Why does the moon look small in photos?

Discover the moon illusion and how camera lenses capture the moon differently.

Why does the moon look small in photos?
Photo by Aron Visuals

Have you ever noticed that the moon appears larger when you look at it with your naked eyes, but when you capture it in a photograph, it seems much smaller? This phenomenon is called moon horizon artifact or moon horizon illusion.

What causes the moon illusion?

The human brain can play tricks on our perception of the moon. The discrepancy in size perception arises due to an optical illusion governed by the laws of perspective.

When the moon rises and is seen near the horizon behind objects like mountains or buildings, the brain interprets this as the moon being larger than it actually is.

The foreground objects provide a frame of reference, tricking the brain into perceiving the moon as immense.

This also explains how does the moon illusion work. The moon illusion occurs due to an optical illusion influenced by perspective laws.

Why does the moon look small in photos?

On the other hand, when we take a photograph of the moon, the camera doesn't have the same depth perception as the human eye.

Additionally, many cameras and mobile phone cameras, until very recently, have wide-angle lenses that are designed to capture a large field of view.

While this is useful for capturing group photos or landscapes at close range, it distorts the size of distant objects, making the moon appear smaller in photographs.

The wide-angle lenses are not designed for capturing objects at a distance, resulting in the discrepancy in perceived size between what we see with our eyes and what is captured in a photograph.

Most smartphones and compact cameras use wide-angle lenses to encompass a broader field of view, resulting in distant subjects, such as the moon, appearing smaller than they are to the naked eye.

To accurately depict the moon's grandeur in a photograph or video, one must utilize a telephoto lens with a narrower field of view.

The zoom capability of a telephoto lens magnifies distant objects, compensating for the visual shrinkage caused by wide-angle lenses.

Incorporating a distant object in the composition with the moon can create a compelling visual effect.

The relative size of the distant object to the moon amplifies the moon's perceived largeness, debunking the diminutive portrayal caused by wide-angle lenses.

Atmospheric Effects

Furthermore, the Earth's atmosphere can contribute to the moon appearing larger when we observe it directly.

When the moon is near the horizon, it is viewed through a greater thickness of the Earth's atmosphere, which can create an optical illusion that makes it seem larger.

What is the moon illusion?

While the moon's size remains consistent, human perception is subject to distortions occasioned by the interplay of relative distance and visual capture techniques.

The moon's transient size variations, as perceived from different vantage points and mediums, exemplify the deceptive nature of optical illusions.

Next time you gaze at the moon in the night sky, consider how both our brains and the technology we use influence our perception of its size.