moon where you want it using photo editing techniques.  Take a nice clear picture of the moon with a 200 mm lens, and put it in a landscape taken at 20mm.  You get a moon 10 times larger than it should be, but will people notice?  Not very often, it turns out! I submitted an “e-ticket” for a charity. The E-ticket allowed the bidder to select any of the items in my image library for an 18 x 12 print. To my chagrin the image chosen was this one – a complete fabrication.

My What A Lovely Moon You Have There! [C_039349+]

The patron knew it was a fabrication, but loves Yosemite and likes having the moon, a moon bow and a waterfall co-mingled together.  Making compelling composite images certainly falls in the realm of art which I highly value. But sadly, I created this image to educate people about forgeries.

One distressing trend that I see are photographers who run workshops and draw in participants by exhibiting photographs that are composites – not reality.  I know how I would feel if I booked a particular hotel because a lovely photo of the property showed a pristine beach just yards away but upon arrival discovered that the pristine beach was actually four blocks and a freeway away. Angry.

And what about those aspiring photographers who wonder how they too can get a photograph of a fantastic huge moon behind Yosemite Falls when you can’t – it’s impossible!

I have spent substantial effort finding, researching, learning about and writing tools to aid in achieving alignments of the moon (and sun) with various landmarks – but it’s quite unfair to compare the days weeks and months of calculation and waiting for the right date and weather to arrive to those photographers who recycle their stock moon, lightning, or cloud photos into whichever photos they think they will look best.

And it’s not a moon-only phenomenon.  I’m amused when I see folks exhibiting impossible star trails, improbable eclipses, and many other manufactured phenomenon.  So I am seeking your help. I want to learn from you what you think the boundary between fantasy creation and photography should be. And I’ll also give you some tools to help spot forgeries.

Here is what I think must be true for a photo to be an Authentic Photograph. Some editors are even more stringent about what they allow.

  1. Photo(s) used in the final image must be taken at the same focal length and using the same equipment.
  2. And within the same 24 hour period.
  3. With no introduction of or removal of elements except those that are “small distractions”.  E.g. noise, an overly bright or overly dark element such as shiny trash or a tripod shadow,  Or cloning out an object that moved between exposures as in HDR.

I find these acceptable:

  • Cropping – any amount.
  • Sharpening, or Blurring (smoothing)
  • Color correction, saturation or desaturation (but not color change. Green eyes should not become blue ones – though “red eye” correction is certainly ok).
  • Selective coloration, including black and white, duo toning, etc.
  • Perspective or lens aberration corrections.
  • Vignetting
  • Framing
  • HDR, or bracketed exposure combinations together with tonal compensation.
  • Contrast enhancement

For me the following cross the line from Authentic Photographs into Composites

  • Use of any elements taken a different focal lengths or with different equipment  unless those elements are resized proportionately and placed in their correct and actual location.
  • Using elements taken at different dates or from different directions (e.g. combining a photo of lightning with anything that the lighting did not actually strike)
  • Moving elements in a single image to other locations (except incidentally to clone out or cover over issues).

When people violate my personal ethical boundaries, they usually create physical conundrums that are often easily spotted by a trained eye. For example in this photo the moon is impossibly large and intuitively feels wrong.  The moon is too large in this photo, too. The impossibility can be determined either from experience or through some mathematics (which I’ll show later).  Sometimes the moon placement just doesn’t match physics. For example in this photo the moon is illuminated on the wrong side. The moon is always illuminated by the sun so if the sun is setting at the left and the moon is illuminated on the right – well that’s impossible. Another common mistake is when people put a Full moon anywhere near a sunset or sunrise. The full (or nearly full moon) is always located on the opposite side of the sky from the sun. Any photo showing otherwise is doctored.  Sometimes the doctoring is laughably obvious as in this photo.

