As part of FotoForensics, I try to track major occasions, such as holidays, weather warnings, and astronomical events. Often, I’ll see fake photos of the occasion before it happens. I might see photos of a major blizzard burying a neighborhood days before the storm hits or a beautiful picture of a full moon a week before the full moon. What I’m usually seeing are forgers creating their pictures before the event happens.
Similarly, I often see fakes appear shortly after a major event.
Last Saturday (Oct 14), we had a great solar eclipse pass over North and South America. This was followed by some incredible photos — some real, some not.
I tried to capture a photo of the eclipse by holding my special lens filter over my smartphone’s camera. Unfortunately, my camera decided to automatically switch into extended shutter mode. As a result, the Sun is completely washed out. However, the bokeh (small reflections made by the lens) clearly show the eclipse.
I showed my this photo to a friend, and he one-upped me. He had tried the same thing and had a perfect “ring of fire” captured by the camera. Of course, I immediately noticed something odd. I said, “That’s not from Fort Collins.” I knew this because we were not in the path of totality. He laughed and said he was in New Mexico for the eclipse.
Ring of Truth
Following the eclipse, FotoForensics has received many copies of the same viral image depicting the eclipse over a Mayan pyramid. Here’s one example:
The first time I saw this, I immediately knew it was fake. Among other things:
The text above the picture has erasure marks. These appear as some black marks after the word “Eclipse” and below the word “day”. Someone had poorly erased the old text and added new text.
The Sun is never that large in the sky.
If the Sun is behind the pyramid, then why is the front side lit up? Even the clouds show the sunlight on the the wrong side.
Artists for these kinds of fakes usually start with an existing picture and then alter it. I did a search for the pyramid image but couldn’t find it. What I did find were a huge number of viral copies.
These include sightings from Instagam, LinkedIn, Facebook, TikTok, the service formally known as Twitter, and many more. Everyone shared the photo, and I could not find anybody who noticed that it was fake.
Ideally, we’d like to find the source image. This becomes the “smoking gun” piece of evidence that proves this eclipse photo is a fake. However without that, we can still use logic, reasoning, and other clues to conclusively determine that it is a forgery.
Image forensics isn’t just about looking at pixels and metadata. It’s also about fact checking. And in this case, the facts don’t line up. (The only legitimate “facts” in this instance is that (1) there is a Mayan pyramid at Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, Mexico, and (2) there was an eclipse on Saturday, October 14.)
The Moon’s orbit around the Earth isn’t circular; it’s an ellipse. When a full moon happens at perigee (closest to the Earth), it looks larger and we call it a “super-moon”. A full moon at apogee (furthest away) is a “mini-moon” because it looks smaller. Similarly, if an eclipse that happens when the Moon is really close to the Earth, then it blocks out almost all of the Sun. However, the Oct 14 eclipse happened when the Moon was further away. While the Moon blocked most of the Sun, it did not cover all of the Sun. Real photos of this eclipse show a thick ring of the Sun around the Moon, not a thin ring of the corona that is shown in this forgery.
I went to the NASA web site, which shows the full path of the total eclipse. The path of totality for this eclipse did go through a small portion of Yucatán, but it did not go through Chichén Itzá. At best, a photo from Chichén Itzá should look more like my photo: a crescent of the eclipse.
At Chichén Itzá, the partial eclipse happened at 11:25am – 11:30am (local time), so the Sun should be almost completely overhead. In the forgery, the Sun is at the wrong angle. (See Sky and Telescope’s interactive sky chart. Set it for October 14, 2023 at 11:25am, and the coordinates should be 20′ 40″ N, 88′ 34″ W.)
Google Maps has a great street-level view of the Mayan pyramid. The four sides are not the same. In particular, the steps on the South side are really eroded, but the North side is mostly intact. Given that the steps in the picture are not eroded, I believe this photo is facing South-East (showing the North and West side of the pyramid), but it’s the wrong direction for the eclipse. (The eclipse should be due South by direction and very high in the sky.)
Google Street View, as well as other recent photos, show a roped off area around the pyramid. (I assume it’s to keep tourists from touching it.) The fencing is not present in this photo.
The real pyramid at Chichén Itzá has a rectangular structure at the top. Three of the sides have one doorway each, while the North-facing side has three doorways (a big opening with two columns). In this forgery, we know it’s not showing the South face because both stairways are intact. (As I mentioned, the South-facing stairwell is eroded.) However, the North face should have three doorways at the top. The visible sides in the photo have one doorway each, meaning that it can’t be showing the North face. If it isn’t showing the North side and isn’t showing the South side, then it’s not the correct building.
There was one other oddity in this fake eclipse photo: the people. The forgery photo shows a lot of people. However, you can’t make out any details about them. Except that they are all dressed in dark clothing and nobody is standing on the lawn. If you ever see a real photo of tourists, you’ll notice that there are lots of different colors of clothing. And a crowd of people at a major event like this? People will definitely be standing on the lawn. In addition, there are no telescopes or cameras. (If the people are there for the eclipse, then why are they not watching the eclipse?)
I can’t rule out that the entire image may be computer generated or from some video game that I don’t recognize. However, it could also be a photo from something like a museum diorama depicting what the pyramid may have looked like over a thousand years ago. (Those museum dioramas almost never have people standing on the miniature lawns.)
In any case, the eclipse was likely added after the pyramid photo was created.
While I couldn’t find the basis for this specific eclipse photo, I did see what people claim is a second photo of this same eclipse at the same Mayan pyramid. I found this version of it at Facebook, but it’s also being virally spread across many different social media platforms.
Now keep in mind, I’ve already debunked the size of the Sun, the totality of the eclipse, and the angle above the horizon. This picture also has the same problem with the wrong side of the pyramid being in shadow. Moreover, it contradicts the previous forgery: it shows the eclipse happening on the other side of the pyramid, no people, and different cloud coverage at the same time on the same day.
With this second forgery, I was able to find the source image. The smoking gun comes from a desktop wallpaper background that has been available since at least 2009:
In this case, someone started with the old desktop wallpaper image, gave it a red tint, added clouds, and inserted a fake solar eclipse.
Total Eclipse of the Art
It’s easy enough to say “it’s fake” and to back it up with a single claim (e.g., wrong shadows). However, if this were a court case or a legal claim, you’d want to list as many issues as possible. A single claim could be contested, but a variety of provable inconsistencies undermines any authenticity allegedly depicted by the photo.
The same skills needed to track down forgeries like this are used for debunking fake news, identifying photo authenticity, and validating any kind of photographic claim. Critical thinking is essential when evaluating evidence. The outlandish claims around a photo should be grounded in reality and not eclipse the facts.