The science and challenges of moon photography

Imagine photographing at minus 173°C

This July marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings — a historic moment that had a huge impact on technology, particularly photography, as we know it today.

To celebrate this historic occasion we’ll be welcoming a technical expert from Hasselblad for an exclusive live talk show, where you’ll be able to see one of the moon cameras and join in the conversation about the science of photography in space and the moon landing conspiracy theories.

Buzz Aldrin, Apollo moon landings
Astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin photographed by Neil Armstrong with a Hasselblad HDC camera & Zeiss Biogon 60mm lens. Only one lunar surface camera was taken on Apollo 11 & was attached to Neil Armstrong. It was the first time the camera had ever been used. © NASA

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot on the moon’s surface 50 years ago they had with them specially designed Hasselblad cameras. Their iconic steps, man’s first on any astronomical body other than Earth, were captured on film, forever preserving and providing record of one of the most historic events of the 20th century.

Apollo 11 - Moon landing of 1969

On 16th July 1969 Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins launched from the Kennedy Space Center. Millions around the world followed their journey as it was broadcast live, watching as history was made when, about 109 hours and 42 minutes after launching, Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the surface of the moon.

In addition to the live broadcast, the historic expedition was captured and documented through photographs taken using two different Hasselblad cameras — an Intra Vehicular Camera (IVC), which remained in the command module Columbia with Collins, and an External Vehicular Camera (EVC), which was used by Armstrong and Aldrin during their time outside the lunar module, the Eagle.

The IVC was a conventional 500EL with a Zeiss Planar f/2.8 80mm lens while the EVC was a 500EL Data Camera and Zeiss Biogon 60mm f/5.6 lens.

    Moon camera
    A selection of Hasselblad cameras taken on the Apollo 11 mission.

    Hasselblad on the moon

    These were not the first Hasselblad cameras in outer space, nor were they the last used on the moon.

    Hasselblad’s involvement with NASA started years before, in 1962, when prospective NASA astronaut and camera enthusiast Walter Schirra took a Hasselblad 500C with him on the Mercury MA-8 mission. Impressed by the quality of the medium-format images, it wasn’t long before the Swedish company was the camera of choice for NASA missions.

      Moon camera

      Hasselblad's association with NASA started when astronaut Walter Schirra (second from left), who wanted a camera with higher image quality, took a modified 500c aboard the Mercury 8 mission in October 1962. © NASA

      Moon camera

      But adapting a camera for space travel was no easy task. Each Hasselblad camera taken into outer space had to be specifically modified to NASA’s specifications. This included:

      • Removal of the auxiliary shutter, mirror mechanism, viewfinder and vinyl coverings
      • Magazine lock improved and workable with thick gloves
      • Modified lens shutter and tabs for aperture and shutter
      • Larger shutter release for gloved use
      • Plastic parts were replaced with metal

      Further modifications to the EVCs included:

      • A Réseau plate was added to the camera to enable photogrammetric measurements from the images (this is what produced the small black crosses every 5mm)
      • The new 60mm Zeiss Biogon lens had very low distortion and high resolution
      • The camera was silver to try to stabilise the unit’s temperature on the lunar surface when moving from minus 65° C in the shade to over 120° C in the sun
      • The exposure settings of the camera were set using basic configurations — full sun, illuminated earth and shade
      • The large tabs on the lens allowed setting of the correct aperture and focus distance

      Despite the numerous changes, the cameras had to be reliable and consistent too. Each shot taken was a once in a lifetime opportunity, one that couldn’t be recreated or taken again.

      As an ambassador for Hasselblad, a company that has such history and heritage, I’m proud to say they’ve continued their mission for quality and perfection, repeatedly redefining the boundaries of excellence over the years.

        A timeline of Hasselblad's history.

        Of the Hasselblad cameras taken on the Apollo 11 mission, only the IVC was supposed to return. Weight concerns meant the EVC cameras were to be left on the surface of the moon (along with others from subsequent Apollo missions), where they still sit today. Only their film backs were returned. However, Armstrong secretly brought his camera back and it has been on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, along with the other Hasselblad used by Collins in the command module.

