How To Photograph a Rainbow
How many rainbows do you see in a year? Probably not too many, because rainbows are quite rare. Most people see rainbows at the most unexpected moments, which means they’re not ready to take photos. For a rainbow to appear, certain weather conditions must be present.
If you’re lucky enough to see a rainbow, you’ve got to take the opportunity to shoot some gorgeous photos. The truth is, you don’t have a lot of time before the rainbow disappears completely, so you’ve got to be ready to act fast! It’s a lot easier to photograph a rainbow if you already have some background knowledge.
In this guide, we’ll explain how to photograph a rainbow, tell you what equipment you need, and explain the weather prerequisites of a rainbow to help you be in the right place at the right time.
What are the prerequisites for a rainbow?
You won’t see a rainbow every time it rains. There are actually several necessary prerequisites for a rainbow to appear. First of all, the atmosphere must be full of moisture, which means there is a quick (and often sudden) rainstorm outside. Second, the sun’s position must be low on the horizon at about 40 or 42 degrees in relation to the photographer. Finally, the sun must be visible, which means there are no clouds, yet the part of the sky where the rainbow appears must still have continuous rain and moisture.
The rainbow effect is caused by the sun rays refracting and reflecting off the sky’s water droplets. The rainbow appears in the sky as the full color spectrum, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold. This natural optical illusion, we call a rainbow, is quite rare and hard to photograph.
In the section, we’ll share the basics of photographing a rainbow, and then we’ll share some of the best pro tips to help you take your photography to the next level.
A key to taking a great rainbow photo is identifying the type of rainbow. Some rainbows look even more spectacular on camera than in real life. But did you know there are different types of rainbows? Contrary to popular belief, they are not all the same!
Not all rainbows appear the same way in the sky. Some appear only partially, which means you can’t see the full arc shape. While most rainbows appear with the sun’s rays on them, there is another phenomenon called the Moonbow. This occurs when the sun’s rays reflect off the moon’s surface. The colors are less visible and more subtle; thus, it’s harder to see the moonbow with the naked eye, let alone the camera. Capturing a photo of this type of rainbow is quite a feat!
The bright, vivid colors of the rainbow are ideal subjects for photographers. If you’re lucky enough, you can even shoot a double rainbow. It’s quite a rare occurrence, but if the sky is moist on the opposite side of the light source, you can have a double or triple rainbow effect.
Find the rainbow
Once you locate your rainbow, it’s time to take out the camera gear. Since it might still be raining, use a protective cover or umbrella to avoid damaging your devices. Your rainbow might be bright visible, but it might still be very faint in color. All you can do is move around and wait. In many cases, the rainbow appears faint but then intensifies in color in a matter of minutes. It’s a good idea to start shooting even while it’s faint, in case it disappears. Continuous shooting allows you to capture good shots even though you might not realize it at that moment.
Depending on your location, you might not have many options when it comes to your photo background. If you’re shooting in the city, you can’t avoid the buildings behind your rainbow. Realistically, you can’t always shoot in an idyllic mountain or sea location with the perfect picturesque background for your rainbow.
Keep in mind that rainbows are not solid static objects. The key to successfully photographing them is to capture them in front of plain dark background that makes them stand out. It’s challenging to make them stand out especially if your background is busy and cluttered. The ideal backdrop is one with darker colors like stormy clouds or mountains. The more uncluttered and plain, the better your rainbow will look. After all, the rainbow itself must capture the viewer’s eye, not the other objects in your photo.
The foreground can be just as important as the background. Check your foreground for potential distractions. In many cases, you can remove them post-processing to enhance your photos. Some foregrounds are actually beneficial as they can enhance your image. Something in the scenery can create a beautiful contrast with your rainbow and add interest to your composition.
A wide-angle lens is an absolute necessity if you want to take high-quality photos. A full rainbow is a wide subject, and it spans a large area of your scene. The only way to capture the full rainbow is with a wide-angle lens. This also makes the rainbow appear semi-circular, and it enhances its beauty. As a reference, a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera can’t capture a full double rainbow, so we recommend something like the 35mm.
If you want a large depth of field, choose a small aperture because it will have as much of the scene in focus as possible. Maximizing the depth of field is the best way to ensure that all the foreground and background elements appear sharp. Therefore, the ideal f-stop range is between 4/8 and f/11. If you use a smaller aperture like the f/22, it diminishes the overall image sharpness due to diffraction.
A polarizing filter reduces glare and shiny reflections for better photos. Try experimenting with the polarizing filter by rotating it to see what effects it has on your image. This really brings out the rainbow because it creates different color saturations, reflections, and contrast levels. The polarizing filter makes a big difference because it enhances the colors of the rainbow and the sky. As well, it changes the intensity of the elements in the background and foreground.
However, be careful when using the polarizing filter because it can make the rainbow disappear since it blocks the reflections. Use the camera’s viewfinder and rear LCD screen when capturing those rainbow shots. But, make sure to look up at the sky and see if the rainbow is vivid enough. You may need to rotate the filter more to adjust the color brightness.
