Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 1/5 second F/16.0 ISO 100 38 mm

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/5 second
ISO 100
38 mm

Rainbows Demystified

The plan was to meet my customers at Yosemite Lodge for dinner to strategize the following day’s photography. But as I entered the park, bright sunshine quickly gave way to heavy showers—since Yosemite’s weather moves west to east, I knew the perfect rainbow recipe that occurs at the boundary separating sunshine and rainfall could reach Yosemite Valley just a little before sunset. After convincing my customers to alter our dinner plans, the three of us hightailed it to my favorite Yosemite Valley vantage point near Tunnel View. After fifteen minutes of sitting in the rain, we were rewarded when one of the most spectacular rainbows I’ve ever witnessed arced above one of the most beautiful views on Earth. I felt quite fortunate that everything came together that afternoon, but it never would have happened had I not understood how, when, and where rainbows form.

Most people understand that a rainbow is light spread into various colors by airborne water drops. But to many a rainbow is a random, unpredictable phenomenon. Actually, the natural laws governing rainbow quite specific and predictable, and understanding these laws can help photographers anticipate a rainbow and enhance its capture.

Let there be light

Energy generated by the sun bathes Earth in continuous electromagnetic radiation, its wavelengths ranging from extremely short to extremely long (and every wavelength in between). Among the broad spectrum of electromagnetic solar energy we receive are ultra-violet rays that burn our skin, infrared waves that warm our atmosphere, and a very narrow range of wavelengths the human eye sees.

These visible wavelengths are captured by our eyes  and interpreted by our brain. When the our eyes take in light consisting of the full range of visible wavelengths, we perceive it as white (colorless) light. We perceive color when some wavelengths are more prevalent than others. For example, when light strikes an opaque (solid) object such as a tree or rock, some of its wavelengths are absorbed; the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered. Our eyes capture this scattered light, send the information to our brains, which interprets it as a color. When light strikes water, some is absorbed and scattered by the surface, enabling us to see the water; some light passes through the water’s surface, enabling us to see what’s in the water; and some light is reflected by the surface, enabling us to see reflections.

(From this point on, for simplicity’s sake, it might help to visualize what happens when water strikes a single drop.)

Light traveling from one medium to another (e.g., from air into water) refracts (bends). Different wavelengths refract different amounts, causing the light to split into its component colors.

Light that passes through a water refracts (bends). Different wavelengths are refracted different amounts by water; this separates the originally homogeneous white light into the multiple colors of the spectrum.

But simply separating the light into its component colors isn’t enough to create a rainbow–if it were, we’d see a rainbow whenever light strikes water. Seeing the rainbow spectrum caused by refracted light requires that the refracted light be returned to our eyes somehow.

A raindrop isn’t flat like a sheet of paper, it’s spherical, like a ball. Light that was refracted (and separated into multiple colors) as it entered the front of the raindrop, continues through to the back of the raindrop, where some is reflected. Red light reflects back at about 42 degrees, violet light reflects back at about 40 degrees, and the other spectral colors reflect back between 42 and 40 degrees. What we perceive as a rainbow is this reflection of the refracted light–notice how the top color of the primary rainbow is always red, and the bottom color is always violet.

Follow your shadow

Every raindrop struck by sunlight creates a rainbow. But just as the reflection of a mountain peak on the surface of a lake is visible only when viewed from the angle the reflection bounces off the lake’s surface, a rainbow is visible only when you’re aligned with the 40-42 degree angle at which the raindrop reflects the spectrum of rainbow colors.

Fortunately, viewing a rainbow requires no knowledge of advanced geometry. To locate or anticipate a rainbow, picture an imaginary straight line originating at the sun, entering the back of your head, exiting between your eyes, and continuing down into the landscape in front of you–this line points to the “anti-solar point,” an imaginary point exactly opposite the sun. With no interference, a rainbow would form a complete circle, skewed 42 degrees from the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point–with you at the center. (We don’t see the entire circle because the horizon gets in the way.)

Because the anti-solar point is always at the center of the rainbow’s arc, a rainbow will always appear exactly opposite the sun (the sun will always be at your back). It’s sometimes helpful to remember that your shadow always points toward the anti-solar point. So when you find yourself in direct sunlight and rain, locating a rainbow is as simple as following your shadow and looking skyward–if there’s no rainbow, the sun’s probably too high.

High or low

Sometimes a rainbow appears as a majestic half-circle, arcing high above the distant terrain; other times it’s merely a small circle segment hugging the horizon. As with the direction of the rainbow, there’s nothing mysterious about its varying height. Remember, every rainbow would form a full circle if the horizon didn’t get in the way, so the amount of the rainbow’s circle you see (and therefore its height) depends on where the rainbow’s arc intersects the horizon.

