Faked Apollo photos


Apollo Investigation

‘Shadows’ in the Lunar Sky?

by Leonid Konovalov
Associate Professor Camera Department, Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK)

For years one particular Apollo 17 photograph has been the subject of much discussion concerning the way in which it was generated – an Apollo astronaut on the Moon standing by the US flag (Fig.1).

Figure 1. Apollo 17 astronaut on the Moon GPN-2000-001137

According to the Apollo record this photograph depicts astronaut Harrison Schmitt on the Moon adjacent to the US flag, above which is an image of the Earth. But this picture is is demonstrably a professionally planned composite image. The astronaut, the flag and the image of the Earth are all arranged in a triangular fashion.

It should be noted that the second astronaut taking this picture did so ‘blind’, in other words, he was unable to actually see or assess this composition in order to be sure it was what he wanted. And since the viewfinder was omitted from this Hasselblad 500 EL70 lunar surface camera (fitted with a 60mm Biogon lens), there was no way he could look through a viewfinder.

In general the camera was attached to a bracket on the astronaut’s chest, but in order to accommodate the three subjects of this image, it was necessary to take this picture from an extremely low angle. So whether attached or hand held, the photographer would have had to virtually lie on his back, with his life support backpack (PLSS) pressing into the lunar soil. Of course, such reservations, of themselves, do not imply that this image is a fabrication. NASA-propagandists will produce counter arguments showing that such a compositional coincidence can be achieved after several attempts, and they will then refer to other less successful images taken near the same place (Fig.2).

Apollo 17 flag
Figure 2. Series of consecutive Apollo 17 images with the flag

"The low angle", Apollo supporters state, "can be obtained by inclining backwards and leaning sideways." Since no one has ever tested whether it is possible to incline backwards wearing the Apollo lunar EVA spacesuit to achieve such a very low angle without falling over, all the pros and cons of this possibility are pure speculation. Nor has anyone attempted to obtain such a low shooting angle using a full-height dummy astronaut.

However, suggestions of fakery are not exclusively dependent on either this too low an angle of shooting or on such a professionally-composed picture, but are based on an entirely different reason. If the brightness of this image is increased in a graphics editor, strange angular ‘shadows’ appear around the astronaut (Fig.3).

Figure 3. When the image brightness is increased artifacts are revealed that look like shadows

"Where could such shadows come from in the sky area?" "Perhaps there is no 'lunar sky' behind the astronaut, but simply a photographic studio backdrop, with the astronaut's shadow cast upon it."

Since I happen to know the way this image was obtained, I will show that the angular areas behind and to the side of the astronaut are not shadows at all. And here I will use the term ‘blackness’ rather than ‘shadow’.

Furthermore, as someone who has been teaching the subject of “Photographic Processes and Photographic Materials" for more than 25 years at the University of Cinematography, it is perfectly clear to me that one needs to search for proofs of fakery in the other half of the picture – not where the astronaut is located, but where the flag is positioned.

I have no objections to the blackness behind the astronaut – this is just natural blackness. But the background behind the flag is totally unnatural – it is purple-violet. Behind the astronaut the background is black, and behind the flag it is purple. What does this mean? It indicates that the astronaut and the flag were shot with different backgrounds. And therefore the photograph itself is a composite of two pictures superimposed one onto another. What could be taken for the contours of the shadow is in fact the border of a layer mask that separates one element from the other. In compositing an image where two or more elements are involved it is necessary to mask out the areas that are not required in the finished result, so a layer mask is used to separate one element from the other.

Generating the Image

So, let's trace the method of creating this picture step by step. The astronaut was shot separately in front of a black background – this is the first image (Fig.4).

astronaunt segmentFigure 4. Astronaut element of the composite

The second image is the US flag and its reflection in a spherical mirror. In the second image there is also a partial ‘circle’ of the Earth above the flag (Fig.5).

Two segments
Figure 5. The two photo elements

Then the second image is cut off from one side so that the reflection in the spherical mirror can be superimposed on the astronaut's helmet and thereby not block other significant details of the first picture. A broken line is obtained (Fig 6).

flag segment
Figure 6. Contours for cutting out the second part of the image

This broken line, along which the second image is cut out and consists of several segments. Segment "A" is the left border of the image. The upper left corner of the second image should be exactly in the upper left corner of the first picture. Horizontal and vertical lines are used to control the skew. Segment "B" is the cut out with a safety margin for the antenna (Fig.7).

Segents identified
Figure 7. Each segment of the cut-out line has its purpose – (hidden compositional right triangle added, intersecting at point C)

Segment "D": from the spherical mirror only the flag reflection is cut out. The rest of the mirror is removed. Segment "E" is a line running along the astronaut’s space suit. It is cut off with a margin, so that the second picture does not unintentionally cover part of the space suit.

