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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Previous comments
Jean Massry's picture

Fake, the atmosphere at sunset on the East is usually blue or pink haze NOT orange. The crisp edge of the moon and the blurry clouds in front and behind the moon don't look real, besides, I have shot the moon couple of times, physically the moon is behind clouds miles away, for something to look so clear behind the moon is fake, if any clouds to show behind the moon as illusion it would be gradually fading circular light. For the size of the trees to have this proportion of the photo, it must be a Super-telephoto, thus you need to be on equal elevation couple of miles away if there is such a rock (debatable). The tonal colors of the photo don't seem real.

Rex Larsen's picture

Why is this a published story ? What next, “Is the old National Enquirer picture of Bat Boy and President Clinton real ?” Or, “Elvis is alive and on Instagram.”

I think it's a cool image, but it is very obviously a composite. Nothing against it, but they shouldn't pretend it's not a composite.

Emil Stanev's picture

Clouds behind the Moon...seems legit 😆

Juan Osorio's picture

Hey Lee, the most interesting follow up video to this one would be that you guys go to a place like Patagonia with a Phase One 100 MP Achromatic, or A Hasselblad 100 MP with the biggest possible lens, and the sturdiest tripod and actually try to answer all these philosophical questions. Talk to Digital Transitions or Fotocare in New York.
I know you will have a lot of people watching the field report. Conversely, ask people with big telescopes their opinions and try to get an image like this with a telecope.
I personally think this image is a composite, but wouldn't it be cool if actually prove it instead of just talking?

Tilo Gockel's picture

hmmm , a quick forensic check with the great tool from shows this result (see below). My interpretation would be, in my eyes, there is an extreme image manipulation going on. Other shots I tried with a supermoon in them did not show such strong signs. My 2 cents, -- Tilo

Tom Robbrecht's picture

Thanks for the link to that site, really interesting image forensics. I'm not debating that the Lik image is clearly a composite but I ran a couple of my composited images through that site, some of them with extensive cloning and nothing showed up in the analyses. Either I'm a master retoucher or the analyses are not that reliable.

Stacking image (like u do with macro )+he is above the clouds (hence clear haze), +the light on the trees coming from above as result of reflection of the sun bouncing of the atmosfear. the sun position is just almost below the cloud lines (hence the reason of shadows and shades in the clouds ..

Ricardo Rocha's picture

Great work together guys, great team, keep up the good work
I think this are two shots together, personally believe that this image it may be nearly possible to capture unless if you take the moon shot with a super telefoto lens and in another shot the mountains and then blend them together.

Andy Pearson's picture

I'm not sure if anyone has made this suggestion, but perhaps the rocks and trees are actually a well-crafted model or diorama that has been placed in the correct place after the camera has been set up. This also means that it would be much easier to light and place perfectly as the moon appears.

Then dof would certainly be impossible

Adeel Jawed's picture

It has to be a composite. I am not an expert by any stretch of imagination, but I love to take landscape shots and I have shot a couple of moon shots. The exposure for the moon can be achieved in camera, see my example of SOOC image. This was shot on an OMD-EM5 with a Pentax SMC 200 F4 + 2x teleconverter. it is a 1/30th at iso 400 and i believe i was at f 5.6 on the lens. However, the exposure levels for the Moon and the foreground do not match in PL's image. Secondly, when the moon is behind clouds, it never has the perfect edge that we see in the above photo. The edges of the moon are always blurred to a certain degree due to light cloud cover. See my second image, this is also SOOC, shot on a Lumix GX1 with the same lens but with a vivitar 3x teleconverter, which strongly impacts sharpness. this was a 1.0 sec exposure at iso 500. So I believe, parts of this image have been captured in camera, but then with quite a significant expertise in Photoshop have been composited.

Paul Adshead's picture

Thoroughly enjoyed the video guys, more debating videos please!

Michael Comeau's picture

Could it be an in-camera double or triple exposure of some kind?

Also, why don't you guys try to recreate a similar photo? Would be a fun video.

I've got plenty of examples of what the moon looks like when aligned with various earthly objects, at various heights above the horizon. A very talented and dedicated photographer named Jennifer Khordi has done even more work, definitely look up her work if you're curious!

