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

Opinion? It's a composite.

As far as the same moon in multiple photos: ask an Astrophysicist, the most famous of which being Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The skies don't lie.

great discussion guys, and love the roundtable-surprised no one mentioned Mark Gee. At the 2.59 mark:

Attempt to do a roundtable Skype with Mark if he'd go for it. I'd be keen to see what his composite/tech observations are.

Steven Magner's picture

This image is not nearly as bad as his completely fabricated, reverse milky way, off Scripps Pier.

Michael Rapp's picture

Great Vid with an interesting variety of arguments here, I loved it!
The term with the moon you were searching for is "tidally locked", meaning the moon is forever showing us the same face. Or, in other words, its period of rotation on its own axis is exactly the same as the period of rotation around the eath. Which is one month.
But granted, different points on the earth give you some variation.
A point totally missed (imho) was that thin atmosphere required for clear skies usually is well ABOVE the vegetation line of depicted plants.
Also, the clouds in the background inicate a great level of haze in the atmosphere, wich is totally not affecting the sharpness of the moon.

William Kelly's picture

Lik could end the debate by sharing the ten shots before and after this one was made.

That's the thing. If he REALLY wanted to prove that his shots were real. we'd see BTS video of him out in the field shooting these images. He's certainly that vain, if you watch some of the videos that promote his work, he loves being seen as a heroic figure struggling valiantly against the elements in order to "get the shot".

But, when it comes to actually capturing images like this, ...nothing. There's a reason for that, in this day and age when Vlogging and selfies are so rampant. He CAN'T share anything at all about the creation of these images, because revealing even the approximate location and time would allow people to use apps like TPE or Sun Surveyor or PhotoPills to prove him a liar. That's what happened with the Scripss Pier shot; because he composited the Milky Way in using a completely IMPOSSIBLE version of the Milky Way, for that location and time.

There are plenty large format / big print photographers out there who do have BTS footage of them in the field creating their images. Lik is an artist, sure, but he's an even more skilled, cunning art salesman.

Mokhtar Chahine's picture

I think Peter got inspired by Instagram. So he created something that people would "Like".

Its obvious that this is a composite, If you look at some of his BTS videos, The same scene in the video looks completely different than the output.

Just came back from their gallery with husband who is a portrait photographer. They told us that print is three layered images.

I suspect that if the sales people know that you're a photographer, and if they also suspect that you're not likely to be a customer, they won't try lying to you.

However, I'm still curious to see what happens if some high-roller grandma walks in and plays dumb about photography, while also acting like a potential customer. We might see a different approach from the sale people then. Who knows...


Nico Bulder's picture

This foto is not real. Its impssible to have clouds going behind the moon !!!!!!

Although I think this is a composite, I shoot moons all the time in the evening one and two days before the full moon with light on the landscape and proper exposure on the moon. same with the day of the full moon at sunrise and the day after.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

A lot has been said about technique, etc. So I want to bring another angle. There's a book "Blink. The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking" from Malcolm Gladwell which the first chapter "The Statue That Didn't Look Right" talks about a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC who was sold to a museum after passing every test in the book including electron microscope, electron microprobe, mass spectrometry, X-ray diffraction, and X-ray
But the public could tell at first sight that it was fake. Sometimes thinking too much just gets in the way and trusting your guts is a better call.

When I saw the picture first time it gives me the creeps, all my cells were telling me "fake, fake, fake", and the same happens when you showed the other moon image but even worst that time. That black edge... it looks like someone has actually cut with scissors the moon and paste it.

Thank heaven Ariel Martini left this link to an article that brings sanity to earth again:

At the 6min mark: almost right but not quite. As the moon rises at sunset, the lovely orange clouds will be at the sunset side, not the moonrise side. It’ll be dark there. So what you see in this image cannot happen.

No, the moon can rise within sunlit clouds, if you're shooting a day or two before the actual full moon. It wouldn't look like this, though, because the sky doesn't go from light to dark bottom-to-top, it actually goes dark to light, because it's the shadow of the earth rising up the opposite horizon.

See the timelapse at the very end of this video here, to watch how the shadow of the earth works on the Eastern horizon at sunset:

About that photo:


It's written that location where it's taken is KODACHROME BASIN STATE PARK, UTAH. (latitude 37.517626)

You can't get that vertical right shadow on the moon from that latitude. This should be a fading moon and the shadow should be around the upper right corner (depends on the season). To get that shadow you should be quite to the north during the summer and I doubt that it will be dark at that point. So even without all the arguments above it's quite fake to me.

The Bella Luna image which has been referred to looks (a) even more fake and (b) even more ghastly.

Adam Simmons's picture

Why is the lede "Can this Photo by Peter Lik Possibly be Real?" instead of "Peter Lik tried to pass off altered photo as SOOC."

Kostas Harvatis's picture

Those of us who have shot with 1000mm know that this is not real.

Ben Saunders's picture

From the many “I don’t know, but...” statements in the video, sounds like you guys need to find an expert (Peter Lik? ;)) to make a moon photography tutorial. Ha!

My biggest indicator that this is likely a composite is that the clouds are almost all BEHIND the moon. Impossible in “real life” to have that.

Dennis Maisel's picture

In no way this was done in camera. It's a composite. I have a friend who worked for Peter Lik here in Vegas. He has a bunch of photoshop gurus in the backroom doing his processing. He gets back from a trip, picks his shots and turns them over to his photoshop back room guys. He tells them what he wants his final image to look like. End of story. From your video I have no doubt this moon was shot under totally different conditions and on a totally different day for all the other shots he uses it in.

Nevermind - it's been said. Once the clouds were a replacement why does the rest even matter? It's an obvious composite.

Michael Brown's picture

I personally am turned off by such images. This in my opinion is art and not photography.

Christopher Eaton's picture

Bottom line ... compositing for the purpose of capturing all of the elements in a scene to account for depth of field, dynamic range, etc. is still photography (i.e. HDR and nightscapes); but compositing elements from different times and places is not photography, it is photo art, and ethically it should be labeled as such.

There is no way this is not a composite.

Let's look at his work titled "Bella Luna". The shadow side of the moon is unaffected by the earths atmosphere? I don't think so, bud. Physics and light science proves that the light toned atmosphere will affect all shadow area between camera and subject. Compare the darkness of the void of space next to the shadow side of the moon, which is completely in shadow, with the shadow side of the moon. The shadow side of the moon cannot possibly be darker than the void of space and therefore should appear close to the same tonal values when photographed... but it's not... the shadow side of the moon is darker than the sky while being effected by the same atmospherics. It's a composite. Period.

Daniel J. Cox's picture

I personally think there is no way this is real! The technology does not exist to accomplish this in camera. It's FAKE. Producing an illustration is not against the law but Lik should not be let off the hook for claiming this is real. He's an Illustrator not a photographer and this is just one more prime example.

Composite, for sure. The moon is never grey when at the horizons, but yellow/red/orange. That moon was shot later in the evening.

So the Thomas Kincaid of photography gets caught in a composite? I'm shocked, shocked!

The lack of atmospheric refraction should be a dead giveaway. Also, the background sky illumination is so far off that it's not even funny. When the moon is rising after sunset, which is the only possible scenario when the moon is three days past full (as it is in this picture) the sky towards the horizon is darker than it is higher up.

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