Tips on Photographing Rainbows

June 06, 2013  •  Leave a Comment
Crested Butte Mountain under the Rainbowp1259669828-5
Rainbow over Crested Butte Mountain


Now that it’s finally summer in western Colorado the “monsoonal flow” of moisture has begun drifting up from the Gulf of Mexico, through Arizona into Colorado bringing us occasional afternoon showers and thunderstorms. We plan our outings this time of year to avoid these mid-afternoon storms preferring mornings and the hour or two before sunset for outdoor activities like family portraits and bike rides. The late afternoon storms frequently leave us with rainbows.


Photographing rainbows successfully requires a little gear. First, you need rain. Those of you who’ve played with the Cokin Rainbow Filter should remember this part and not try to use it when there’s not a cloud in the sky. Others will know what you’ve done and, (for all photographers), your technique should not be apparent to others.


Another key ingredient to rainbows is the sun. Because you need both rain and sun, brief showers are much more conducive to photographing rainbows than big storms lasting into the night. There are a couple of places in the U.S.A. where you can capture rainbows at night with a full moon and a waterfall. I tried this at Cumberland Falls in Kentucky a few years ago but the clouds rolled in about the time the moon came up so I didn’t get the “moonbow” and I didn’t get to sleep.


Another helpful bit of gear is a really wide-angle lens. The wider the better! A fish-eye lens is a wonderful rainbow tool allowing you to get both ends of a full rainbow. Using longer lenses works too, but you’ll have to settle for just part of the rainbow. The image above, “Under the Rainbow” was created with a special panorama camera that provides the wide field of view with a longer lens. This approach distorts the foreground causing what were straight lines to fall back into the photograph.


Having a subject or object to place in the frame with the rainbow is a major aid to composition and adds interest to the image. Even though most of us are happy with just capturing the rainbow, creating an actual photographic composition with a rainbow might just end up on someones wall. It helps a lot if you know the lay of the land and have pre-visualized your composition a little. Rainbows have been known to move along the horizon based on the angle of the sun. They also have a greater arc the closer they happen to sunset.


The final item is a polarizing filter. Rainbows really react to the use of a polarizing filter by either vanishing completely or having greatly intensified colors. So, if you’re photographing a landscape and a rainbow happens to show up and you want to make it go away, the polarizing filter will work wonders. On the other hand, if you’re photographing a landscape and you think the rainbow could use a little boost, the polarizing filter will work wonders there too. Keep in mind that these filters can become a little difficult to work with on wider angle lenses. They may vignette the corners of the frame and they will absorb a lot of light making your exposure time or aperture settings change.


So, like the Wailin’ Jennys sing in their awesome song “Storm Comin’”, don’t run for cover. Run for your camera when the storm’s coming. Have some fun chasing rainbows.


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Crested Butte, Colorado photographer, Dusty Demerson creates fine art photography displayed as prints and canvases and provides private photo tours in and around western Colorado.

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