The bottom line is that no moon photo has ever looked this crisply detailed and outlined; it's BLATANTLY a fake photo.

Mark Guinn's picture

We're debating whether or not this could really be one SooC shot from Peter Lik, but have we completely missed the irony that he needs a "post-processing team" to create his SooC images?

user-134633's picture

When we were in Vegas last October, the sales person at the Peter Lik gallery inferred that one of the lunar images displayed there was a composite. I wonder if he still works there. I was unaware that the Lik Gallery had a sign anywhere saying the prints on the walls were all magically produced inside a camera. If that is a major selling point, I think they have an issue with more than just this image.

Mark Guinn's picture

Chances are, that salesperson is long gone. If he can't keep the "legend of Peter Lik" going, then there's no reason to keep him on payroll. lol!

No doubt, Lik produces beautiful images and the guy really knows the business of "fine art photography." For me, though, I can't really classify any of this as his work or even his artistic talent. Lik threw his artistic integrity out the window when he went corporate and hired entire departments to handle almost every step of the creative process. IMO, when you need a plannng team, post-processing team, sales team, marketing team, etc., it's no longer your personal artistic work, but the artistic work of the team. I don't really think anyone would care (or notice) if he stopped advertising his company's work as SooC. Honestly, his company's target market for the product is people with more dollars than sense, but there's no need to lie about it.

OK, I finally got around to watching your video.

First, I have it on good authority that the sales reps in Lik galleries DO in fact conceded "highly edited" now, ...if they think they're just being trolled by experienced photographers who are obviously not potential buyers anyway. They may ONLY pull the "yup, totally real, actually happened!" if they think you're a wealthy tourist.

So if you want to do that fun experiment of yours during WPPI, you should have two people go into the gallery separately, and one be the "know-it-all" photographer, while the other pretends to be just some wealthy dude who just won big at poker. (Better yet, get someone to bring their grandma to WPPI, and get HER to pretend she just won big at the slots!)

Secondly, regarding the image itself:

YES, you can achieve correct exposure on the moon and a foreground using the latest digital cameras, and YES, Lik has used a Nikon D800e in the past, and probably got the D850 as soon as it came out too. However the shadows in this image are still way too clean to be just a "recovered shadows" single exposure. Because even though these cameras can now go ~14 stops from white to black, ...the near-black side of the image will still appear like it was shot at ISO 3200, 6400, or worse. So without any doubt whatsoever, despite it being possible to match ambient exposure and the clouds, I guarantee you this shot would have to be bracketed for exposure by at least 3-5 EVs, in order to capture such clean shadow detail. If this scene actually happened in the field, that is. Bracketing is something even some "purist" landscape shooters do, though.

The same thing goes for focus. Especially if you're shooting on a DSLR like the D850, which crams 45 megapixels into its small-ish sensor, and has no AA filter: you simply would not be able to shoot at f/22 or f/32, and still get the crisp detail that Lik needs for his huge gallery prints. Instead, you would shoot this scene at f/8 or f/11, and you would focus stack. Again, something that even a "purist" would accept as OK.

Like the DOF, the actual scale is also an issue that would absolutely require focus stacking. I'll attach an image I captured of a moonrise over some very tall trees, and you can imagine the scene being photographed even more telephoto, yet with even smaller trees present. The foreground in Lik's photo would have had to be no more than 100-200 yards away from the camera.

By the way, there aren't many lenses that can even shoot the moon this close-up without serious cropping, or a teleconverter; I suspect that a 1.4x converter on the new Nikon 800mm 5.6 would be pretty much your only choice to resolve the moon so perfectly on a demanding sensor like the D850.

Speaking of clarity and super-telephoto resolution, there is simply no way the moon is going to appear this perfectly circular and un-aberrated, not until it is rather high in the sky. Look at every other moonrise single exposure out there, and you'll see atmospheric turbulence "wiggling" the edge of the moon, and blurring it just a little bit against the sky behind it. In this image though, the edge of the moon is completely razor sharp. This simply does not happen, not when the moon is at the horizon, not when it is even higher in the sky, ...if you are also shooting at a time of day when there is still ambient light to be had.

