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

Apollo 17 astronaut by flag images

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 in fact a professionally planned composite image. The astronaut, the flag and the image of the Earth all are arranged in a triangle.

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. The camera was attached to a bracket on his chest and there was no way he could look through the viewfinder, even if it had one (the viewfinder was omitted from this special Hasselblad 500 EL70 lunar surface camera fitted with a 60mm Biogon lens).

In addition to the necessity of having take this picture from an extremely low angle, the photographer would have had to lie on his back, with his life support backpack (PLSS) on the lunar soil which would have been a highly dangerous operation. Of course, such doubts alone do not imply that this image is a fabrication. NASA-propagandists will produce counter arguments showing that such a compositional coincidence can be made after several attempts, and then they will refer to several less successful images taken near the same place (Fig. 2).

Apollo 17 flag pix

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. No one has ever tried to obtain such a low shooting angle with a real full-height dummy.

However, suspicions of fakery are not dependent on 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 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?" "Maybe there is no space behind the astronaut, simply a background of a photographic studio, and this is the astronaut's shadow cast onto it?"

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

To me, 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 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 mask that separates 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 segment

Figure 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).

Segments identified

Figure 7. Each segment of the cut-out line has its purpose

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 separation 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

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).

Overlapped photo elements

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? Behind the flag it's not the blackness of space – not even the black velvet of the studio backdrop. In the background is a screen composed of a large number of the smallest of glass beads, this screen material is called Scotchlite.

The Front Projection Technique

In previous investigations I have demonstrated that the main method of creating lunar surface 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 the background comprising a 30-metre wide projection screen, with the stills photography and filming 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 or photographed by a robotic probe (for example, Surveyor), and then transmitted back to Earth.

It isn't 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 screen, as deployed in cinema theatres which looks like a white fabric, was not used for the front projection technique; the screen in this case was made of a special retro reflective Scotchlite material (as used in road signs). A white projection screen was not used 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. But at the end of 1960s, when Kodak was manufacturing a colour film with a speed of just 160 ISO, the maximum that could be expected (to start shooting), was a screen of 5-6 metres wide. Film speed wasn’t high enough for a larger screen.

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.

This retro reflective material consists of tiny glass beads. Each glass bead 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 point a slide projector at such a screen, then virtually all the reflected light will return to one point. If you stand at that point, the brightness of the Scotchlite screen will be almost 100 times higher than a white screen. So this is where the camera is placed.

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.

Front Projection

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 Projection

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 created a light red halo around itself (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 converesly 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

The fact that the increased brightness in the Apollo photo results in the appearance a bright purple-violet halo around the flag (due to the red and blue details of the flag), suggests that rather than a black vacuum of space, there was a Scotchlite screen in the background 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: boys have glued their faces to say a bodybuilder's body, and girls have attached their photos to those of their ideal female images. Most likely, due to the thickness of the photo paper, the glued boundary would remain 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 end up as a single image frame on a roll of transparent film, in our case as if it were taken by a Hasselblad camera loaded with 70mm colour reversal roll film.

Digital image manipulation applications like PhotoShop® were not 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. Two images could be combined into one inside the scanner.


Figure 16. Crossfield scanner

In order to prevent the overlapping of one image by another, the first picture was separated with the help of a mask. 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.

This zigzag line is the boundary of the mask, over which the image is cut. And so that one image does not show through the other when superimposed together, a mask was used. Therefore, to be correct, the blackness in a form of the broken line behind the astronaut should be called ‘the border of the mask’.


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, it is clear that this Apollo 17 lunar surface image was taken in a photographic studio and therefore not on the Moon. And instead of the blackness of space behind the US flag, there is the tell-tale sign of the use of a retro reflective background 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.

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.

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