Grand Illusion

Have you ever seen a beautiful full moon (like the one we had this past weekend) and tried to take a picture of it?  I have.  Here is the disappointing result.

Why does the moon seem so much smaller in the photograph than it did when I viewed it with my naked eye?

It’s an illusion.  One of the most famous of all illusions. Stated simply, the full moon, when just above the horizon, appears much larger than when it is overhead. Yet the moon, a quarter of a million miles away from the earth, always subtends the same angle wherever it is in the sky, roughly 0.5 degrees.

Even professional photographers fall for this one. Many photographs that you see in magazines, containing both a moon and a landscape, will be composites. The landscape will be taken with a normal lens, the moon taken with a telephoto lens, to get a bigger image.

How does this illusion come about? Since the moon always subtends an angle of 0.5 degrees, the image on the retina must always be the same. Clearly the problem is one of interpretation.

One simple experiment shows this to be so. A full moon just above the horizon will not appear so large to the human eye if a piece of paper is held up to that eye with a hole in it, so that only the moon can be seen through the hole and not the horizon. If the other eye is open at the same time, viewing both the moon and the horizon, the two eyes will each see different sized moons!

The reason is we ‘know’ that a cloud that is overhead will be larger than when it moves towards the horizon. And an airplane that is a mere speck on the horizon becomes large when it is overhead. And we are all familiar with standing under a tree which seems enormous, yet at a couple of hundred paces seems insignificant.

So much of our world is interpreted this way that we are ill-equipped to cope with an object like the moon, that subtends the same angle at the eye, whatever position it occupies in the sky. And so our brain ‘interprets’ the image that it ‘sees’, and tells us that the moon is larger than it really is.

And isn’t that wonderful??

5 thoughts on “Grand Illusion

  1. SimplySage says:

    Yes, photographing the elusive moon requires advanced skills and advanced equipment. Plus, you’re also dealing with low light. Now that there is Photoshop and other software we can finally make a photo look like our eyes see it. As complicated as this all is it makes me amazed at the intricacies of the eye and brain, in conjunction as it views the moon.

  2. I’m constantly amazed by nature and the human body. Endless miracles!! 🙂

  3. Karen says:

    Love the flowers from your garden in the photo even if the moon doesn’t look like what you saw.

  4. Thanks, I didn’t know the science behind that!

  5. How fascinating, I had no idea! Thanks for this post as I’d have done exactly the same.

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