Can this Photo by Peter Lik Possibly be Real?

Peter Lik, whom many believe is the world's most successful photographer, recently released an image that is pretty unbelievable. 

Although Peter Lik is one of the most successful photographers on the planet, he is also one of the most controversial. Peter's work is undeniably impressive, but the controversy surrounding Lik's work usually has to do with the amount of post-processing done on his images. His sales team would have you believe that everything is straight out of his film camera, from a single shot, but anyone who has ever tried to photograph a landscape knows there's more going on. So how far does Peter go when it comes to post processing his images? I personally never felt like he crossed the line until he started releasing images of the moon. 

Yesterday, Patrick forwarded an email he received of Lik's new image "Moonlit Dreams" to David, Mike, and I, and of course a massive debate began. How could this possibly be real? 

Dynamic Range

Is it possible to get a correct exposure on the moon, sky, and foreground all at the same time? We all assumed it was not but David actually proves that this is possible in the video above. 

Lighting Direction On The Scene

Is the lighting in this shot realistic at all? What is lighting the sky and clouds? Is that moonlight giving the clouds their backlight appearance? Is that even possible in a single exposure? Why do the trees appear to be lit from above?  Can the foreground cliff face have enough light on it at the end of the day when the image is exposed for the moon? There are so many questions we have about the overall lighting in this scene.

Lighting On The Moon

Is it possible to see shadows on the moon that aren't pitch black? Why can we see a shadow on the upper right side of the moon that are a washed out yellow rather disappearing into the earth's atmosphere?

Depth Of Field 

Is there any camera on earth capable of capturing both the moon and trees in perfect focus at the same time? If not, is it even possible to get this shot with focus stacking? Using this depth of field calculator, Patrick used a modest f/16 at 1000mm on a normal Nikon D800 35mm camera and the total depth of field was only 1,300 feet.  

Size Of The Moon

How far back would Lik need to stand to make the moon this large in relation to the trees? Why isn't there any atmosphere distorting the shot? What millimeter lens would have to be used to register the moon this size on the camera's sensor?

The Clouds

One of the stranger elements of this image are the clouds. If you look at the left side of the moon, you can clearly see some clouds in front of the moon as they should be but other clouds appear to be behind the moon. This makes the moon look like it's actually WITHIN the Earth's atmosphere. Why do all of the clouds not appear in front of the moon?

Is This The Same Moon From Other Shots? 

David put this image on top of another one of Lik's moon images and they matched up perfectly. Although the shadow density isn't the same, the size and shape of the shadows on the moon appears to be identical. Could Peter simply be recycling a high res image of the moon he shot on a clear day and using that throughout much of his fine art images?

Why does this matter? 

Peter Lik has become extremely wealthy selling prints that his sale team swear are "real." As we all know, each photographer (and the general public) has their own view on how much Photoshop is too much, and at a certain point, we can easily cross that line. Although we haven't spoken with anyone working for Lik about this particular image, we imagine they will say that this too is a single, unaltered frame. So the question then becomes, how far is too far? If Peter simply used Photoshop to focus stack the moon and the trees to get an acceptable depth of field, most people would be ok with it. But what if he enlarged the moon to twice the size? What if the moon wasn't even in the shot at all and he added it in? What if he has a single shot of the moon that he is Photoshopping into a bunch of different prints? 

What do you think? Could this shot be real or is it crossing the line that separates photography from digital art? 

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175 Comments

Gabe Border's picture

This video is great. I remember talking about this last year after you visited that Fatali gallery.

Kyle Medina's picture

I agree he used the same moon. Every moon composite I've ever seen the edges of the moon are super sharp which give a way its a composite. Yes, the moon does a wobble but you do see the same side of the moon every time, just different perspective. The dark shadow part of the moon from the silhouette photo isn't even in the new photo. Its blocked by the rock face. Don't forget clouds behind the moon!

Michael E's picture

Most very very likely a composite. Not only does the moon wobble so that slightly different craters appear at the edge of the moon over time, the orientation of the craters (face of the moon) shift on the horizontal/vertical axis between moon rise and moon set. This is most obvious when shooting a series of moonshots, for example during a lunar eclipse. (Plus the hyper focal distance on an 800mm or 1200mm lens at f8 is approximately 1.6 and 3.7 miles respectively and goes up as the lens size increases.) Composite or not, I really like it.

