Spot a fake space photo
Be an instant expert and never be fooled again
If you use social media you will know it is dominated by two types of images – pictures of cats and photographs of anything to do with space. Every platform has thousands of members who enthusiastically share photographs taken through the International Space Station’s windows, by space probes on or orbiting planets and through telescopes. Many are jaw-droppingly beautiful, and when a photo of the northern lights blazing above snow-capped Canadian mountains or a view of a copper-hued eclipsed Moon hanging above a city skyline pops up on our timelines it is always a pleasant surprise, and a welcome distraction from our everyday troubles. If there’s a cat in it, even better…
Unfortunately, many astronomical images posted online are not what they appear to be. Some are genuine, but stolen from other people. Others are composites, impressive but unrealistic combinations of several different genuine photos to make something inaccurate or scientifically impossible. Others still are purely digital creations, produced inside computers with not a camera in sight.
Why do people create, or knowingly share, these fake images? Some do it because they are attention seekers who want to be popular on social media; they want as many ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ as possible. A few do it because they don’t have the equipment, experience or skill needed to create genuine images, or they do but they are too lazy to learn how to take them themselves. Others are looking for financial reward. The media loves breathtaking images of eclipses, a bright shooting star or a display of the northern lights, and sometimes will even pay for them. Unfortunately, many of the people who select images for use have very little, if any, astronomical knowledge, so they don’t know which images are real and which are fake. Some, to be perfectly honest, don’t care; as long as an image is colourful and dramatic they’ll use it.
Before we look at how to spot these fakes and prevent yourself from being fooled – and maybe even unwittingly spreading them more widely across the internet – a short history lesson…
It used to be all but impossible to fake a space image, especially astrophotographs of objects in the night sky. In the old days cameras held coiled-up strips of light-sensitive film which was then processed in tanks of chemicals to produce prints, or slides. Those photos were essentially one offs, printed in books and magazines and couldn’t be copied. Today, sky watchers routinely fire off dozens or even thousands of images in one night without the old worries about running out of film. Now we process our images on our computers, then post them online for others to enjoy – and where any Tom, Dick or wannabe astronomical Ansell Adams can steal them with a click of a mouse or a tap of a finger, either claiming them as their own or using them to make another image.
Today there are so many stolen or faked images out there that you might think spotting one is like looking for a needle in a haystack. No, not quite. In fact, once you know what to look for it’s surprisingly easy to tell if an image is fake or not, especially when it comes to astrophotographs of the night sky.
First of all, it’s a bit suspicious if someone posts an awe-inspiring wide-field image of the night sky, or a stunning portrait of a galaxy or a nebula, out of the blue
without any previous references to taking such photos or having shown previously they have the equipment needed to take them. Most people take poor or even rubbish photos when they start, and the quality of their work improves as they build up their skills. If someone who has never posted even a simple image before suddenly posts an amazingly detailed one, claiming it as their own, you could be forgiven for raising a Spock-like eyebrow and wondering if they’re passing off someone else’s work as their own…
Sadly, more and more experienced astrophotographers are having their work ripped off and claimed by others. Some now put digital watermarks on their images, or hide personal symbols or artefacts in them to make them easy to identify if posted in someone else’s name.
Some images can be identified as fakes because they are astronomically inaccurate or impossible. It’s so easy to add streaks of light to an image in Photoshop that after every meteor shower social media is flooded with images showing a sky full of brilliant shooting stars falling parallel to each other, instead of radiating from a common point as they actually do. I’ve also lost count of the number of ‘stunning images’ people have shared with me showing the Milky Way blazing above a scenic landscape at completely the wrong orientation to the horizon for that time of year, or ten-times brighter and more detailed than it can ever appear in real life. Fakers who snip the Milky Way out of one image and blend it into another assume no one will know what they’ve done, but amateur astronomers can spot a fake image like that from light years away. However, people with no knowledge of the workings of the sky would not spot anything suspicious and share them, genuinely believing they’re real.
Another giveaway: after every total lunar eclipse Twitter and Facebook groan under the weight of faked images showing the pumpkin-hued Moon glowing in a constellation it simply can’t appear in – a sign that the photographer actually made it by cutting an eclipsed Moon out of someone else’s photo and then used image processing software to superimpose it on another photo of a star field showing a constellation nowhere near the ecliptic, the path the Moon follows across the sky.
Such ‘composite’ images are the most common type of fake because they require the least skill to make. Even so, the Moon often trips up the composite-crazy fakers. Dead giveaways of composites include being able to magically see stars through the Moon, spotting that the Moon’s reflection in a lake or on the ocean doesn’t line up with the actual Moon in the sky or actually seeing the Moon shining in front of clouds. Again, all impossible things even an amateur astronomer can tell are just… wrong.
It’s easy to spot another genre of fake astronomical photo because they are simply ridiculous. A hugely popular image, shared after every solar eclipse, claims to have been taken “from the Space Station” and shows an enormous eclipsed Sun shining above the Earth with the Milky Way painted across the sky behind it. Another shows an eclipsed Sun with a blood-red corona surrounding it and an aeroplane flying in front of it, somehow fully illuminated!
Let’s take a walk along an identity parade of fake photos. After studying these you’ll be able to spot your own and avoid sharing these classics with the rest of the world.