Photographer’s Optical Illusion Photos Make the Moon Look Gigantic

Using forced perspective, photographer Nina Wolfe captures stunning images that demonstrate the Moon illusion, an optical illusion that makes the Moon appear considerably larger when it is nearer the horizon than when it is higher in the sky.

Wolfe states, "I have always enjoyed photography. "I grew up in a house with a beautiful view of the New York City skyline in Weehawken, New Jersey. I never knew what to photograph in my dedicated dark room in the basement, so my father gave me a 35mm cardboard slide with the transparency cut out. I walked around New York City holding up that square in search of a suitable frame (those who know me know that I still carry that piece of cardboard in my camera bag!).

"In order to get ideas for photos, I purchased postcards from boutiques in midtown Manhattan. To take street photos, I walked around parks. "Sometimes with photography, one has to keep shooting until you acquire a specific affection for a particular genre," said my father, who was the photographer I was using at the time with his Leica flex film camera, which I still hold. Landscapes, cities, and my favorite subject, moon photography, were my specialties.

Photographing a Moon Illusion

Wolfe recently took pictures of the waning gibbous Moon, which was 97.8% complete, as it began to rise above New York City and approaching the One World Trade Center tower, the highest structure in the country.

The photographs, which are both single exposures, were taken at a distance of 18 miles using a Nikon Z7 and a Sigma 150-600mm lens set to 600mm.

Lens compression can create the illusion of a "huge moon" when shooting the Moon with a telephoto lens from a vast distance away from the objects on the horizon.

The backdrop (in this example, the Moon) and "foreground" (which are actually extremely far away) look closer together than they actually are due to the distance. The Moon may look larger in the frame and closer to foreground or background objects like houses, trees, or mountains due to lens compression.

"Why is the Moon in my pictures so big? The Moon is about a quarter of a million miles distant, and no matter where on Earth you gaze at it, it will appear the same size, according to Wolfe, according to PetaPixel. "If you stand directly next to a building like One World Trade Center, it's enormous! The same skyscraper seems much smaller when viewed from 15 to 20 miles distant.

"The moon will seem enormous and the building little when lined up behind One World Trade at a distance of 15-20 miles. Why? So whereas Earthbound items (such One World Trade, ESB, etc.) do alter in [apparent] size, the moon never does.

"How can you reproduce this optical illusion? Use a large lens to magnify the subject, such as a 600 mm lens. This will give the structure a close-up appearance. Voila! The illusion has been grasped by you.

Wolfe must carefully organize her location and timing during a moonrise in order to accomplish the compositions she envisions for her moon illusion photographs.

Wolfe told PetaPixel, "I use Planit Pro to plot my lunar images. "Weather and wind are the first things I consider while preparing for a moon shoot. Ventusky, which displays wind speed and low cloud cover, is my preferred weather app. Low clouds are what I mostly mean.

If numerous sites and the target buildings are accessible, I first decide if clouds will obscure the view before deciding which spot to shoot from, the photographer explains. "Occasionally, electrical wires or trees will impede a queue. I'll go to a particular spot to see whether turning to the right or left would make it easier to make a similar capture.

"One second is the recommended minimum shutter speed while photographing the moon, and I always start there... Motion blur will start to appear if you go any slower. I use manual focus and manual mode when I take pictures. I make sure that the camera body and lens are always in manual mode. In order to prevent the moon from being overexposed when taking a moonshot, I continuously adjust the exposure. Adjusting the f/stop or shutter speed can do this. I use the lowest ISO setting when I photograph.

A Few Moon Illusion Images by Wolfe

Here are a few more of Wolfe's moon illusion images where the Moon appears abnormally large in comparison to objects in the horizon:

I adore being able to share my enthusiasm for photography with you, adds Wolfe, who declares that it has been and always will be her passion.