But, the dead-giveaway is the clouds, and the shadow of the moon. In the lower left, you can see that in one place the clouds are in front of the moon, yet just a little higher up the clouds clearly pass behind the moon. Then, towards the top on the left, we see the sky go very, very dark, which is simply not the way astronomy works. The shadow of the earth on the horizon actually causes the horizon to be BRIGHTER higher up, especially if you're shooting at a time of day when there is still sunlight shining on the far horizon, which would have been required to illuminate these clouds.

Last but not least, we go to the upper-right corner, where the shadow of the moon is not only visible, but BRIGHTER than the sky behind it. Again, I cannot stress this enough: THIS. IS. NOT. POSSIBLE.

As artwork, this is a beautiful image. He should have added Frodo and Sam, or Bilbo and Smaug, or a (bratty, young) Luke Skywalker, ...and I might have hung this on my wall. But a LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPH?


As long as they are now admitting it’s a composite, I have absolutely no problem with it. I’m sure it’s a beautiful print.

Agreed, but I don't think it's OK if their policy is still to "lie" to people they THINK they might be able to dupe. If they're only conceding that it's a composite selectively, and only because they're tired of being trolled by expert photographers who are NOT potential buyers anyways, then that doesn't count.

I've looked at his FB page periodically, whenever stuff like this comes into the spotlight, and here's the thing: Some of his single exposures, likely made on large format, are gorgeous. However, a lot of his other images are pretty ordinary, or even mediocre.

With that in mind, I think it simply comes down to him feeling compelled to go over-the-top with some of his images, ...and yet pass them off as "real" photographs in his gallery. It goes back to my earlier comment about WHY we as artists want to be called photographers, instead of "digital composite artists" or something. ...It's because we're taking advantage of the human desire to BELIEVE that a photo is real, because that notion makes the image more impressive.

That right there is what I have a problem with. Putting stuff like this in a gallery next to single exposure photographs, and simply not saying anything at all unless you're called out by an annoying know-it-all, is a calculated deception.

But again like I said in my previous comment, we've been combining "real" and "fake" for decades now. That crazy floating rock place in Avatar was based on Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China; Google it!

Therefore, it is high time we start allowing this difference between "real" and "fake" to be more widely disclosed, so that both forms of artwork can find their respective viewership instead of relying on deception, or lies of omission, for the sole purpose of stroking one's ego and getting more "likes", or print sales.

Yep, this is fake. As you noted, the clouds are behind the moon. That was the first thing I noticed. It doesn't matter how good this guy is as a photographer, he can't change reality unless he heavily edits his images.

Also, a bit of astronomy here... The moon is extra sharp. That implies either extremely ideal atmospheric conditions, or several shots at fairly high shutter speeds. The atmosphere is turbulent, especially near the horizon. So it's not easy getting sharp details of the moon. When I shoot the moon, I usually take several shots in a row in hopes to catch a stable moment to get detail. That's when the moon is high in the sky. The depth of field implied by this image tells me he'd have to use a high f-stop number, which would likely slow the shutter down too much to get this kind of detail. But, maybe he was just "lucky"?

Bill Metallinos's picture

There is almost impossible to get CRATERS on the Full Moon During the Moonrise or Moonset.

When the Moon is on Zenith it's less atmosphere , almost ~100km so we can see very easily details of the Moon surface.
But when the Moon is on the Horizon the light goes through almost 600km of atmosphere so there are less details on the astronomical objects....
... Someone could say that the atmosphere was crystal clear and the seeing was superperfect... yeah right if you where on the Atacama desert but here we are "inside" the clouds so there is definitely humidity on the air but we can't see it on the Moon. (the clouds formed inside the humidity, it just physics).

Here is a capture from me with Takahashi Toa130 apo 1000mm f/7.7 Canon eos 6D with image crop. Check out the surface of the Moon. The Shot is on August, with No clouds on the air and humidity almost 60%.

Also check out the Clouds here and the Surface of the Moon
Takahashi Toa130 apo 1000mm f/7.7 Canon eos 40D

One more

-Even so, we know that Full Moon means that the Sun, the Earth and the Moon are all aligned... So when we Have Full Moon the Sun is setting and the Moon is rising (or the opposite). So we got red/orange sky from the sunset with the Full Moon.
But the problem here is that we DONT have Full Moon!! The image is from a Moon a day after the Full Moon(it missing the up right face, the Moon is almost 16 days old on that image and NOT 14,4 days old that the Full Moon is).
That Moon, a 15,5+ days old Moon CANT rise at Sunset but it will rise 40 minutes later with the sky much Darker that the Orange one on that picture.

