How to Spot Bullshit Comet Photos

Update 7/15/2020 - There seem to be a few people out there who don't understand the difference between harsh critique of an image vs a person. As the point of the article is calling out fake images and this seems to be lost on some, I have removed the image author's name from this article.

Once again I'm drawn into the world of bullshit images to point out more viral images that are being passed off as real work and are not. If you don't recall the previous post on this, see: How To Spot Bullshit Eclipse Photos

This time it's in regards to comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE):

A beautiful comet to say the least, and finally a bright one visible to the northern hemisphere! It is almost expected that a few shady images would appear in the midst of the sea of photographs flooding the web right now. This one has caught some attention though.

This image appeared on a few of the typical sites, Instagram, Reddit, ect and is currently going viral. It was posted by an astrophotographer henceforth known as the author. Browsing around it seems he has a modest following with some YouTube videos and some nice images. He definitely has enough experience to know better than to completely fake a photo and pass it off as real. You have to know that there are people out there who will spot this work for what it is. In this case it did not take long for myself and others to notice some major discrepancies in this image.

First off, the colors are insane. Even over saturated images don't look like this. There is clearly something wrong here. The ion tail going from a neon violet to an neon blue is just not real. Stretching and over saturating the color could not account for this gradient and it is not seen in any other images from reputable astrophotographers being posted to the web.

More concerning is the braiding pattern visible in the dust tail. Active comets can end up having two tails. One tail is debris being blown off the comet by outgassing as it heats up near the sun from comet sublimation. The solid ices going from a solid directly to a gas. This tail is primarily made up of small dust particles and stays mostly uniform as it flows out behind the comet left behind in the path of its orbit. The other tail is ionized gasses being blown off the comet by the solar wind. These ion tails tend to have a blue color and can have some very amazing patterns in them. Swirls, corkscrews, defined lines that follow the magnetic field of the comet. They are amazing, and can be seen in photos from a lot of reputable imagers. In this case, it appears the author shared this fascination and decided to steal an image from Damian Peach and superimpose it into his image a few times. He made a major mistake there though. He superimposed these ion tail features into the dust tail - or at least hand painted them from this image as inspiration?

Image of C/2016 R2 (Panstarrs) by Damian Peach on right, and our fake image on the left:

As you can see in "The Peach" as we call them, the ion tail of C/2016 R2 was amazing and also dominated the comet. There are clearly some features in this image that were copied into the image of NEOWISE by the author into the wrong tail. I have posted an image taken by a well known comet photographer Michael Jäger below for comparison. You can see all of these "braided" features the author is claiming to have captured in the dust tail are not real. You can clearly make out the dust tail, and the separate blue ion tail to the left in Michael's image. These braided features are found in that blue ion tail, not the yellow/orange dust tail.

Once again, we have "photographers" passing off images that viewers would assume have some level of fidelity to reality - that in reality, don't. In this case, it appears that the image was also at least in part, stolen. If you come across an image of NEOWISE that looks too good to be true, look around at other images being published by reputable photographers. Compare and contrast a bit. Nobody else is seeing these features in the dust tail? The ion tail is curved and bright purple! The structures appear like an image from Peach! It might be a fake.

It is clear to me that the walking noise patterns in the image doesn't even come close to explaining the level of embellishment and outright painting that went into the final result. The main feature seen in the Peach image that is also in his image is not in the raw stack at all and walking noise doesn't account for it. While I can't be 100% certain he stole the data from the Peach image, I doubt that such similar features would coincidentally just show up in his image when it's painfully clear he added features to the image.

There are a lot of people chiming in on this on the web. Wanted to address a few things.

1. I said he stole the image and retracted. No - this article has always left room for doubt here if you actually know how to read and interpret words. See "He superimposed these ion tail features into the dust tail - or at least hand painted them from this image as inspiration?" As I said before, "walking noise" doesn't come close to accounting for the patterns in the tail and I'm not big on coincidences. Those tails looking so close to one another is not a coincidence. After spending about 2 minutes doing a rough alignment of that feature in his image, I noticed a star that wasn't in his raw stack showing up in his final process. It is easy to forget to mask out stars when stealing images. If you want to think this is just a coincidence, go ahead. I say it easily leaves room for the possibility he superimposed the Peach.

2. This type of processing isn't "accidental". If you know anything about astrophotography you'd know this. Yes, I do pass off some things as self evident to people with some experience and basic common sense. It is painfully obvious to just about everyone in this field that he hand painted and/or superimposed features found in ion tails into the dust tail.

3. To be clear about what the author did and did not do.
- He did make a complete work of fantasy and pass it off as photography.
- He did research on what an ion tail was supposed to look like, and somehow carefully crafted one into his image that wasn't real.
- He defended this multiple ways on Reddit and Instagram when called out on it.

This type of dishonest hand painting and possible theft resulting in an image that gets attention, will get attention. If you don't want this attention, don't do this activity and pass it off as "real". It unfortunately calls into question every other image he's ever done. That is how credibility works. The point of this article, and my eclipse article, is to help people spot the difference between bullshit images and real ones as unfortunately the internet is being flooded with bullshit images being passed off as real in the age of Photoshop.

This will be the last thing I post about this painfully fake - painted - possibly superimposed image. I'm glad Reddit took it down and I hope it is a learning experience for the author and others who feel the need to grossly manipulate images before posting them online as "photography". I will continue to debunk bullshit images as I come across them.



Comet NEOWISE by Michael Jäger: