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How to Photograph Rainbows

There’s nothing like dramatic light to take a scenic that’s been shot thousands of times to a new level. Impending storms, shafts of sun spotlighting key compositional elements, fire engine red clouds, all qualify but what rides highest on many landscape photographer’s list of most dramatic are rainbows.

Russ Burden Tip6

They have it all – prismatic color, a stormy sky lit by the sun, early morning or late afternoon light, and if you believe in folk tales, maybe a pot of gold. They’re adrenaline pumping phenomena that rev up many photographers’ juices. With each rainbow I’ve encountered over the years, upon completion of the shoot I look to the sky, wink, say thanks, and rush back to the motel to burn a CD and place it in a safe location.

Finding a rainbow requires a number of natural events to occur. First off, the horizon by the setting or rising sun must be clear and the sun needs to be lower than forty two degrees in the sky. With your back to where it rises or sets, turn so your shadow falls directly in front of you so you’re facing one hundred and eighty degrees from the sun. The point at which you now face is known as the antisolar point. This is where the arc of the rainbow will appear providing there is moisture in the sky.  When all factors come together, a rainbow materializes. Understandably, they’re not an every day occurrence.

Russ Burden Tip8

When you’re out in the field and it’s rainy, look toward the horizon of the setting or rising sun. If you see an opening in the clouds, look for a foreground in the direction of the antisolar point that has character or interest and wait. Mount your camera to a tripod to ensure you get a sharp image. If a rainbow shows up, make sure you capture it exhausting all compositional possibilities. Shoot it vertically, horizontally, with a wide angle to take it all in, and with a telephoto to sample portions with the most dramatic color. Use a polarizer to enhance its color but be careful because as you rotate it, you can also eliminate it.  Don’t dwell on this as it’s visible through the viewfinder. Join me on one of my photo tours and I will hopefully be able to show you how to photograph a rainbow first hand.


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