Chased by rainbows

Gary Hart Photography: Rainbow and Surf, Wai'anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui

Rainbow and Surf, Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/5 second
F/11
ISO 50

Okay, you might guess that as a nature photographer I spend a lot of time chasing rainbows. True, but I swear that in Hawaii it feels like rainbows are chasing me. Hawaii is the only place I’ve ever been where rainbows just appear with no warning, where I can be standing in full sun beneath a handful of puffy clouds, glance toward the horizon, and do a double-take—where’d that come from?

Because of Hawaiian rainbow’s seemingly spontaneous inclinations, the first thing do after landing at a photo site on the Islands is run through my rainbow checklist:

  • What’s the elevation of the sun? If the sun is lower than 42 degrees above the horizon, a rainbow is possible—the lower the sun, the higher and more complete (greater arc) the rainbow will be. If the sun’s near the horizon, a towering, nearly half-circle rainbow is possible; if the sun is higher, closer to 42 degrees, only a horizon-hugging, flatter rainbow is possible.
  • What’s the direction of the sun? A rainbow always appears directly opposite the sun—the best way to determine where it will appear is to find your shadow, which will point directly toward the rainbow’s center (and its apex).
  • If a rainbow does appear, where do I want to be? Armed with the answers from the first two questions, I know whether a rainbow is possible and exactly where it will appear. Now all I need is a composition for it. Pre-planning my rainbow composition prevents the Keystone Cops panic that typically ensues when a photographer looks skyward and spots a rainbow, but has nothing to put with it.
  • (Notice there’s no mention of rain here—I realize a rainbow requires rain, but in Hawaii the randomness of rainbows is a function of the rain’s fickle nature. Rain can be far enough away to be invisible, or it can sneak up on you with no warning. In other words, if I used the presence of rain as a criterion, I’d be defeating the entire purpose of the checklist.)

This simple exercise served me well a couple of weeks ago on Maui when, while photographing a wave-swept rock on the Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach near Hana, a vivid rainbow segment materialized above the eastern horizon. There had been no hint of rain, so I was pretty focused on my subject and not really thinking about rainbows. But since I’d run through my routine rainbow checklist earlier, I knew exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. In this case it was a simple matter of shifting to the other side of the rock I’d already been photographing and back up the beach a little bit.

A horizontal composition allowed me to balance the rainbow with “my” rock while including enough of the lush, palm tree studded peninsula to infuse a tropical feel. The next (easily forgotten) step was to ensure that my polarizer was properly oriented (a mis-oriented polarizer will erase a rainbow). Finally, timing my click before the waves swept too far ashore allowed the black sand beach play a prominent role in the bottom third of my frame.

Want to learn the how, when, and where of rainbow photography? My Rainbows Demystified article in my photo tips section is a good place to start.

Join me on Maui in 2016


 A Gallery of Rainbows

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

4 Comments on “Chased by rainbows

  1. Beautiful! This post made me smile! MAHALO!! [?]

    On Mon, Mar 16, 2015 at 10:51 AM, Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart wrote:

    > Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart posted: ” This e-mail is the first > version of this post. See the latest edits, clarifications, and other > improvements on my blog. Okay, you might guess that as a nature > photographer I spend a lot of times chasing rainbows. True, but I swear > that in Hawaii “

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