Primary rainbow

The most common atmospheric rainbow is a primary bow.

  •  Primary rainbows appear when sunlight is refracted as it enters raindrops, reflects once off the opposite interior surface, is refracted again as it escapes back into the air, and then travels towards an observer.
  • The colours in a primary rainbow are always arranged with red on the outside of the bow and violet on the inside.
  • The outside (red) edge of a primary rainbow forms an angle of approx. 42.40 from its centre, as seen from the point of view of the observer. The inside (violet) edge forms at an angle of approx. 40.70.
  • To get a sense of where the centre of a rainbow might be, imagine extending the curve of a rainbow to form a circle.
  • If your shadow is visible as you look at a rainbow its centre is aligned with your head.
  • A primary rainbow is only visible when the altitude of the sun is less than 42.4°.
  • Primary bows appear much brighter than secondary bows and so are easier to see.
  • The curtain of rain on which sunlight falls is not always large enough or in the right place to produce both primary and secondary bows.