National Geographic Photo Accused of Being Photoshopped, Claims Milky Way Stars Were Cloned

National Geographic Photo Accused of Being Photoshopped, Claims Milky Way Stars Were Cloned

National Geographic is receiving criticism online after posting images of some of the world’s oldest trees under the stars. One of the photos featured within the gallery is being called fake, namely due to a number of the stars in the Milky Way appearing to have been cloned.

An article posted on April 26th to the Nat Geo website includes images by photographer Beth Moon. Featured, are some of the oldest trees in existence. The photos are part of a project titled Diamond Nights. The description reads as follows:

For Diamond Nights, Moon made the transition from film photography to digital capture. It’s a more light-sensitive technique, she says, and results in incredibly vivid images. Planning all her shoots around moonless nights, she wanted each tree to be primarily bathed in starlight, with additional glow from flashlights, for example, as necessary.

Because of the dark conditions, Moon set her camera on a slow shutter speed. This meant standing by for wind, and pausing during gusts. “With a 30-second exposure you don’t want the branches shaking,” she says. “So there was a lot of downtime.”

 The post was well-received on social media too, with the Facebook post acquiring over 23,000 likes. But one image, captioned “Baobab trees are silhouetted against the Milky Way galaxy in Botswana,” has been the subjective of much criticism.

Despite being presented as long exposures, it appears a portion of the image was cloned, so as to enhance the number of stars, and create a false Milky Way.

Neither National Geographic nor Moon have commented at the time of writing.

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44 Comments

Ian Oliver's picture

I believe there may be another issue in that the Milky Way is apparently not visible from where she says the photo was taken.

Simon Patterson's picture

I grew up in Botswana. Trust me, the milky way is highly visible there.

trust a no who know person from the internet. yes, lets trust you

or you can Google it instead, Mr. Skeptismo.

Xander Cesari's picture

PetaPixel has a good breakdown. This isn't the only image that's composited. Other images of hers have entire sky swaps (from the wrong hemisphere), multiple milky ways in one image, and other fun edits.

https://petapixel.com/2019/05/10/scientific-errors-in-those-nat-geo-milk...

Jon G's picture

Personally I take a very liberal stance on digital manipulation - as long as the creator is honest about it. So I understand that people get a bit bent out of shape if photographers misrepresent how an image was put together - especially for an outlet like NatGeo which typically has strict standards concerning photographic “purity”.

However, starting a Facebook group to protest an image by another photographer and making the absurd statement that it “is unacceptable that photos are published where different parts have been cloned with Photoshop” - as happens countless times every day across all media - just shows how much time these gatekeeping trolls have on their hands.

Paolo de Salvatore (named in the screenshot at top) - who appointed you arbiter of what is acceptable or not? What a douche. If you’re going to get outraged, make sure it’s about something important.

Xander Cesari's picture

In this case I think it is cut and dry. National Geographic is not an artistic publication but a journalistic one. They have a responsibility to reality and ethically representing it. But even you add the caveat that the creator should be honest about it. This photographer wasn't, she submits her images are all reality. By your and NatGeo's (supposed) standards it is unacceptable that they were published.

Also no one started a Facebook group to protest. National Geographic posted the images on their own Facebook and were quickly called out for it in the comments.

Jon G's picture

Someone at Natgeo screwed up, that’s for sure, and I read the photographers response which was a cringeworthy lie/sob story intended to save face (but only made the original lie worse!).

I just don’t get the level of outrage. It’s uncalled for in the case of a Milky Way shot. If the photographer was misrepresenting or staging a scene or event to push a political or social agenda, or for propaganda purposes - that would be serious. A Milky Way shot? Come on. These shots are clearly intended to be artistic. They’re not accurate depictions of the cosmos, and anyone looking at them with that expectation is being foolish IMHO, Natgeo or no.

Xander Cesari's picture

I don't shoot astro but I gotta think that there are a lot of astrophotographers who are going out night after night to nail the exactly perfect exposure, learning the depths of their gear to best capture it, and now someone basically cheated their way into one of the highest profile publications around. I can see how that would annoy the shit out of a lot of photographers.

Jon G's picture

This story caught my attention because I just spent 8 days shooting astrophotography in Big Bend NP in Texas. I went out for several nights, hiked 12 miles round trip with 2000ft elevation gain to the South Rim with 30 lbs of gear, and sat alone in pitch dark cold conditions with 20mph wind gusts all night long, with two cameras shooting hundreds of frames of both star trails and the Milky Way. After all of that, I also had to drive 75 miles back to my hotel after sunrise. I know what it's like to work hard for a night sky photo.

I did all of this to get as-close-to-perfect Milky Way exposures and star trails as one can get with consumer camera gear shooting from a land-based platform. I planned this shoot for months.

After all this, I freely admit that I intend to blend these night skies that I just went to great lengths to capture into foregrounds and nightscapes captured at other times and locations. I'm deliberately building up a library of re-usable night skies so that I don't have to go through all this trouble every time I want to make a compelling night scape image. To me it just seems logical - unless you move hemispheres or shoot at radically different times of year, the night sky looks pretty much the same to the layperson.

