When astronomer Tyler Nordgren first came into contact with astrophotography in the 1990s, he noticed something odd about the postcards, posters and other photographs he came across while living and traveling in the American Southwest.
“One of the big things that caught my eye at the time was the number of photos I saw of the buttes in Monument Valley with a full moon rising behind them,” Nordgren recalled. Nordgren had been to that exact location in Monument Valley, and he knew the moon did not rise in the position shown in the photos. “And even if it were, the shadows on the moon are completely different from the shadows on the buttes.” Even in a time before Photoshop was widespread, it was clear that something was up: the photos were fake.
A dark starry sky is undeniably beautiful, but also remarkably difficult to get a decent photo of. This week, Samsung was criticized for the technology its newer phones use to “enhance” photos of the moon. A user on Reddit, ibreakphotos, conducted an experiment by taking a blurry photo of the moon and then taking a photo of it with their Galaxy S23 Ultra. While the photo was completely blurry, their Samsung device seemed to add details to the image that weren’t there before, such as craters and other markings, leading people to question whether the highly detailed lunar photos people have taken with their Galaxy devices, Real Are pictures of the moon. While Samsung’s moon fake has sparked a debate about the proper way to photograph the moon, the truth is that humans have been faking the night sky for a long time — even without the help of artificial intelligence.
“This is something that comes up quite a bit in the astrophotography community,” says Nordgren The edge.
People “sandwiches negatives, did things in the darkroom”
Many of the night sky photos plastered on social media, included in calendars, or even available as desktop wallpapers involve some sort of alteration. As you can see from this series of photos collated by astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, there’s nothing stopping one from sprinkling in some extra stars that weren’t really there, adding some fancy colors, or even replacing clipping a crescent moon’s toenail with a nice big full one, craters and all. Nordgren, who leads trips in Alaska to see the aurora borealis, says these images even have an effect on the way his guests perceive the wave of light.
“You get these spectacular shots of bright, vibrant greens and reds that aren’t visible to the naked eye under most conditions,” says Nordgren. “It’s a disappointment because it’s not the picture they’re hoping to see… part of me is crying inside because of that.”
And while faking the night sky once involved “sandwiching negatives, doing things in the darkroom,” as Nordgren puts it, in the age of Photoshop it’s become much easier and more common.
“One of the greatest things humans do is replace the sky,” says Lynsey Schroeder, a professional astrophotographer. The edge. “They take the Milky Way from another photo and photoshop it in to make it look like it was there.” An expert would know right away that it is fake. “But to the general public, they don’t know.”
For serious astrophotographers, the generally accepted practice is that “you don’t add anything that wasn’t in the original photo,” says Nordgren.
There is a entire Twitter account dedicated to identifying fake photos of space. It’s a huge problem for photographers, and even National Geographic came under fire after astrophotographers accused it of publishing a “fake” aerial image in 2019. “Sometimes those photos even win awards and get more publicity than legitimate photos,” says Schroeder.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any Real pictures of the night sky out there – there are, and they are great pictures. As Schroeder tells me, she could just go out, take a picture of an environment, and just put a picture of the sky she took earlier in that picture, which saves her hours of work – but that defeats the whole purpose of what she and many other astrophotographers do. “Every time you create content, that’s not there. That’s not photography anymore.”
After all, there is a lot of of planning involved to get the perfect shot of a starry night. To capture this award-winning image of the Milky Way in San Manuel, Arizona, Schroeder camped out all night in the desert, waiting for the Milky Way to get into just the right position. “We left home at 11 p.m. We got to our spot around 12:30 and set up our cameras,” says Schroeder. “I ended up coming home at 4:30 in the morning and you end up there all night waiting to get things right… and that’s what concerns me.”
Thanks to Samsung’s AI processing, we can get a nice image without all that effort, but whether it’s really a photo of the night sky is another question. “You’re adding something that had never been in the picture before,” says Nordgren. “And at that point, can you really say you’re shooting something?”