The most interesting segment is "C", a sharp angle resting against the helmet. This is a registration point. Registration marks are used in printing houses for precise alignment and for combining monochromatic images (Fig.8) into one full-colour picture (Fig.9).

Colour layers
Figure 8. CMYK monochrome images (cyan, magenta, yellow and black)
Combined cmyk
Figure 9. Full colour image obtained by combining the four colours – some inaccurate registration is visible, above the door for example

In order to precisely combine the yellow partial image with the partial purple (magenta) and blue (cyan) images, anchors or printers registration marks are positioned outside the picture area in the margins – small circles with crosshairs (Fig.10). These crosshairs are an indication as to how well the colours overlap. These marks are then cropped (cut off) in the finished work, or, as is sometimes the case on packaging, are hidden under glue overlaps.

Registration marks

Figure 10. Printers registration marks used in files for printing or compositing

So the sharp angle in the image at "C" is an anchor point, the control indicator to enable these two images to be accurately aligned (or overlapped). An indication of the optimal alignment of the two images is confirmed when this sharp angle touches the helmet at its apex (Fig.11).

Figure 11. Overlapped photo elements

And here is the finished image with the brightness increased, the border on which the second photo is cut is clearly visible. It then becomes very obvious that this picture is a composite – a combination of two photographic elements taken at different times under different circumstances.

Why does the background of the flag element become purple? Because the area behind the flag isn’t the blackness of space – it’s not even a studio backdrop made of black velvet. In the background is a special retro-reflective screen composed of a large number of minute glass beads. This screen material (also used in road signs) is called Scotchlite.

The Front Projection Technique

In previous investigations I have demonstrated that the main method of creating lunar surface still images was by deploying the technique of front projection. The production of these images would have taken place in a large studio where a transparency with a view of the lunar mountain backdrop was projected onto a 30-metre wide projection screen background. The stills photography and filming were then carried out from the same place, precisely where the slide projector was located. Since no one knew for sure how lunar mountains looked from the surface of the Moon (through a telescope from Earth we always see them from above) a lunar mountain backdrop had be generated through photography taken by a robotic probe (for example, Surveyor) and then transmitted back to Earth.

Nor is it necessary to actually land a man on the Moon to obtain an image of an astronaut against a moonscape. Such a picture can be easily produced by special effects photography and post-production methods. The essential components of the film set are to 1) distribute material simulating lunar soil over the studio floor for the foreground, 2) project an image onto the background screen, and 3) place the astronaut(s), the rover, the LM etc., in the scene.

A projection screen which looks like a white fabric, as is used in cinema theatres, was not used for the front projection technique for two reasons. Firstly, it disperses light uniformly in all directions, so that for all viewers in a theatre looking at the screen from different angles, the screen seems to have the same brightness. But such diffuse scattering of light in all directions means the brightness of the screen cannot be very high.

Even in modern theatres the screen brightness is such that if you want to take a picture of the screen, for example with a digital camera, then you have to set the film speed at about 2,000 ISO. However, at the end of 1960s, when Kodak was manufacturing a colour film with a speed of just 160 ISO, this film speed wouldn't have got a good enough exposure when projecting onto the very much larger backdrop screen required for these Apollo images.

The second reason why a white screen isn't used in composite photography is because an actor or object in front of the screen needs to be brightly illuminated, as on a sunny day. If even a faint light is turned on in a cinema theatre, the entire screen will be affected, and the screen image will fade. That's why a screen of Scotchlite is used in front projection.

In this regard a screen of special retro-reflective Scotchlite material operates in a very particular way. Each of the minute glass beads of this retro-reflective material works like a tiny mirror and, according to the laws of refraction and reflection, 95% of the light returns to the direction of its source. if you stand at that point, the brightness of the Scotchlite screen will be almost 100 times higher than that of a standard white screen. If you point a slide projector at such a screen, then virtually all the reflected light will return to that point. So this is where the camera is placed. And that’s why Scotchlite is used in front projection.

The slide projector and the camera must be located exactly on the same axis. Since in this case the camera covers light from the projector, a simple solution is for a semi-transparent (half silvered) mirror to be placed at a 45-degree angle in the light path from the slide projector, and the camera is positioned behind the mirror (Fig.12). And the distance from the lens of the slide projector to the centre of the mirror is exactly the same as from the centre of the mirror to the camera lens. The light returned from the screen then falls directly into the camera lens.

Figure 12. Studio set for the generation of Apollo lunar surface images using front projection. The light from the ‘sun’ generally shines on the astronaut from behind so as to not affect the screen image.

