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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173 Comments

Previous comments
David Wilder's picture

Interesting thought about the clouds on the lower left (the ones that look like San Fran fog). Could you get that kind of back lit tone and depth because the moon is full bouncing back enough light to cause this?

Adam Simmons's picture

Given the question asked in the lede, the clouds are indeed where the stopping point, and the answer are.

the clouds are indeed the biggest giveaway, but it's a good exercise to go ahead and point out all the other things wrong with it for educational purposes.

Michael DeStefano's picture

You guys are too funny. I want in on the Vegas gallery visit.

Patrick Hall's picture

I'm prepared to never be allowed to step foot in another one of his galleries again.

Michael DeStefano's picture

Sounds like a plan to me...

michael buehrle's picture

just make sure it's on video when you get tossed.

...let me know if you can still smell the fart I ripped the last time I was in there!

Daniel Venter's picture

Clouds behind the moon :-) mmmm I wonder

Jon Dize's picture

You're right of course... silly of me to have even commented. I'll refrain from now on. Promise!

Moishe Lettvin's picture

Can we have a followup where y'all do a photo-critique style rating on this? Whether it's composite or not is interesting, whether it *could* be real or not is more interesting (and I liked the discussion about that a lot!), but maybe the ultimate question is, is it *good*?

Jon Dize's picture

You're right of course... silly of me to have even commented. I'll refrain from now on. Promise!

Moishe Lettvin's picture

Please keep commenting! I wasn’t trying to shut anyone down.

Just FYI, Peter Lik's last remaining gallery in Noosa, Australia closed up a few years ago. There are no longer any galleries in Australia or New Zealand. I use both a Phase One XF 100MP and a 6x17 medium format panorama camera similar to those used by Peter Lik. There are no lenses available for either system to capture this shot. However that's not to stay it couldn't have been taken with something else.

I do recall one of Lik's very old nature shows, he visited an observatory (in Hawaii?) to take astro photos. I'd almost put money this moon being taken then. This is undoubtedly a composite. Conversely, I vaguely remember a plaque in one of his galleries stating the second image you discuss 'Bella Luna' was a composite of two images. To claim this as be being straight out of camera is complete BS. In any case someone on his staff is very good at masking. The scene at 2:18 bears a pretty strong resemblance to his 'bella luna' image don't you think?https://youtu.be/G565e1Cpy68?t=137

As long as they admit it’s a made up image then I have no problem with it. I just don’t know how many people would want to buy that.

I think if you're in Vegas and you just won a huge pile of cash, you're totally likely to buy "eye candy" to hang on your wall. Peter Lik could have totally still gotten filthy rich as a Vegas art gallery owner, whether or not he decided to insist that he is a "photographer" who captures actual scenes.

Many, many photo galleries are shutting down around the world, because high-dollar photography galleries are waning, period. Rodney Lough Jr used to have gorgeous galleries in numerous different places, and most are shut down now. Thomas Mangelsen, too.

But, Lik decided that in his own mind, being labeled a "photographer" was more appealing to him, because he got greedy and wanted to misuse people's general trust in photographs, in order to make even more money, and to receive even more prestige.

Jon Dize's picture

You're right of course... silly of me to have even commented. I'll refrain from now on. Promise!

Larry Clay's picture

A quick search for Peter Lik moon photos brings up his photo called Bella Luna. It is the same shot of the moon! It is almost impossible to get two shots of the moon that are exact due to the moon wobbling slightly. That and the clouds are behind the moon as they are in many of his other moon photos.

Jon Dize's picture

You're right of course... silly of me to have even commented. I'll refrain from now on. Promise!

Jon Dize's picture

That is the best argument I have seen William. Lee pointed me to a link that had a comparison of two of Lik's moons and they do appear to be composites of the same moon. My argument is, he did not have to composite them, the components of either shot are plausible, much more work having to be there to capture the image, but apparently he did composite the moons.

Jon Dize's picture

I looked at the page and if indeed those images are not manipulated so they will match and I have no reason to believe they were, then THAT is indeed evidence to me that there was a composite used to create the "Moonlit Dreams" image.

SO, WE AGREE BASED ON THE EVIDENCE PRESENTED in your link.

It would appear that the moon used to create the RECENT image, "Moonlit Dreams" is a duplicate of the moon captured or added to the "Bella Luna" image.

If he used a composite to create "Moonlit Dreams," then I suspect to get a clean moon extraction from "Bella Luna" the "Bella Luna" image was also built from a composite.

I concede if the pseudo-quote aka paraphrase is accurate that he very likely did misrepresent the two composited images.

See? I am not a FANatic of Lik, I just needed to see proof he did.

Though my argument was not about if they were composites, but that they did not have to be and I sincerely believe, based on my understanding of the optics and components, that it did not have to be a composite.

That was just the easier than doing the leg work and managing the time involved.

Shame on Peter for implying it was anything but a composite.

I love it when people bring up Ansel Adams, in these discussions about wild digital manipulation.

Ansel is famous for a couple different photos of the moon, most namely "Moonrise, Hernandez"

...Ever notice how big the moon is in that photo? It's a tiny little white dot. Let's be honest here: Ansel, the dark room wizard that he was, could have easily re-photographed the moon with his longest lens, and seamlessly spliced the two negatives together for an even more impressive moonrise over Hernandez, NM.

But, he didn't. In fact if you read his books, you'll find that he was strongly AGAINST that type of manipulation. His darkroom wizardry was essentially 100% tonal management, and that was largely motivated by the maintaining of detail in a photo, instead of losing it. The point is, your precious Ansel Adams drew a line in the sand, and refused to cross it, because he wanted his images to always maintain an accurate, TRUTHFUL sense of scale and perspective.

But I digress.

The theoretical possibility of this photo by Peter Lik is very, very weak. Achieving the depth of field, without suffering from diffraction so that you can still make a HUGE print to hang in his gallery, is pretty impossible in the real world, whatever the on-paper calculations say. Anyone who has ever photographed the moon at 600-1000mm will tell you this.

His only hope would have been to shot at an optimal, non-diffraction affected aperture, and re-focus on the moon and the earth separately.

Even then, the lighting and the clouds just give it away. I've spent 15 years photographing moonrises and moonsets, and simply put, this shot is not real. Period.

Jon Dize's picture

You're right of course... silly of me to have even commented. I'll refrain from now on. Promise!

Jon Dize's picture

You're right of course... silly of me to have even commented. I'll refrain from now on. Promise!

Jon Dize's picture

Certainly, I don't have a clue... You're right! My error... Won't happen again, I promise!

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