Photograph: “Photo” comes from phos, the Greek word for light; “graph” is from graphos, the Greek word for write. And that’s pretty much what we photographers do: Write with light.
Because we have no control over the sun, nature photographers spend a lot of time hoping for “good” light and cursing “bad” light. There’s no universal definition of good and bad light; it’s usually more a function of whatever it is we want to do at the moment. Just as portrait photographers have complete understanding of the artificial light they use to illuminate their subjects, nature photographers should understand the sunlight they photograph: what it is, what it does, and why it does it.
It’s this understanding of light that allows me to be in the right place for vivid sunrises and sunset, to know the best time and location for blurring water, and that helped me anticipate this amazing rainbow. To learn more about light, read the Light article in my Photo Tips section.
May 26, 2009
On my drive to Yosemite the sky above the San Joaquin Valley was clear, but I was encouraged to see dark cumulus clouds billowing above the Sierra to my east. Sierra thunderstorms in May are rare, but not unprecedented. At the very least I knew the clouds would make for interesting photography. As I entered the park via Big Oak Flat Road, a few large drops dotted my windshield. The afternoon sun was now obscured by clouds, but the sky to the west remained virtually cloudless, a good sign, but nothing I hadn’t seen before.
By the time I reached Yosemite Valley the rain had increased enough to require me to engage my wipers and get my mental wheels turning. I was in the park for a one day, private photo tour with a couple from Dallas. The arrangement was to meet at Yosemite Lodge for dinner to plan the next day’s activities, then to go shoot sunset. As I continued toward my appointment I allowed myself to consider the possibility of a rainbow. Going for it would require rushing to meet my customers, delaying dinner, and possibly sitting in the rain with no guarantee of success.
Still undecided but with about 20 minutes to spare, I dashed up to Tunnel View to survey Yosemite Valley. I liked the way things were shaping up; if I’d have been by myself I’d have skipped dinner. Leaving Tunnel View I continued surveying the sky—by the time I reached the lodge I knew I could be sued for malpractice if I didn’t at least suggest the possibility of a rainbow.
We completed our introductions in front of the cafeteria, but before entering I suggested that maybe we should forget dinner for now. Robert and Kristy were as excited about the conditions as I was (phew) but had just completed a long hike and were famished, so we rushed in and grabbed pre-made pizzas to eat on the road.
Twenty minutes later we were sitting on my favorite granite slope above Tunnel View. We were immediately greeted by a flash of lightning, followed not too many seconds later by a blast of thunder. As a lifelong Californian, I’m not particularly experienced with lightning, so I deferred to the Texans and found comfort in their lack of concern (knowing what I know now, I probably should have been more concerned).
Rainbow photography is equal parts preparation and providence. The preparation comes from understanding the optics of a rainbow, knowing the conditions necessary, where to look, then putting yourself in the best position to capture it; the providence is a gift from the heavens, when all the conditions align exactly as you envisioned. Robert, Kristy, and I had been admiring the view and photographing intermittently in a light, warm rain for about thirty minutes when a rainbow appeared. It started slowly, as a faint band in front of El Capitan, and quickly developed into a vivid stripe of color. For the next seven minutes we shot like crazy people—I varied my compositions with almost every shot and called to them to do the same. When it ended we were giddy with excitement—never let it be said that a professional nature photographer can’t get excited about his subjects—and even though the rainbow never quite achieved a complete arc across the valley, it had been everything I dared hope for.
Little did we know that this first rainbow was just a prelude—less than ten minutes later a second rainbow appeared, becoming more vivid than the first, growing into a full double rainbow that arced all the way across Yosemite Valley, from the Merced River to Silver Strand Fall. It lasted over twenty minutes, long enough for me to set up a second camera and do multiple lens changes on each. We actually reached the point where we simply ran out of compositions and could only laugh as we continued clicking anyway.
One more thing: This is the third time I’ve processed this image. I’ve never been completely happy with some of the color tones and overly bright highlights, so I decided to give it one more shot. Using Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CS 6, I was finally able to come up with something that more accurately represents the experience of this unforgettable moment.