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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Lee Morris's picture

Lee Morris is a professional photographer based in Charleston SC, and is the co-owner of

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

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!

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.

Looks like he uses the same exact moon in this shot of his. Sorry for the late comment, just watched the video today.

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

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.

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?

Here's a pretty good read that explains how this is possible.

Exactly. See mine, on my facebook page and taken this year (2020) -

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

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.

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?

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

Actually, yes, there are clouds in the space :P

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 ;)

Not saying this is the answer to your question, but it is a compelling argument.

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

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

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.

my grandma would love this photo

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

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.

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.

Love this epic comment from a user: "I clicked the link and regret the half a second I wasted looking at the 1000th "romantic" big moon image. Granted, it's usually a graphic artist who does this, and there's usually a wolf* involved, but wow, that's just bad bad bad."

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?

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.

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


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

Sounds like a plan to me...

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!

Clouds behind the moon :-) mmmm I wonder

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

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*?

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

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?

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.

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


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