This Milky Way Photo on Nat Geo is Raising Eyebrows

National Geographic recently published a series of gorgeous photos by photographer Beth Moon that shows some of the world’s oldest trees under the stars. But one photo, in particular, is now raising eyebrows after sharp-eyed readers noticed something strange about it.

The article, titled “See the world’s oldest trees by starlight,” was published on April 26th by Nat Geo science staff writer Catherine Zuckerman. It features photos by Moon, work that’s part of a project titled Diamond Nights, and here’s what the Nat Geo article says about how the photos were shot:

For Diamond Nights, Moon made the transition from film photography to digital capture. It’s a more light-sensitive technique, she says, and results in incredibly vivid images. Planning all her shoots around moonless nights, she wanted each tree to be primarily bathed in starlight, with additional glow from flashlights, for example, as necessary.

Because of the dark conditions, Moon set her camera on a slow shutter speed. This meant standing by for wind, and pausing during gusts. “With a 30-second exposure you don’t want the branches shaking,” she says. “So there was a lot of downtime.”

The article was shared across National Geographic‘s social media accounts. On Facebook, where Nat Geo has over 45 million followers, the shared story has racked up over 23,000 Likes, 7,900+ shares, and 500+ comments.

But people soon took to the comments to point out something fishy about one of Moon’s photos, a wide-angle shot with the caption: “Baobab trees are silhouetted against the Milky Way galaxy in Botswana.”

A closer examination reveals that a central area of the Milky Way appears to have been cloned at least a few times within the photo:

There’s no mention within the article of any of the photos being manipulated photo illustrations, and the images are presented as long-exposure photographs.

“Please do some research on a subject before misrepresenting the true night sky,” writes a commenter named Greg Stevens on the Facebook post. “Don’t get me wrong these are nice ‘picture’ but some of them have had the clone stamp used to create a false Milky Way and this should have been made clear before publishing.”

We’ve reached out to National Geographic and photographer Beth Moon for comment and will update this article if/when we hear back.

Update on 5/9/19: Here’s the statement photographer Beth Moon has provided to PetaPixel:

I am late to this discussion as I am attending my father’s funeral. First, I want to say that I am not much for technical expertise. For me, it’s not about the equipment. For these pictures I developed a fairly simple formula and memorized it, varying adjustments occasionally to suit the light. I also usually take my time producing work, but this work under starlight was the exception. With three back to back trips and a book deadline I enlisted the help of an intern seven years ago. During her 6 month term she helped to batch process images and she also hand-stitched the panoramic shot in question. I got back in touch with her to ask her about this process. She remembers stitching the images together one by one, lining up the tree branches by using the transformation tool to line each shot up. I believe the problem stemmed from the distortion of the wide angle lens used. She claims she did not use the clone tool. To be clear, I am not passing the blame on to her. My name is on it and I take full responsibility.

This is a painful lesson. I am sorry to have upset so many people. I did not intentionally try to hide anything and I apologize. With the passing of my father I am reminded to try to concentrate on a bigger picture, which I hope to do going forward.

Update on 5/13/19: National Geographic has pulled the article (for now) and released the following statement from its editor:

On April 26, National Geographic published photos by Beth Moon on, depicting the world’s oldest trees against the night sky. Significant concerns about the veracity of the images have been raised on photo industry blogs and social media. National Geographic has a strict policy against photo manipulation, and we have initiated an investigation to confirm whether the images comply with our policies. We have removed the images and related story pending the outcome of our investigation. This step does not mean we have determined that the images do not meet our standards, as we are unable to make a determination at this time. The images will not be re-posted unless they meet National Geographic’s standards.

Update on 5/10/19: Professional astrophotographer Adrien Mauduit has shared an analysis of the scientific errors found in other photos in the Nat Geo article.