Aneesh Kothari's picture

Fascinating article and debate. I like how this is posted in the "Composite" category :-)

Motti Bembaron's picture

No debate whatsoever, it's a composite :-) if the moon was so close to earth we would be in serious trouble. I mean serious.

To have the trees and the moon so sharp, You have to be miles from the trees and use a zoom lens of something like 1600mm, if it even exists (don't know, never use anything longer than 300mm) but the trees will still not look this sharp.

Ryan Mense's picture

How is the clouds being BEHIND THE MOON the weakest argument? I guess I'll find out over the next 25 minutes...

because artists debating science?

I saw that and then watched in amazement as they just waved it off. Really? The moon is in our atmosphere?

The clouds behind the moon are a bit of a giveaway...

Pedro Pulido's picture

haven't seen the video yet cause i'm at work (shhhh) but from the picture alone i would say it's totally impossible to capture that in one shot only! no way!

THOSE are the reasons for your doubts?!? How about, “High level clouds appear BEHIND the moon!!!” …And before the excuses about being washed out by moonlight, low loevel clouds are in front the moon. This is the second one of his images I have seen like this. The Moon is NOT orbiting within our atmosphere!

He in not the only photographer who claims that images are “SooC” when they clearly are not. Even when the evidence is overwhelming. I have learned to point out the obvious, and if they deny it, just say, “Whatever, Dude.”

Dude, the Moon is in front of the FREAKIN CLOUDS.
Everything in that photo is composite, and I'd say they come from at least 3 different sources (terrain, moon and clouds).

You know what would be funny? If he actually downloaded some stock images illegally.

Mark Harris's picture

We had a relatively famous photographer in Sweden (Terje Hellesø) who also boasted about shooting everything in camera, and was caught manipulating wildlife images. It turned out he had even stolen the animal images (which is how he got caught). Not only that, but he had sued a painter for reproducing one of his fakes.

Aren't NASA photos, free for anyone to use, however we want?

Some Camera Guy's picture

So... no clouds in space right? How do you get clouds behind the moon?

Some Camera Guy's picture

An interesting read. I think that what we are looking at is more like stratospheric nacreous clouds. They just seem to have a distinct look and atmospheric at that.

Yes, of course, was a joke ;)

Shawn Anderson's picture

Not saying this is the answer to your question, but it is a compelling argument. https://www.metabunk.org/explained-why-clouds-appear-behind-the-sun-and-...

William Howell's picture

It is a composite, it is the same moon, right?
When you get that much black in difference mode, that can’t be a coincidence.
I’d be careful, Fstoppers is a pretty big website for photography, so you know Peter Lik is going to hear about this conversation. But they are legitimate questions.

I know but as we understand the law, we can show this image for the sake of critique and commentary.

Stas F's picture

No worries, I'll throw $20 into a pool for your lawyer

Motti Bembaron's picture

No reason to be careful, we all have the right to question, especial when his strong selling argument is his genius and therefore the lack of the need of post processing.

If he is controversial it means he never tried to prove the opposite. In fact, he uses that to sell even more photos.

Ariel Martini's picture

my grandma would love this photo

Stas F's picture

When I saw 4 of you in the same room I knew the party's lit.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I once did a job in a home that had like 10 of his photos, each almost my size (I am 6'3'). To be able to say
straight face that the images are not photoshopped, or enhanced, and make so much money doing so is incredible.

Not that his photos are not beautiful however, if their strong selling point is the lack of post editing, and a testimony to his genius, then it is amazing that so many fall for that.

There’s a few people here and a lot of people saying on YouTube that we should have stopped once we noticed that there were clouds behind the moon.

The issue is that landscape photographers have a ton of tricks they use that may or may not be “crossing a line” when it comes to art, but a big one is sky replacements. So yes, clouds behind the moon are ridiculous, but there is so much other wild stuff that is going on in this image besides the clouds.

Jan du Preez's picture

Hey Lee, I just found this thread below on the Luminous Landscape forum from February 2012 discussing the fact that the second Peter Lik image you have in the video "Bella Luna" is fake.
http://forum.luminous-landscape.com/index.php?topic=62123.0

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