While the center of the rainbow is always in the direction of the anti-solar point, the height of the rainbow is determined by the height of the anti-solar point, which will always be exactly the same number of degrees below the horizon as the sun is above the horizon. It helps to imagine the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point as a fulcrum, with you as the pivot–picture yourself in the center of a teeter-totter: as one seat rises above you, the other drops below you. That means the lower the sun, the more of its circle you see and the higher it appears above the horizon; conversely, the higher the sun, the less of its circle is above the horizon and the flatter (and lower) the rainbow will appear.

Assuming a flat, unobstructed scene (such as the ocean), when the sun is on the horizon, so is the anti-solar point (in the opposite direction), and half of the rainbow’s 360 degree circumference will be visible. But as the sun rises, the anti-solar point drops–when the sun is more than 42 degrees above the horizon, the anti-solar point is more than 42 degrees below the horizon, and the only way you’ll see a rainbow is from a perspective above the surrounding landscape (such as on a mountaintop or on a canyon rim).

Of course landscapes are rarely flat. Viewing a scene from above, such as from atop Mauna Kea or from the rim of the Grand Canyon, can reveal more than half of the rainbow’s circle. From an airplane, with the sun directly overhead, all of the rainbow’s circle can be seen, with the plane’s shadow in the middle.

Double Your pleasure

Not all of the light careening about a raindrop goes into forming the primary rainbow. Some of the light slips out the back of the raindrop to illuminate the sky, and some is reflected inside the raindrop a second time. The refracted light that reflects a second time before exiting creates a secondary, fainter rainbow skewed 50 degrees from the anti-solar point. Since this is a reflection, the colors of the secondary rainbow are reversed from the primary rainbow.

And if the sky between the primary and secondary rainbows appears darker than the surrounding sky, you’ve found “Alexander’s band.” It’s caused by all the light machinations I just described–instead of all the sunlight simply passing through the raindrops to illuminate the sky, some of the light was intercepted, refracted, and reflected by the raindrops to form our two rainbows, leaving less light for the sky between the rainbows.

Waterfalls are easy

From Yosemite’s Tunnel View each spring afternoon, a rainbow can be viewed at the base of Bridalveil Fall. As the sun drops, the rainbow climbs, taking about 30 minutes to complete its ascent.

Understanding the optics of a rainbow has practical applications for photographers. Not only does it help you anticipate a rainbow before it happens, it also enables you to find rainbows in waterfalls.

Unlike a rainbow caused by rain, which requires you to be in exactly the right position to capture the incongruous convergence of rainfall and sunshine, a waterfall rainbow can be predicted with clock-like precision–just add sunshine.

Yosemite is my location of choice, but there’s probably a waterfall or two near you that will work. Just figure out when the waterfall gets direct sunlight early or late in the day, then put yourself somewhere on the line connecting the sun and the waterfall. And if you have an elevated vantage point, you’ll find that the sun doesn’t even need to be that low in the sky.


Understanding the optics can even help you locate rainbows that aren’t even visible to the naked eye. A “moonbow” (lunar rainbow) is a rare and wonderful phenomenon that follows all the natural rules of a daylight rainbow. But instead of resulting from direct sunlight, a moonbow is caused by sunlight reflected by the moon.

Moonlight isn’t bright enough to fully engage the cones that reveal color in your eyes (though sometimes you can see the moonbow as an arcing monochrome band). But a camera on a sturdy tripod can use its virtually unlimited shutter duration to accumulate enough light to bring out a moonbow in full living color. Armed with this knowledge, all you need to do is put yourself in the right location at the right time.

Moonbow and Big Dipper, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite :: Each spring the full moon and Yosemite Falls conspire to deliver a breathtaking moonbow display. And as if that’s not enough, the Big Dipper is suspended above as if it’s the source of Yosemite Falls.

Rainbow, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Rainbow, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon  :: Sometimes the rainbow doesn’t appear exactly where you want it to. In a perfect world this rainbow would have connected the rims of the Grand Canyon, but there was no vantage point on the rim that gave me that view. Nevertheless, I was able to use the canyon’s red rock as a foreground, and balance its exquisite depth with the rainbow.

Photo workshop schedule

A Gallery of Rainbows

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

10 Comments on “Rainbows

  1. Pingback: Have you ever seen a moonbow? | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  2. What a great explanation. Thanks so much. I think I really understand this and can’t wait to go look for rainbows when the conditions are right.

  3. A great explanation Gary. I have made a lot of water fall rainbows some so close that it looks like I am standing at the end of one. Every time I go out look for the opportunity to shoot a rainbow.

  4. Thank you. I have always wondered what surface a rainbow was reflected from.

  5. Gary, we are looking for unique artwork for the Oakhurst Park Elegant Auction at Tenaya Lodge. Would you be willing to donation one of your pieces for the live auction?

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