Unlike most of the people bitching about what this photographer did without ever having done this kind of photography themselves, I can totally relate to the desire to combine a compelling foreground from one location with a compelling night sky from another. What I don't like is the lying about it. I am happy to call my composites just that - composites.

TBH Beth Moon doesn't annoy me as much as all the outraged armchair-critics picking apart her images. Sure, she set a bad example that shouldn't be followed, but I think it's important to keep this relatively minor deception in perspective as far as photographic faux-pas go.

Andre Goulet's picture

You're so right. By the logic delivered within this outrage, astrophotographers can't use stacking at all! If it was photojournalism of historical events, that would be a different story. Almost by definition, astrophotography is strictly an art form. Unless you're NASA lol

Lying about it though makes it all disingenuous. Wearing it proud as "this is my art" would have made this moot.

And NatGeo can't likely win these days. Back to photo stacking... should they just ban that? What about the next technique? Or increasing vibrancy, or contrast, or....?

This and other photos from the photographer in question are not merely engaging in correction, or enhancements revealing or highlighting that which wouldn't otherwise be visible, but wholesale fakery.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Hello sir. I believe it's a case of 'representation' and 'association'. NatGeo is known for their factual, accurate work. Even the name - National Geographic - evokes a sense of scietntific, professional and credible association and work along with ethics. The mere fact that a photographer would do this stabs into the very heart of NatGeo's representation. And her being associated with the company only leads to.....well we already know. Perhaps this is the true crux of the matter.

Hey John G, Nat Geo caused an uproar 37 years ago by not only digitally moving the pyramids for their cover but the photographer also reportedly paid to have people ride the camels across the frame:

http://www.alteredimagesbdc.org/national-geographic

What really peeves me is the blaming of the unnamed "lab technician" in steve mccurry's case and now the unnamed "intern"

to recap on the mccurry photoshop scandal: "He said the issue in the Cuba image was, “a change that I would have never authorized,” and “the lab technician who made the mistake does not work with me anymore.”

While Mccurry said he "would “rein in his use of Photoshop” going forward to remove any confusion." National Geographic director of photography Sarah Leen told TIME that this type of cover photo edit was “32 years ago, a different era,” and says that it “would never happen now.”

I guess she was wrong and history is repeating it self again and again.

This is why people are creating FB groups.

Jon G's picture

What I think is objectionable is the lying and cover-ups. On that we agree 100%. The problem with a lot of successful people is that they lose control of their ego at times. It’s always best to just fess up - or better yet, disclose things up front - and defuse the issue. Doubling down with more lies and blame-shifting just makes them look like an even bigger jerk.

Jon G, what is very upsetting is that using these techniques to produce the kind of work that gets noticed and published by Nat Geo is effectively cutting ahead in line of many other photographers who work hard and who play by the book and would be honored to have their work published in Nat Geo. She had 14 years to capture the truth and 20 min to botch it up in Photoshop.

This photographer not only did not fess up but stooped so low as to mention:

she bookends the "apology" with her father's funeral.. "I am late to this discussion as I am attending my father’s funeral. " "With the passing of my father I am reminded to try to concentrate on a bigger picture, which I hope to do going forward."

she is "not much for technical expertise. For me, it’s not about the equipment." - i guess for her it's more about post processing. "makes her exhibition prints exclusively with the platinum/palladium process" . Isn't the Platinum/Palladium process pretty technical?

"I also usually take my time producing work, but this work under starlight was the exception." - RIght...

"With three back to back trips and a book deadline I enlisted the help of an intern seven years ago. During her 6 month term she helped to batch process images and she also hand-stitched the panoramic shot in question. She claims she did not use the clone tool. To be clear, I am not passing the blame on to her. My name is on it and I take full responsibility." - So describes the intern did all the post processing, says the intern "claims"(casting doubt) she did not use the clone tool and then backs up and states she is not blaming the poor intern.

"I did not intentionally try to hide anything and I apologize" - "not intentionally"?

National Geographic says it "has a strict policy against photo manipulation, and we have initiated an investigation to confirm whether the images comply with our policies." yet states "We have removed the images and related story pending the outcome of our investigation. This step does not mean we have determined that the images do not meet our standards, as we are unable to make a determination at this time."

Exactly what is holding up that "determination"?

Jon G's picture

I get what you’re saying, but don’t discount the work that’s required to create compelling images even with image blending techniques. I personally find that such images can have as much value as single frames captured faithfully in camera. The snobbery about this stuff bothers me - the fiercest criticism is usually coming from people who are afraid of experimenting with new techniques and methods because they’ve stopped learning and want photography to stand still for them.

Admittedly this example was a pretty crude chop-up cloning/warping job probably not worthy of publication, but I do think composites could have a place in photographic publications like Natgeo, as long as they are identified as such.

Lying to get ahead is never OK, but it’s an obvious fact that life isn’t fair, and playing “by the book” is rarely rewarded in our culture - as much as we might want it to be.

simple fact is she got caught and now making a whole lot of excuses. i am not against experimenting and the collective anger is not 'snobbery" there is a venue for this kind of work but not in nat geo as they apparently have "standards"

i learn something everyday about photography and usually it is about patience to capture a true moment and not cutting corners using an adobe subscription.

i take offense when another photographer tries to pull the wool over our eyes and then blames someone who was probably underpaid if they were eve paid at all.