Use the Tripod
It’s hard to capture rainbows without a tripod. The main issue is that rainbows appear in rainy and low light weather conditions. Thus, you need to use small apertures to get maximum depth of field as you work with the foreground subjects or objects. Without a tripod, it’s hard to capture the rainbow without a lot of noise. The tripod significantly reduces camera shakiness.
A successful rainbow shot is a combination of beautiful vivid colors and the surrounding objects in the foreground and background. Composition is an essential part of photography, and as any budding photographer knows, good composition makes a world of difference.
Try to capture an interesting object when you photograph your rainbow. Think about a mountain peak, a colorful treetop, or even some unique architecture. Use the rules of composition to capture something interesting. The rule of thirds, leading lines, and framing are important aspects of a photo. Make the image appear balanced so that it looks visually pleasing to the viewer.
We recommend that you pay extra attention to the following aspects:
Framing and positioning
Think about how you want to position the rainbow in relation to the rest of the landscape. The rules of composition are very useful when deciding how to lead the eye into your shot. Don’t forget to consider the focal points of your composition, and don’t be afraid to get technical and use the rule of thirds when you have time to really think things through. When possible, use the full rainbow to position your perfect shot.
It’s not often that you can photograph a rainbow reflected in the water. These instances are rare, but try this type of shot for a very dramatic effect if you ever have the opportunity. To capture both the rainbow and its reflection, use a wide-angle lens. The reflection acts as a lead-in and starting point in the photo. You can usually see a rainbow reflected in water in waterfalls or the ocean.
In this instance, the ground point (horizon point) refers to the spot where the ends of the rainbow hit the ground. That area is a point of interest in your composition, so think about how you frame it and where it goes in the frame. If possible, change your position to align the ground point with the other objects and elements in your scene. You can even zoom in on this key area to bring more attention to it.
Zoom/Wide Angle Perspectives
If you own other lenses, you can experiment with different focal lengths. You can also experiment with the zoom to focus on certain parts of the rainbow. When you zoom in to different parts of the rainbow, you can get a unique perspective. A good starting point is the horizon point and other points where the rainbow touches other objects. The wide-angle lens helps you capture the full rainbow, which can lead to amazing wide vista shots. Don’t be afraid to play around with the zoom – try zooming in and out to gain new perspectives on your subject.
Pro Tips for Photographing Rainbows
Now that we’ve gone through all of the basic rainbow photography essentials, I want to share some enlightening pro tips to help you capture the beauty of the rainbow. These tips offer additional insight into what it takes to successfully shoot something as fleeting and fluid as a rainbow. As you know, it could be on the horizon for as little as 60 seconds, or it can stay visible for many minutes.
Check out this double rainbow!
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The fisheye lens is an ultra-wide-angle lens. It’s mostly used to shoot panoramic or hemispherical pictures. A rainbow is a perfect subject for such a lens because it’s large in size and thus looks perfect in panoramic shots. As well, the hemispherical perspectives really bring out the rainbow’s arc shape.
Any wide angle lens can do the job quite well, but if you want to capture the details within the rainbow, like certain parts or colors, then you can use a telephoto lens. This lens helps you capture tiny details or isolate a specific subject in the distance, like a tree or bird. Imagine capturing a vivid rainbow and a hawk flying in the distance. That kind of detail makes the photo much more exciting.
Be careful with the polarizing filters
Polarizing filters are great – as long as you use them correctly. A polarizing filter can remove the rainbow from the final photo, so always check your images to make sure the filter doesn’t block out the actual rainbow. This filter can also trick the camera’s metering system. That’s why we recommend that you overexpose your shots.
Photographers use leading lines to frame the viewer’s eye towards a specific point in the picture. When you photograph rainbows, look for those leading lines that can frame and enhance your image. Check for any dark shadows, or roads, buildings, mountains, and any other elements. The lines help lead the viewer’s eye towards your rainbow focal point (if that’s your focal point, of course).
Most cameras have great autofocus features, and they’re very helpful for beginner photographers. However, when you shoot rainbows, we recommend using manual focus. In autofocus, the camera has difficulty focusing on the actual rainbow. Instead, it can lose focus and make your images blurry. With manual focus, you can shoot in any light conditions. And let’s be honest, the light conditions during stormy weather are less than ideal.
Embrace the Half Rainbow
In many cases, the whole rainbow is not visible due to large clouds. Only part or half of a rainbow may streak up into the sky. Even if you wait, the whole may never emerge, so it’s best to take advantage of the half rainbow. The polarizing filter works very well with half rainbows. It helps you shoot amazing details and colors, so make use of it!
There’s no real way to prepare for a rainbow unless you stalk the weather forecast, but even then, you’ll rarely find it. That’s why the moment you see one, you must prepare your camera and start shooting immediately. The appearance of a rainbow is a fleeting moment, so you never know when it’s going to reveal itself to you.
For the best results, shoot in RAW format and focus on your composition, shutter speed, and lenses. Worry about the rest when you post-process, as you can usually make significant adjustments then. It all comes down to being present in the moment and taking as many continuous shots as possible. But don’t forget to have fun and enjoy nature’s beautiful spectacle.