Math Reveals Forgeries

As I teach in the “Catching the Moon (and sun) Webinar” the moon is a well known and almost invariant size and its presence can be used to measure distances in the photo. Specifically the moon is 1/2 of a degree in angular size (the superest of super moons is 0.57 degrees). An image with a angle of view of 50 degrees – as might be achieved with a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera – will result in the moon being exactly 1/100th the size of the image. Since the field of view of an image isn’t always obvious – especially in unfamiliar locations, finding something in the scene of identifiable size helps. For example in this image:

My What A Lovely Moon You Have There! [C_039349+]Some googling will tell you the height of Upper Yosemite Fall (675 feet). By eyeball Upper Yosemite Fall appears to be about 2.5 times the moon’s diameter. That means the falls are about 1.25 degrees in total (0.5 degrees times 2.5). Throwing some trigonometry in here, we can conclude that to get the moon sized as in the photo, the photographer had to be 30,934 feet away from the fall (5.8 miles). Yosemite Valley is less than a mile wide in this direction. Did we have to do the trigonometry? Not really! The rainbow gave us another huge clue. The arc of a rainbow is about 2 degrees wide from the top color (Red) to the bottom color (Violet). So the rainbow height here SHOULD be 4 times larger than the moon. The moon, however is much too large – just as we might have suspected.

The trigonometry: For an object to be the same angular size as the moon you must be 114.6 x the object height away from it. So, for example a one foot tall object requires a 114.6 foot distance to have the one foot object and the moon be the same size. For a super moon, the multiplier is 100.5 times.

The formula:   distance = height / tan(0.50)

What if the only identifiably sized object in a photo is a sand dollar?  No problem.  If the sand dollar and the moon are nearly the same size in the image, it’s easy to calculate how far away the photographer was from the sand dollar by multiplying the size of the sand dollar by 114.6.  Assuming that a 4″ sand dollar and an equally sized moon are in the same scene, a simple calculation reveals that the camera was 38 feet away from the sand dollar. Do many photographers get 38 feet away from the sand dollar they put in their foreground? No, they don’t!  Suppose we were wrong and the sand dollar is really only 2 inches in diameter. It would be just as unlikely for a photographer to be 19 feet away!  If you find more than one thing of an identifiable size relative to the moon you have a second point of reference.

For comparison here is an undoctored photo featuring the moon and a guy who is about 6 feet tall.  See how tiny the moon looks in this 20mm focal length photo? Did you even SPOT the moon? It’s at chin level on the left of the post.

Mountain Man - Steven [5_018682]

Realities about Moon Exposures

The moon, even the crescent moon is very bright. Any exposure showing a detailed full or half-moon and stars is immediately suspect because the 1/100 of a second exposure needed to keep detail in the moon will rule out the capture of any stars. The problem is a limitation in the dynamic range of the camera. Our eyes can see stars near a fully featured moon… but no contemporary camera can do so except when the moon is well veiled by clouds or hanging very near the thick part of the atmosphere at the horizon.   The presence of stars in the moon bow photograph, oops, I mean COMPOSITE, scream inconsistency – or at the very least some super-duper HDR processing.  Click the image and check out the observations that other people have made about what is wrong.  E.g. How can the moon create a moon bow, illuminate the face of the fall AND be behind all those things?

A Parting Puzzle

This image accurately depicts an Annular Solar Eclipse as captured by a series of images taken with the same camera pointed in the same direction and all at the same focal length. I wrote about it in my previous column.

Annular Eclipse Sequence [C_040079+5s]

But the following image I fabricated to look much like the many forged eclipse photos on Flickr and does not jive with reality. Can you spot why?  By the way I used a REAL image of an annular eclipse to create this photo but I combined it with another photo which had nothing to do with an eclipse.

Solar Corona + Keck & Subaru

If you can come up with a reasonable refutation (or two) you may win a free Catching the Moon webinar.

I’d Like to Hear From You!

Do you take exception to my exceptions? Do you resonate with my concerns? Did you spot something you’re pretty sure is faked, but can’t quite tell why? Please leave a comment!

Interested in more about faked photos?

See here or the Scientific American article on spotting fakes in general photos.

23 thoughts on “Bending Reality

  1. Bob Nastasi

    I could not agree more. I feel that moving objects in the photo by using post processing is a NO-NO. I think you hit the nail on the head with your points:
    1. Photo(s) used in the final image must be taken at the same focal length and using the same equipment.
    2. And within the same 24 hour period.
    3. With no introduction of or removal of elements except those that are “small distractions”.
    I find these acceptable:
    • Cropping – any amount.
    • Sharpening, or Blurring (smoothing)
    • Color correction, saturation or desaturation (but not color change. Green eyes should not become blue ones – though “red eye” correction is certainly ok).
    • Selective coloration, including black and white, duo toning, etc.
    • Perspective or lens aberration corrections.
    • Vignetting
    • Framing
    • HDR, or bracketed exposure combinations together with tonal compensation.
    • Contrast enhancement
    For me the following cross the line from Authentic Photographs into Composites
    • Use of any elements taken a different focal lengths or with different equipment unless those elements are resized proportionately and placed in their correct and actual location.
    • Using elements taken at different dates or from different directions (e.g. combining a photo of lightning with anything that the lighting did not actually strike)
    • Moving elements in a single image to other locations (except incidentally to clone out or cover over issues).

