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The Moon Under A Cloud

The Moon Under A Cloud

I posted a photo very similar to this on Instagram a few weeks ago. The only difference was that the moon was just clear of the tree tops – same boat in the foreground, same orange hue to the newly risen full moon. The moon is large, but not unusually so for one newly risen against an earthbound object. I was a little surprised, therefore, when one comment appeared on my feed:

FAKE!!!

Now, it’s not fake, and indeed very little has been done to the photo other than a bit of of meddling with the contrast, curves and colour, but those three Cs aside, this is the photo as shot back in Panama. I was therefore not remotely upset, but tried to explain why it was a real photo – all to no avail as my accuser said “the moon is not that big”.

Sigh.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the moon and fakery – and indeed the concept of fakery. Clearly a lot of people mess about with their photos to a greater or lesser degree, and there are a lot of dodgy looking moon shots out there. This in turn leads to suspicion from people who don’t know any better, while at the same time those same people are probably using Photoshop to make their photos look utterly unlike anything that they actually pointed their camera at.

THE POSSIBLE: BIG MOONS

My little brush with my critic (a German teenager) and my total inability to win her round despite pointing her towards myriad (genuine) pictures of giant moons reminded me that until I bought a zoom lens I didn’t know you could take exciting moon shots either. Indeed I cheated once – I was in Washington, and incredibly frustrated that I couldn’t get a shot of the half moon hovering over the Washington Monument the way it looked to my eyes. So I spliced a close up of the moon on to the picture of Washington’s needle, but the result was so cack-handed I was embarrassed and vowed never to do it again.

More scientific people than me will start to talk about the fact that typical cameras, rather than making the moon smaller than it is, are actually showing its true size (well, in the context of its great distance), and it’s our eyes that play tricks and not the other way around. The moon in this picture looks, pretty much, exactly the way it looked to me. The size ratio is locked down by the photo – it’s 2D, and changes in size will effect the subjects of the photo equally – but they’re not equal, as a heavenly body is never going to obey the same rules. If I cropped the picture and then make it bigger, the moon would grow exponentially and look a lot larger than I’ve ever seen it. The trees, on the other hand, would look bigger, but naturally so, because I’ve seen trees close up. In real life, if I’d got closer to those trees, the moon would have continued to look the same size. In PhotoWorld ™, the moon is locked in place, and getting closer to the trees makes the moon loom bigger and bigger.

Therefore, if you’re doubting the veracity of a big moon, just consider if it could have been taken from a long way away* and then zoomed in.

(c) Colleen Pinksi

“The sun is not so big”

I couldn’t actually get my head around this until I read the story of a picture of a boy on a hill top, totally dwarfed by the annular solar eclipse filling the sky behind him. I read that the photo had been a lucky shot taken by someone using a hired lens with scary amounts of zoom (excuse my technical language) sitting about a mile away from the hillside the boy was on. With the lad starting out so tiny, zooming in on him until he was “life sized” did crazy things to the penumbra of the sun behind him.

So, big moons – and suns – are perfectly possible.

* taken from a long way away, cropped etc. You should be able to get a sense of whether this was possible. If the moon is looming large over an otherwise perfectly composed scene (a city street scene, for example) and/or is perfectly clear and doesn’t pixellate even when enlarged, it’s probably fake.

THE IMPOSSIBLE: MOON AND STARS

Danearys Targaryen might have called Khal Drogo her Moon and Stars, but she clearly wasn’t a night photographer. One of the reasons photographers the world over got so terribly excited by the Blood Moon last year (the eclipsing supermoon) was not the colour, but the fact it allowed them to take a photo where both the moon and stars could be shown. It is, basically, impossible to take a picture of the full moon surrounded by stars. The moon is too bright and the stars too dim to get the exposure right. See a moon sitting on a perfectly-composed backdrop of glittery stars? Let’s put it this way – the odds are against it being genuine (perhaps a well placed bit of thin cloud might even things up, but you’ll be able to tell).

Of course, what is genuine? One site recommended taking two shots of the moon – one with an exposure for the moon and a second for the stars – from the same position, then overlaying them. So far, so reasonable. But then they admit that the non-moon exposure will cause the moon to bleed light around it. Their solution? Make your properly exposed moon a little bigger to cover it all.

ISOLATED MOONS

I don’t mean a moon sitting alone in a dark sky – that’s almost certainly going to be real (because why not?), but I’ve seen hilarious attempts at “livening” up a picture by sticking a full moon in it where the moonlight doesn’t affect anything around it and in extreme cases a moon over water with no reflection.

However, what you can get, weirdly, is a moon against a cloudy sky. It looks fake (how can the moon be in front of the cloud!), but thin cloud can look thicker than it is as it reflects a city’s skyglow, with the moon still able to shine through without any clearly discernible effect on its brightness.

AND THAT’S ENOUGH

I’ve gone on too long. Of course, whether any of this matters is entirely subjective, but if it’s the sort of thing that bothers you perhaps this will help you. I’m no expert, just someone who shoots the moon a lot, so if you disagree with anything here please let me know.

A close up of the moon, with the weather vane on the Tower of London silhouetted.

The moon rises behind the Tower of London: close crop zoom. Imagine a full cityscape around it and suddenly the moon seems natural again.