5.32 How come famous photographers claim that the Apollo photos are fake?

IN A NUTSHELL: They’re famous photographers, but they’ve always worked on Earth. They have no experience of photography in space, where lighting and lunar soil reflectivity are very different from Earth. Moreover, they were asked to judge digitally altered versions of the photographs instead of the original scans, which show none of the alleged inconsistencies. In one case they were even shown a fake (a montage) instead of a real Apollo photo and they didn’t notice that it lacked the famous crosshairs that characterize all moonwalk photos.

THE DETAILS: In his video American Moon (2018), Massimo Mazzucco argues in favor of several conspiracy theories by consulting experienced photographers: Toni Thorimbert, Aldo Fallai, Oliviero Toscani, Nicola Pecorini and Peter Lindbergh. Mazzucco himself is a photographer. These photographers set forth several technical objections that lead them to claim that the Apollo photographs are fake.

  • Radiation. It is claimed that deep space radiation should have fogged the Apollo films. The photographers support this claim by noting that X-ray machines used in airports would fog their films unless they were shielded in lead containers. But this comparison is wrong, for the reasons already discussed in detail in Section 8.5: the intensity of radiation in space is nowhere near that of an X-ray scanner. It’s like comparing a breeze and a hurricane. Besides, if radiation actually fogged films in deep space, then it should have fogged the films used in the uncrewed American and Russian probes that visited the Moon (Lunar Orbiter 1-5, 1966-67; Luna 3, 1959; Luna 12, 1966). It didn’t.
  • Temperatures. The photographers report their experience with extreme temperatures, noting that freezing cold or great heat would cause their cameras to jam due to thermal expansion and contraction and that their film would become brittle in deep cold. However, their experience is Earth-based. They are used to working in an atmosphere, which becomes cold or hot and conducts cold and heat by contact; this does not happen in the vacuum of space, as described in detail in Section 8.6. Once again, if this claim were true, then the cameras would have jammed and the films would have become brittle in the already mentioned Russian and American uncrewed lunar probes as well. They didn’t.
  • Non-parallel shadows. This claim has already been discussed in Section 5.6; the photographers, probably because they’re not familiar with the lunar environment, don’t appear to consider the possibility that the surface of the Moon might have hollows or rises that alter the apparent direction of shadows.
  • Backlighting. The photographers claim that astronauts and spacecraft photographed in shadow or with backlighting on the Moon should be completely dark. This objection, too, has already been analyzed in Section 5.18 and Section 5.5: in vacuum and in air, backlighting works in the same way and shadows receive light reflected off nearby sunlit surfaces.
  • Hotspots and fall-offs. As already discussed in Section 5.17, the unusual nature of lunar soils tends to produce a brighter glow in the central region of a photograph. This happens in photos taken on the Moon by Chinese probes as well. Moreover, the exhaust of the landing rocket blasts away the surface dust in the areas it strikes, changing the reflectivity of the ground. These photographers are not familiar with lunar geology and with the details of the Apollo missions; they are unaware of these peculiarities and accordingly try to explain them by referring to the studio lighting techniques that they know, speculating that NASA used a spotlight that was able to cover only the central region of the ground. They don’t stop to ask themselves why NASA should have been so penny-pinching as to use an inadequate spotlight instead of a more powerful one that would light up everything well and evenly from a distance.

In summary, these well-known photographers are experts in terrestrial photography and their artistic and technical talent is undisputed on Earth. But they have no experience in space and they are not familiar with the unusual characteristics of the space environment (such as a black sky in full daylight on the Moon, with no light scattered by the atmosphere as occurs on Earth). Accordingly, it is understandable that they reach wrong conclusions.

Their mistake is even more understandable if they are given heavily processed photographs or even fakes. The pictures shown to them by Mazzucco in fact have an artificially exaggerated contrast, and one of them is a montage.

For example, Mazzucco shows them this well-known photograph, and they reply that it must be false because of the fall-off of light in the foreground and background:

Figure 5.32-1. Photo AS11-40-5903 in the version shown by American Moon.

However, this version has a much higher contrast than the original scan, and this exaggerates the small differences in ground brightness. The alleged hotspots and fall-offs are essentially digital artifacts.

Contrast exaggeration is often used for aesthetic purposes, as shown by Figure 5.32-2 (which is not as exaggerated in contrast as the version used by Mazzucco); the actual brightness variations are very small, as shown by the unprocessed scan of Figure 5.32-3.

Figure 5.32-2. Photo AS11-40-5903, processed for higher contrast and more solid blacks.

Figure 5.32-3. Unprocessed scan of photo AS11-40-5903.

The full set of Apollo 11 EVA photographs is available online in processed and unprocessed form.

There’s more. Mazzucco asks Thorimbert, Toscani, Fallai and Lindbergh to examine the picture shown in Figure 5.32-4 and they reply that it’s fake because of its inconsistent lighting.

Figure 5.32-4. Toni Thorimbert criticizes a photograph in American Moon.

None of these expert photographers, however, realize that this is not an actual Apollo photograph: it’s a montage (Figure 5.32-5), already discussed in Section 5.27. None of these experts notice obvious clues, such as the lack of crosshairs and the fact that the Sun has been added digitally with typical computer graphics effects (a 1960s camera would never produce such circular lens flares).

Even more importantly, this montage was created by combining photographs taken with different settings for the areas in shadow areas and for the areas in full sunlight, and therefore creates a misleading perception of the lighting conditions that the photographers have been asked to assess.

Figure 5.32-5. A montage created in 2008 by Ed Hengeveld.

In other words, Massimo Mazzucco asked the photographers whether the lunar photographs are false by giving them a false photo to examine. Their answer is not surprising.