    I am glad you posted this!

    Reply
  2. Rick Whitacre

    My personal limits are nearly identical to yours, Steven.

    Most of what I believe is “allowed” has to do with compensating for the limitations of the camera system, such as dynamic range and depth of focus. Once I pick a location and focal length and lock it down on a tripod, I believe that changing focus point, ISO, aperture, shutter speed, etc is “allowed” and that the subsequent blending is an endeavor to communicate the way the scene appeared to our eyes and brain.

    I also accept merging lighting sources such as using the moon to illuminate a foreground and then waiting for the moon to set to take a darker image of the stars. Light painting is also acceptable in my world. In each case, the adaptations of our vision system make it possible to see a higher dynamic range than the camera can and I am trying to compensate for that.

    Changing focal length or moving the camera to pull another object into the scene or make it appear larger or smaller in comparison is stretching the truth, in my opinion.

    It’s all subjective, though. Most of us are trying to create “art” rather than be photojournalists, so you will get a lot of different opinions on what is acceptable. In the “competition for eyeballs”, the images that cross our lines often get a lot of recognition. It makes it tougher to stand out with an image where we are trying to be more “honest”.

    Reply
  3. R.G.Daniel

    On a philosophical level I’ve always said that once you take a 3-D real life environment, unfolding over time, and reduce it to a 2-D artifact of a tiny slice of that view, over an unmoving fragment of frozen time, then everything else is just splitting hairs. I knew a white water canoeist who decried my soft time-exposures of falls and rapids, because it was “cheating” and “messing with nature”. He preferred shots where the action was frozen so you could see each bubble in the maelstrom. In my opinion, this was due to his bias of being a white-water canoeist and kayaker. Perhaps his increased metabolism during rapid runs required him to see, or maybe caused him to see, the world in that kind of split-second clarity, in order to survive the run. But is a real event frozen and stolen in a thousandth of a second any more or less “cheating” than a moment frozen over a fifth of a second, or even 5 hours?

    “Intention” is where it starts to diverge for me. If there’s an intention to deceive, like your example of the relocated beach, then it becomes more clear-cut. Yes, it IS cheating. But cheating in the marketing sense, not cheating in the photography sense.

    I think nothing of dropping in a moon here and there, sometimes made larger for drama. Composites of many kinds are found throughout my stream. But I tend to be upfront about it, and would certainly offer that as disclosure if it was a piece I was selling.

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Thank you, R.G. for your observations. Surprisingly, I agree with you much more than you might suspect. However reality has left the building when someone posts an image like this in, e.g. the 2012 Annular Solar Eclipse group and deletes comments by people asking reasonable questions, like “is that real”.

      A first grader once asked me what the difference is between telling a story and telling a lie. The question goes straight to the motive, just as our justice system distinguishes “Murder” from “Homicide”. If I post photos like the “My What a Big Moon” to attract people’s attention for the “Catching the Moon Webinars” it doesn’t speak well for my ethics, IMHO.

      I am, by the way, an amateur magician. Magicians “tell stories” in part because telling the truth destroys the moment and the wonder.

      Reply
      1. R.G.Daniel

        “I am, by the way, an amateur magician. Magicians “tell stories” in part because telling the truth destroys the moment and the wonder.”

        Awesome, and a good analogy. Photography is a kind of magic right from the get-go, even straight-out-of-camera shots. When you seek to embellish the results with other techniques, you’re just “telling a story” with your sleight-of-hand, and it’s all good. But when you’re picking pockets, not so much.

        Reply
  4. Andy Morris

    My personal limits are little more flexible than yours. I don’t draw on my photos but I do sometimes ‘improve’ them by borrowing real world artifacts from other photos. Most noticeably, clouds. I have many pictures that have become much more pleasing because of a correctly placed fluffy rain maker.

    And then of course, there’s my true composites. I don’t think of these as photos and so feel free to play with them in any way I need. Take my recent picture of an 8 armed Deanna sitting in a shaft of light (http://photoshopscaresme.com/antelope-gods-playing-in-antelope-canyon). She doesn’t really have 8 arms and there was no light.