        The images captured in 1969, as well as on previous and subsequent Apollo missions, served an important purpose, not just for scientific reasons, but also on a more global scale. The Blue Marble, taken by Harrison Schmidtt on Apollo 17, was a captivating image — the first photo where the whole of the Earth was visible. Bill Anders’s Earthrise image, taken on the Apollo 8 mission, showing the juxtaposition of the moons’ barren, brown horizon and the Earth’s vibrant blue, drew attention to our planet’s apparent fragility.

          Earthrise image
          Earthrise - photographed with a Hasselblad 500EL (HEC) camera by Apollo 8 Astronaut Bill Andersin December 1968. © NASA

          Showing the Earth in this isolated, vulnerable state caught the attention of peace activists and environmental organisations worldwide and the overall success of the Apollo missions captured the imagination of future generations, driving them to harness these new technologies and further push the boundaries of our society. A full selection of images from the Apollo missions were made available by NASA and can be viewed here.

          Moon landing conspiracy theories

          However, there have been many over the years who have questioned the authenticity of these photographs (and even whether man went to the moon at all). Below I’ve outlined just a few of the common moon landing conspiracy theories, as well as explained why these points can be refuted.

          1. There are no stars visible in many of the photographs taken
          The reason no stars were visible in the photos was because the images were exposed for daylight conditions. Many of the images were shot at shutter speeds of around 1/150th or 1/250th, which doesn’t allow enough time for the dim light from the stars to be recorded.

            Buzz Aldrin moon landing
            Buzz Aldrin descending from the lunar module. © NASA

            2. Buzz Aldrin descending from the Eagle is clearly visible despite being in the shadow of the lunar module
            Conspiracists argue that the fact he is so visible suggests there were multiple light sources, such as those you would use in studio. However, the fact of the matter is that there were multiple light sources. There was light from the sun, light reflected off the moon’s surface, the Earth’s surface and even the lunar module. All of this reflected enough light back onto Aldrin that he was clearly visible, despite being in shadow.

            3. Grid markings from the Reseau plate seem to be behind some objects
            Conspiracists often use this argument to suggest that objects were pasted into the shot. However, this only occurs in images that have been copied or scanned. The crosshairs are clearly visible in all the original images. The seeming ‘absence’ of the crosshairs is due to areas of white (such as the American flag or the astronaut’s spacesuit) being overexposed and ‘bleeding’ over the thin black lines of the crosshairs.

            4. The image quality of the photographs is too high
            The high-resolution medium-format Hasselblad cameras delivered exceptional quality images (it’s one of the reasons NASA made them their camera of choice). To this day, Hasselblad still deliver some of the highest quality imagery in the industry (although NASA now also make use of other camera brands, especially Nikon, on their space missions).

            5. The American flag looks like it’s flapping in the wind, even though there is no wind on the moon
            With no wind on the moon, the flag should have hung down, as flags do when there is no wind. However, NASA designed special flags for the astronauts that had a rod inside to make it stick out from the flag pole. The ripples on the flag are due to the fact the astronauts had trouble extending the rod all the way. This makes the ripple effect that makes the flag look like it’s waving in the wind.

              Armstrong's boot print on the moon.
              Buzz Aldrin saluting the American flag. © NASA

              How you can photograph the moon

              Pilots of the Apollo missions underwent intensive scientific and photographic training prior to their moon missions. However, the process of photographing the moon is much simpler when you’re not confined to a small space, working in zero gravity and can use your viewfinder to frame and focus your image. Photographing the moon nowadays using a DSLR is relatively straightforward, but to help you get even better photos, I outline a couple of simple tips in this blog post. I explain what to consider when it comes to when and where to photograph the moon, what equipment you'll need, how to compose your shots and even share some go-to settings to help get you started.

              Learn how to photograph the moon with these 4 simple tips.

                Moon photography by Karl Taylor
                © Karl Taylor

                Join Karl & Hasselblad technical experts for an exclusive live show

                Join us live for a special photography talk show as we commemorate this momentous occasion on 18th July. I’ll be joined by Hasselblad technical expert Chris Cooze, who will be talking about some of the facts, history and science of photography in space. As well as a special look at many unpublished images, Chris will also be bringing one of the Hasselblad moon cameras to present on the show. Watch live replay.

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                  1. Excellent article. Informative as well as enjoyable…. also filled in some gaps in my knowledge (of which there are several!) Thank you. Will definitely be watching the live show ???

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