I play by the book and in the end one of the biggest rewards is to have the respect of your peers as someone who tells the truth using a camera.

Jon G's picture

Like many photographers, from your comments you seem a little preoccupied with “truth”, to be honest. That’s the snobbery - intentional or not - that I’m talking about. In my experience, seeking to only present “truth” - as if there’s only one way of perceiving the world - is a bit restrictive, and not really what photography or art in general is about. Claiming an image as being objectively “true” or “real” as if that makes it better is kind of meaningless - they’re all manipulated to some degree either by the method of capture itself, the lens, the camera circuitry, the RAW software, or the printing process.

If people just got upset with the lying, then we’d be in agreement and there’s be nothing to debate. Instead, I think most of the commentators seem more upset with the fact that this photographer crossed some arbitrary line that is set by Natgeo about what editing is allowed and what is not, and what is “real” photography in their mind.

Don’t get me wrong, this photographer seems like a total ass, and a snob themselves for bragging about platinum/palladium process and “hand-stitching” as if that’s superior also. You see such arrogance all the time among pros.

The fact is these composites probably tell a better story than if they had been single frames captured at a single time and place. The lying sucks, but not the desire to inspire and create art.

Jon, not sure why it is so hard for you to understand why people are being "snobs". National Geographic has certain rules in place and as a business they have a right to set standards of what is allowable in their pages and website. Their readers also have the expectation that what they see is real based on Nat Geo's standards of truthfullness. Nat Geo is not Photoshop World or an art gallery. You can go argue all you want about raw software, lenses, printing but you are missing the point.

Jon G's picture

We'll have to agree to disagree. Natgeo can of course set whatever standards it wants, and enforce them. I just think it's appalling every time all these armchair critics come out of the woodwork to judge another artist and get outraged over something so trivial and arbitrary.

Again, if people were just upset about the dishonesty of these pictures, that would be one thing. But instead their criticism is wrapped up in a lot of prejudice and snobbery about what constitutes "real" photography, and for me that invalidates their argument to a large degree.

Jon/Beth, You "agree to disagree" then jump right back to your tired old argument. You are arguing that a book that is fiction should be placed in the non-fiction section and that those who object are "snobs".

There is nothing "trivial and arbitrary" about photoshopped images showing up in one of the world's premier photo magazines. No one is arguing that her photos should not be in an art gallery.

Do you consider the use of photoshop warp and liquify to remove belly fat, rolls, tighten stomach as "real" photography?

Andre Goulet's picture

So, is photo stacking "keeping it real?"

Yes, why not? The content is legitimately present, it's simply not visible to the naked eye. This photographer inserts material that was never there in any way shape or form.

Andre Goulet's picture

But the camera never saw it when you took a single picture, so you have to do manipulation with a tool to make it work. The point of my conversation is simply "where's the line, and who draws it?" I do get what you're saying about adding material that never was there, and for me that's an easy line to define, but there are all kinds of lines that COULD be drawn that would discount millions of photos from being called 'real' by anybody. For example, Karsh did a ton of manipulation in the darkroom to achieve his results. So, neither the eye nor the camera ever saw what we see in his final prints.

This is a tough line to draw and will continue to get tougher as we move forward. I believe we'll end up much like the film industry with their whole "Documentaries are not fiction, some movies use fiction to make a documentary more interesting but don't call themselves documentaries, then there is pure fiction" system, which would be a good thing.

You are missing the point. A microscope can reveal an image otherwise unseen by the eye, but it is representing something actually present. If it cut and pasted a picture bacteria into the image that would be fabrication and falsehood. A flash can reveal that which is invisible to the eye or camera, as can an x-ray or ultraviolet light. The distinction is between representing something actually present, via whatever technique, and FABRICATING that which never existed.

Andre Goulet's picture

I'm not missing that point at all - and what you stated I'm in complete agreement with. I'm simply stating that if you had to manipulate something to get the photo, anything - in the darkroom or the digital equivalent, photo stacking, is it real any longer?

For example, when you shoot multiple shots for photo stacking, things have moved between shots, so the stacked final product isn't an actual representation of what was there as if it was one photo. So, technically, the final result is a manipulated photo.

And the point to that question, pertinent to this discussion, is "who decides where that line is?"

People should just use the word 'documentary' when it represents real life, and call it 'art' when it's been manipulated. Super simple, easy standards for people to comply with for submissions, competitions and journalism.

Rod Kestel's picture

She obviously not the first person to be sprung spicing up their image. I had a half hearted go at compositing a star shot recently but it was a bit fiddly. Also I don't shoot for National Geo.

BTW your moon in the Northern Hemisphere is the wrong way up. So when I see a photo in Australia, I think crikey (yes, we do use that word sometimes), can't you get a proper moon?

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

The night should have been moonless but then Moon came and ruined the photo.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Everything is a lie!
Yes, even this statement.

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