    My point is, I’ll use all the tools at my disposal to make my images more compelling, but I’ll also tell you what I did – being a liar and a photoshop user is a bad combination.

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Liar and photoshop user. Hah. I like that one. But it worries me that you may have borrowed Deanna’s arms. Did you ask permission? 😉

      On the “borrowed clouds” thing… if you’re putting tornadoes in Temecula, or Lenticulars over the ocean I’m going to yell foul – they’re more rare than sunshine in Seattle. And when Deanna’s arm is coming out of the summit of Mt. Ranier you’ve definitely crossed over my line.

      Reply
  5. Marsha

    Very good commentary and I agree with your “acceptable” list, particularly as it pertains to images of the natural world. I also agree with R. G. Daniels comment about intent. I also believe there is nothing wrong if someone is intending to create “art” by combining elements from one image into another. However, there should be a note with the image that it is composited to depict the artist’s/photographer’s vision. This goes for star circles as well if the image is created from a composite of multiple images.

    Where “intent” comes into play and the challenge for a lot of photographers is to try and capture our vision of a single scene in one or two shots to show the existing details of that scene. This takes a lot of planning and technical skill. and is hopefully rewarded by the viewers’ appreciation for the scene and if the viewer is knowledgable — appreciates the photographic skill that went into capturing the image as well. On the other hand, if a photograph is create by inserting many elements using PS like software, then it should be noted, and the viewer can not only appreciate, or not, the image but also the software skills of the photographer. To try and pass off an image based on software skills as opposed photographer/photography skills is disingenuous and that is where I have ethical issues.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Fakery Exposed…. | Star Circle Academy

  7. Robert Howell

    Thank-you for posing this question of “what [we] think the boundary between fantasy creation and photography should be”. I yield to the well-written comments of Marsha’s, above. I believe boundaries should be defined and clear ….and I’ve recently been wondering when/if we, who think we can spot a “fantasy creation”, should shout-out when we think there is something “cheesy” going on?

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      I’ve discovered that calling people out on fantasy in general does little more than alienate people. One fellow posts lots of images on Facebook with highly embellished moons. When I asked him how he had managed to get a large moon in the northern sky he deleted my comment. So I only managed to antagonize a fellow photographer – and his fans.

      A Flickr user deleted my comment and banned me for challenging his fabricated Annular Eclipse – but in that case he posted it in a group specifically dedicated to the Annular Solar eclipse with tags that indicated it WAS the eclipse. The scientist in me bristles at that and I’ll continue to call people down on those deceits.

      Reply
      1. Robert Howell

        I see, thank-you for the post and response Steven. I wondered what others could do/have done should a fake be spotted in a photo contest, etc.. It gets a little heavier, taking the next step (after defining boundaries) and deciding to ‘own it’, risking “antagonizing” fellow photographers and their fans.
        Kudos, and support to you and those do…

        Reply
      2. Willie Huang

        I totally agree with you on this. I find that many people don’t take criticism well and will instantly ban you should you call out a fake. I too came across a photo too good to be true: A Golden Gate Bridge photo with low fog, blazing sunrise colors, and a larger than normal setting crescent moon with venus next to it all in one shot. Though many people commented on how amazing this shot was, I instantly knew it was a fake as the crescent moon with venus only ever appears in the sky in the winter towards the west at sunset. Luckily, I didn’t alienate the photographer and he admitted to me that it was a complete composite. He even went further and admitted that the original photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge was bland and had almost no colors. All the beautiful sunrise colors were photoshopped in.

        I’m fine with people creating artwork if that was their intent, but I have major gripes with people trying to pass off blatant composites as true one-shot photographs.

        Reply
  8. Ajay Kodali

    This is an excellent article. Reading through it, I feel like this topic should be talked about as one of the first things (for those interested in photography) you need to be educated about and use it to form your set of photography principles. I am fairly new to photography but I have seen people coming in after me (maybe I wasn’t paying as much attention before) spend less time shooting a picture and more time post-processing it.
    I started with the principle of not touching a picture in anyway after it comes out of the camera (this was before I understood the limitations of camera’s) to forming a set of principles very similar to what you have put down here. That being said, I do run into situations where I feel that I need to revise them. My most recent situation, shooting of the Annular Solar eclipse. I shot multiple close shots of the eclipse but didn’t plan (and didn’t have a second camera) for a wide angle stacked picture of the eclipse moving by a foreground. I wanted to create a single picture that shows the interesting phases of the eclipse using the close-up shots. I just took a black background and placed the phases of the eclipses diagonally to achieve this. If properly declared as not the actual flow of events, what do you guys think of this?