-But Perhaps the Orange clouds are from the light of the Moon and not from the Sun ok...
...Still the Clouds are over exposure and you can see the smooth trails from them on the button left but the Moon is Standing Still.

Finally, I think It could be done that shoot but it's the Atmosphere the biggest problem.

It's gotta be a composite. There are clouds obscuring the bottom of the moon, but the moon is in front of the clouds at the higher levels. If this were shot on Earth on a cloudy night, then clouds would be in front of the moon.
This photo could only happen on an alien world.

Allan Savage's picture

Not real - no chance. The obvious problems have been pointed out by many previous posts. If Lik cares to prove this is a real image, let him submit his raw/neg to an independent expert and have them assess its veracity. Not going to happen, though - he has too much "reputation" at stake.

I just created an account specifically to respond to some of the comments I read on this story. There are multiple reasons to believe this is a composite (and I do), however, the people who are saying "size & scale" or "closeness" of the moon is the primary reason are wrong. I can say first hand, it is possible to get a composition roughly similar to this. I will preface this with I am an amateur and a novice, but I know it is possible to get a shot where the moon fills the frame, and trees look like this scale (given the trees are a couple miles away). Now in no way do I believe the trees in THIS shot are 2 miles away, because the atmosphere makes the trees ripple like a fun house mirror at that distance. So my opinion is that this started as a more-or-less real composition, and then both the moon and the foreground were then replaced with idealized versions of themselves. (Personally, that choice doesn't even bother me, yet if the artist says otherwise, that does bother me.)

Adam Bolt's picture

Just took a tour through Peter Lik's website... I seriously need to know how to do bad HDR so I can turn my image of a fighter plane into a masterpiece like this one found on his website under the Aviator category, and then find those customers of his that pay stupid money for bad photography! :-)

David Wilder's picture

Great debate in the video and honestly a good debate overall, not just about Liks work but overall. Let me start off by saying I am a Peter Lik fan, I’ve got one of his books and been to a few of his galleries in the US. That being said here is my two cents...

If you want to composite, sky swap, manipulate colours etc. that’s fine. However do so openly and honestly! If you boost the colour intensity, or clone stamp out items, cool go for it, but don’t pass it off as all real, all in camera. That’s the part that bugs me, a lot of photographers including myself will bust their butts to get a perfect landscape shot even if that means going back over and over to get it. Where composite photographers just swap out their sky and maintain its all real. This devalues the photographers work that goes out and does it without compositing. Like if you would compare Liks work to mine his blow mine out of the water and collectors are going to look at his vs mine and say hmmm David must not be that good if Peter got it to look like this in camera.

My point is it makes the struggle that much harder for other lesser known photographers to get any notariety, when the guy in the lime light has falsely represented what is real vs photoshopped. The rest of us look like we don’t know what we are doing. That’s the damage that is done with heavily manipulated images and not being transparent about it.

Now that doesn’t mean I don’t manipulate my images, I do, however I try to only go as far as what the scene looked like in person. We know that cameras can’t capture everything the way it is seen by the human eye so my editing style is to get it to that point. I’ll clone stamp out human influence to the scene (ie trash, footprints, etc) because unless it helps tell the story I think it’s distracting.

As for the photo in question, in my experience there are too many things that make this image look fake to be anything but. My biggest concerns are the atmosphere that seems to be surrounding the moon on the left and top left, if it was in front of the moon (earths atmosphere) we would see softening of moons detail, and if it’s behind...well science. There are other things I am not sure on but could be explained in some ways. In reality though I don’t think anyone could say this isn’t manipulated. If it isn’t then Lik is either the luckiest man alive or is a photography god. Lol

The photos using the moon were taken in different places, so I don't see how the moon could perfectly line up and look exactly the same from different parts of the globe. Would it look identical in Utah, La Jolla, and Austrailia? Just my opinion. On the other hand, every photo has some level of editing- which is fine.

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