Fake Fake Fake: The night sky offers an unlimited source of markers (stars, constellations, milky way…) that never lie about the time of year and location in the world you took the picture from. You don’t even need to be a professional astronomer or to double-check RAW files to prove it. Tools like Stellarium or the StarWalk app can help you verify your point within seconds. In the wake of National Geographic’s manipulated picture controversy raging over in internet in the past few days I wanted to take a deeper look at the pictures published. The goal here was to try and determine if Moon’s pictures were manipulated based on the undeniable science of astronomy.
This picture can only be a panorama and not a single exposure. To be able to capture the whole span of the southern hemisphere milky way setting, you would need a fish-eye lens that would distort the foreground. In this image a specific warping mode was used during the stitching process creating a bent milky way instead. However what is most noticeable about the picture is the milky way itself. While its position and curvature are definitely possible at the location it was taken (Botswana), its overall shape and look is irrefutably unnatural. Some parts of the milky way were quite obviously cloned several times, probably to make it look more impressive.
The caption says that this picture was taken in the famous Quiver tree forest in Namibia. However sharp eyes or people that have been to that place will realize that the sky does not match the foreground. For starters in real life there is visible light pollution in several directions around the forest and not of this is visible here on the horizon. However the most compelling evidence is to have our own galaxy oriented this way. It is simply impossible in the southern hemisphere! You can perhaps recognize NGC 7000 (North American, Pelican nebulae, Sadr region), the bright star Vega and Polaris, which would be located above the frame. The North Star Polaris can never appear above the horizon below the equator as a rule! The Cygnus part of the milky way, if visible, usually points downwards. All these elements constitute a solid case about the photograph being, in fact, a composite where the foreground was taken in Namibia and the background sky somewhere else in the northern hemisphere, and at a different time of the year.
In this picture the milky way appears over a baobab tree of Botswana. The milky way appears to be completely cloned out around the Eagle and Shield constellations, which can never happen in real life. In the upper right-hand corner we can also discern either the Large Magellanic Cloud or the Small Magellanic Cloud completely out of place. This underlines a heavy cloning manipulation in the picture.
In this picture seemingly taken in Namibia again (Quiver tree in the foreground), we can see an upright milky way across the top right-hand side. Again the milky way can simply never appear in this manner in the southern hemisphere. With this orientation and focal length, the ‘Southern star’ (the point of the night sky around which the southern hemisphere sky rotates for a viewer from Earth) would be located approximately within the red circle. However the southern star is right above the horizon in Botswana! So the sky has conveniently been lowered so that the core of the milky way appears in the frame.
In this picture the milky way has blatantly been added in. The shot was taken in Utah. However the difference of luminosity of the milky way and this of the overall background sky don’t add up. When we zoom in and look at the stars in the milky way and outside of it, we can see that they don’t ‘suffer’ from the same aberrations (lens errors that affect the image). The milky way stars appear sharper and rounder while the ones below appear blurry and trailing. This only happens the other way around where corners get affected more than the center. Another disturbing evidence is that the milky way, however in a tangible angle, has its core too high in the sky for the latitude of Utah. Judging by the size of the milky way I would say the shot has been taken using a 14 to 20mm lens. If you are stargazing in Utah, there is no way you can get that much distance between the horizon and the core of the milky way regardless of the time of year.
In this final picture the milky way has been cloned and perhaps added in. It’s quite hard to tell what its real position is because you don’t know which part of the milky way is legit. In the top left-hand corner we can quite obviously discern the Norma region of the milky way. In the top center there is the core, but it’s the other way around! That bright part circled in red should have been well out of bounds on the other side of the dust lane rift. As if this wasn’t enough another clone of the fake core was added in the top right-hand corner. What can also be striking to anyone familiar with astronomy or astrophotography is that there is no atmospheric effect as you get closer to the horizon. If you go back 2 pictures (Quiver Tree portrait), you can distinguish a darker and more colorful layer on the horizon. It’s a natural effect that is always present no matter where on the planet you take a picture from. It’s clear evidence that once again the sky has been quite heavily messed with.
While the problem should not firstly be about these artistic pictures themselves or the photographer who produced them, it should be about how they ended up published by a reputable organization that promotes science and true-to-life ethics. As stated in their own guideline, these pictures would never have made it through the publishing process if they had been correctly spotted. However this raises other questions like why did photographer Moon have to manipulate the pictures and cover it up in the first place? A hint could be hidden within the lines of the article:
‘Lots of places have either old trees or dark skies, but not both. When the two do intersect, the location is often challenging to reach’, Moon mentions.