Another distinctive feature of such a screen is that any light scattered in a set does not interfere with the image on the screen and doesn't lighten it. Even if a studio light shines towards the screen, the camera won’t register this light, because 95% of it won’t reflect in the direction of the camera, but will return to the studio light position. Of course, in order to get a high-quality background image, the main spotlight simulating the sun and illuminating the subjects, shouldn't be directed towards the screen. If we look closely at the lunar surface photos, in almost all the images the ‘sun’ shines on the astronauts from behind or the side.

The light source illuminating the screen is the image from the slide projector. The light from the slide projector coincides with the axis of a camera lens and so the light is returned back to the camera. Imagine how a screen in a movie theatre would look if its brightness suddenly became 100 times higher!

In addition to the key light source illuminating the background, some light strikes the subject(s) in the scene. And, unfortunately, this light is on the same axis as the lens. In this case the bright light is hitting the flag.

During filming of the documentary The Great US Space Secret on the TV channel Zvezda, we were faced with exactly such a phenomenon when we were demonstrating the way in which the lunar surface footage and imagery was created (Fig.13).

View the short version of the documentary The Great US Space Secret (in English)
Full length documentary The Great US Space Secret (in Russian)

Front proj´ction
Figure 13 Recreating lunar surface footage. On the left the projector is switched on, and on the right it is turned off.

As the flag is in close proximity to the background some of the light from the projector is reflected back into the mirror and has created a pale red halo around the flag (Fig.14).

Front projection
Figure 14. Light placement in the studio

The halo becomes much more noticeable when the image brightness is increased (below right), and conversely when the image is darkened, the halo merges with the darkness of the background (left) (Fig.15).

Figure 15. When he brightness is increased, the red halo around the flag becomes more noticeable

In the Apollo 17 photo, increased brightness results in the appearance of a bright purple-violet halo around the flag. These particular colours are due to the red and blue details of the flag. However the fact that this halo becomes apparent, indicates that rather than a distant black vacuum of space, there was a closer Scotchlite screen backdrop behind the flag.

To be able to complete our analysis of the picture, it is necessary to explain how from a technical point of view these two image elements were merged together, and what equipment was used to create this composite photograph.

One can consider a rudimentary way of combining images. Many students in the past have made physical collages from various image sources: for example, boys have glued their faces to a bodybuilder's body, and girls have attached their photos to those of their ideal female images. Due to the thickness of the photo paper, the glued boundary often remains visible.

But this is not the most significant obstacle in generating composite images. For the Apollo imagery a copy of the composite had to be produced so that it could be taken for an authentic single image frame taken by the Hasselblad lunar camera when loaded with a roll of 70mm colour reversal film.

Digital image manipulation applications like PhotoShop® weren’t available in those days, so it wasn’t possible to combine any two elements together on a computer. But in the late 1960s drum scanners were already available. The Crossfield scanner (Fig.16) allowed the production of a composite image of up to four pictures.

Figure 16. A Crossfield scanner

Therefore the two images we are discussing could be combined into one inside just such a scanner. First, the flag with the Earth view was taken, and then an angle for the astronaut was selected separately. In other Apollo 17 lunar surface pictures the astronaut is holding the flag with his hand, but in this one he is not touching the flag. Not because it was outside of an edge of the frame, but simply because these are two different shots.


As has been demonstrated, a thorough analysis of this Apollo 17 lunar surface photograph reveals that this picture was generated by combining together two separate photographic elements. Moreover, as has been demonstrated, instead of the blackness of space behind the US flag, there is the tell-tale sign of the use of a retro-reflective backdrop screen. Furthermore, the Earth above the flag is also just another photographic element, and similarly, the moonscape background is also just an image projected from a slide projector onto the retro-reflective screen.

it is beyond doubt that this Apollo 17 lunar surface image was taken on Earth in a photographic studio and therefore not on the surface of the Moon.

Leonid Konovalov

Aulis Online, December 2017
English translation from the Russian by BigPhil

Leonid Konovalov

Leonid Konovalov graduated with honours from the Camera Department of VGIK in 1987. Currently he is an Associate Professor of the Camera Department of the Russian State University of Cinematography.

Leonid was camera operator or an additional camera operator on many films and series. He was camera operator on the movie The Belovs which received the State Award in 1994.

Leonid Konovalov engineered the non-standard photographic films RETRO and DS-50 at the Shostka Chemical Plant "Svema" which were used in the production of 14 movies. In the magazine Cinema and Television Technology (in Russian) Leonid has published seven articles in scientific and technical topics. He also has written the book How to Make Sense of Films.