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Ajay: I think my answer depends on what your purpose was and what you claimed to represent. Most people chose key parts of the Annular Eclipse to highlight in tabular, linear or circular form. The result is an illustration of the events over time and some of them were very cleverly done. On the other hand, some people took pictures of oranges or other objects, photoshopped them and claimed they were the eclipse itself by posting them to groups specific to the eclipse. That’s deceptive.

      Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Fake in that it’s clearly not a single exposure – though that doesn’t disqualify it, IMHO. The lit side of the moon indicates it is in a waxing phase and nearly full. The scale is quite possible – about the right size if taken from Yerba Buena Island.

      The thing that troubles me is that I believe the lit portion should be on the lower right – that is, facing more toward the horizon. This configuration seems to match a photo taken toward the east. I’ll have to do some more thinking about it. Indeed, it would be fun to take photos of the moon from rise to set and compare. Should be about the same phase TODAY as in the photo.

      Reply
      1. Bob Nastasi

        I agree. The reason I thought it was fake is because I used TPE and on the date the pictture was taken, it doesn’t line up. My main question is if that location on Yerba Buena would really result in that picture because I dont think it would work.
        Also, the moon is almost full and TPE says it should be 51%. However, I could be all wrong about this and that is why I asked.

        Reply
        1. Steven Christenson

          I didn’t see any EXIF data with date information – only the upload date. I know from experience, also that often the “date” ends up being the date of image processing.

          As for Yerba Buena, yes, I’m sure at the right time of year it could work and be about the size shown in the panoramio photo.

          Reply
          1. Bob Nastasi

            The EXIF data is under extra information:
            Extra informationCamera: Canon EOS 20D
            Taken on 2004/10/21 19:48:20
            Exposure: 13.000s
            Focal Length: 115.00mm
            F/Stop: f/7.100
            ISO Speed: ISO100
            Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
            No flash
            I just noticed one more thing. The exposure time says 13 sec. That would cause the moon to be over exposed. You are right, it is multiple exposures.

  9. Steven Christenson

    A reader suggested that this photo
    Archive: Saturn V on Launch Pad

    May have been doctored because:
    the proportions are wrong and also the moon has way too much detail and no hint of atmosphere / clouds anywhere

    I grabbed the photo and used photoshop’s measuring tool. The ratio of the moon diameter to the rocket height is 1 to 13.3. This means the angular height of the rocket is 13.3 x 0.5 degrees. It also appears that the base of the rocket is just slightly above eye level, so the altitude of the moon is about 1/2 of a moon diameter less or about 6 degrees above the horizon.

    The first question is was the photographer at a reasonable distance relative to the subject. A quick Google search says the height of a Saturn V rocket is 363 feet. Since the moon is 1/13.3 the size of the rocket, we can calculate the distance from the rocket as follows: 114.6 * 363 / 13.3 = 3106 feet. That seems reasonable and possible so the scale of the moon relative to the rocket is OK.

    As for atmospheric distortion… 6 degrees is pretty high. From my experience anything above 4 degrees can be quite clear.

    Finally there is the question of clouds. Fortunately just a few days ago I shot a moonrise where there were lots of clouds. By the time the moon reached about 5 degrees high in the sky and was not obscured by clouds it was dark enough that my exposure of the moon ONLY showed the moon. Therefore it seems reasonable that a floodlit rocket in a dark night might indeed match the moon brightness and create the possibility of capturing everything in a single exposure… EXCEPT for one artifact I noticed.

    CroppedSaturnVwithMoon 1179x436.bmp
    Notice the peculiar ring of brightness that extends over 3/4 around centered at the bottom left edge of the moon. The caption indicates this is an Apollo 17 mission. The launch of that mission in 1972 predated all digital technology capable of making such a large image, so my assumption is this was an analog photograph. I suspect that the halo effect was created by placing a properly exposed moon over an over exposed moon – something that would have been comparatively easy to do in the days of film negatives by literally stacking them. One more thing that also seems to make it all close to reasonable is the absence of stars. At night a properly exposed moon will net almost no stars at all due to the extreme difference in brightness between the moon and the stars. On close inspection the bits of bright dots MAY be stars, but may also be flare and noise.

    So my conclusion is this may be a legitimate HDR analog photo composite and not a fake.

    Reply

What do you think about this?