Moon Landing Mystery Solved! Why Photos Have No Stars

Conspiracy Theories and the “No Star” Debate

 

For those unfamiliar with the “no stars” debate, some claim the absence of stars in most Apollo mission photos is evidence of a hoax. But the truth is far more grounded in the technical aspects of capturing an image.

I think by understanding two photography rules of exposure, all can be debunkled. Let’s explore the world of exposure theory and understand why stars wouldn’t appear in photos taken on the lunar surface by astronauts.

Exposure Is the Balancing Act of Light on Earth and On the Moon

 

Imagine a camera as a room with a curtain. The lens and aperture ring act as the doorway and the film (or digital sensor) is like the floor. You can adjust the brightness of the floor in the room by opening and closing the curtains. Like these curtains, light from the scene you capture enters through the lens and strikes film.

A room with windows and curtains with an arrow pointing to the curtains and an arrow pointing to the light on the floor
The more the curtains are closed, the less light is exposed to the floor.

The amount of light that reaches the film determines the image’s brightness and detail. Here’s where the magic (and science) of exposure comes in. In photography, there are three ways to adjust your “curtains” per se. There is aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity of the medium you are capturing on (camera sensor or photographic film)

Two Principles You Need to Understand When Looking at Moon Photos:

 

How Aperture Affected the Moon Photos

 

This adjustable lens opening acts like the doorway’s size. Therefore, a wider aperture lets in more light (like opening the curtain fully), while a smaller one restricts it (like a partially closed curtain). A small aperture lets in little light but has the benefit of keeping much of the image in focus.

To know more about lens opening, I invite you to read my article on this very subject: Click here!

Close up view of aperture blades on a camera lens
The smaller the aperture, the greater the field of focus. However, smaller aperture settings bring in the tradoff of letting in less light onto the film.
A camera can adjust light coming in to film by also using shutter speed. Slow shutter speed allows more light in. The tradeoff is that you cannot freez action. Faster shutter speeds allow light in but are subject to motion blur,

How Shutter Speed Can Affect Moon Photos

 

Shutter speed is the duration the “curtain” stays open, allowing light to flood the film. A faster shutter speed lets in light for a shorter time (like a quick peek), while a slower shutter speed allows for more prolonged exposures (like leaving the curtain open for a while).

Astronaught saluting on the moon next to an American flag
There is a gentle balance in getting the right light for photos that were to be so historically important. Choices had to be made for camera settings. A fast shutter speed was chosen and aperture was "closed down" to get exposure right for the surface of the moon. Star shots from the moon were not in the cards.

The goal is to achieve balanced exposure, where enough light reaches the film to capture the scene without being too bright (overexposed) or too dark (underexposed).

The Bright Lunar Landscape: A Challenge for Stars

 

Now, let’s apply this knowledge to the moon landing photos. The lunar surface is bathed in the sun’s harsh light with no atmosphere to soften it. This means that brightness takes on a whole new level on the moon..

Astronauts needed a fast shutter speed and a smaller aperture to capture a clear image of the astronauts on the lunar landscape. This combination lets in enough light to properly expose film to the moon’s bright foreground. So settings like small aperture have the added advantage of increasing depth-of-field. This gives astronauts a higher chance of having everything in focus.

The astronauts needed only to set the distance, lens aperture, and shutter speed, but once the release button was pressed, the camera exposed and wound the film and tensioned the shutter. Two Hasselblad EL cameras, each with a Planar f 2.8/80mm [normal] plus a single Sonnar f5.6/250mm [telephoto] lens and seven magazines of 70mm film, were carried. The cameras, film magazines, and lenses used on Apollo 8 had black anodized surfaces to eliminate reflections.

Astronauts were shooting with oversized mittens. The strategy was to put all the exposure odds on their side to minimize the risk of bad photos. Raising the shutter speed also lessens the chance of getting a camera shake. The closing down of the aperture reduces the risk of focus errors. 

An image of an astronaught next to a large boulder on the moon. There is a rover in the landscape, a horizon, and a dark starless sky
The moon sky, like the earth's sky, is filled with the light of faint stars only when surface and dispersion light does not compete with starlight. The bright surface of the moon is drowning the camera in light.

Compared to the lunar surface, stars are incredibly faint. A much longer shutter speed is necessary to capture their faint twinkle – perhaps tens of seconds or even minutes. 

In 1969, You Could Not Have the Stars and The Moon in the Same Photo

 

Why could you not have stars and the lunar surface in the same photo?  Here’s a real-world example: Imagine taking a photo of friends in a restaurant with a beautiful sunset behind them. So, you need to make a choice when taking this type of photo. What do you love most? The sunset or your friends. If you pick the sunset, the friends will be underexposed. If you pick your friends, the sunset will be blown out completely.

silhouette photo of people in a bar
In this image, a choice was made to expose for the sunset which meant that exposure settings were "closed down". The friends then become mere silhouettes.

Beyond the Moon: Space Photography and the Art of Exposure

 

The skill of balancing exposure is crucial in all space photography. Images of distant galaxies or nebulae often require long exposures to capture their faint light. This is why space telescopes are frequently used – they can gather light over extended periods, revealing the wonders of the cosmos invisible to our naked eye (and most cameras with standard settings). The most famous photo taken in a space environment is the Hubble Ultra deep field photo. 

The image required 800 exposures taken over the course of 400 Hubble orbits around Earth. The total amount of exposure time was 11.3 days, taken between Sept. 24, 2003 and Jan. 16, 2004.

By the way. Researching this topic I fell upon an amazing website. Check out the ESA Hubble website. There are tons of high-definition photos that can be downloaded and observed closely on your computer. Click here or in the photo. It is really worth it

Photo of space with thousands of multi coloured galaxies
This view of nearly 10,000 galaxies is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The snapshot was taken in space without an earth atmosphere like the moon. Although it is an image of a faint part of the sky, it highlights the difficulty of getting light from stars. It took 400 orbits and 800 exposures of the Hubble Telescope to get this one photograph

Conclusion: A Matter of Science, Not Conspiracy

 

The lack of stars in most moon landing photos isn’t some grand conspiracy; it’s the simple result of camera settings optimized for capturing the brightly lit lunar surface and astronauts. Photography is all about balancing light, and in this case, the priority was a clear picture of the historic moment, not the faint pinpricks of distant stars.

 

So, remember the science behind the camera the next time you see a moon landing photo without stars. It’s a testament to the ingenuity of the astronauts and the technological marvel that allowed them to capture humanity’s first steps on another world.

Astronaut holding american flag on the surface of the moon with astronaut shadow on the ground
An amazing technical feat that all humans should be proud of

Video on the crosshairs

About Jacques

About the Author

My name is Jacques Gaines, and I am a photographer, videographer, and copywriter living in Quebec City, Canada. I also have a YouTube channel and an Instagram account dedicated to creation and creativity via my main loves of photography, music, and writing.

To get in touch with me and discuss a collaboration, service needed, or advice, go to my contact page

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