Take a Photo of a Rainbow




To find out more about the diagram above . . . . read on!

Take a Photo of a Rainbow

Look carefully at the diagram at the top of the page. Now check out the following questions (and answers)!

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About the Diagram

Introducing the diagram! Read back and forward between the image at the top of the page and the explanation below!

Have you already checked out An Introduction to Rainbows?

It is the opening page of our Rainbow Series and contains masses of useful information. This is the table of contents:

So let’s start this page with an overview of rainbows

A rainbow is an optical effect produced by illuminated droplets of water. Rainbows are caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in individual droplets of rain and results in the appearance of an arc of spectral colours across the sky.

  • Rainbows only appear when weather conditions are ideal and an observer is in the right place at the right time.
  • Waterfalls, lawn sprinklers and other things that produce water droplets can produce a rainbow.
  • A rainbow is formed from millions of individual water droplets each of which reflects and refracts a tiny coloured image of the sun towards the observer.
  • It is the dispersion of light as refraction takes place that produces the rainbow colours seen by an observer.
  • If the sun is behind an observer then the rainbow will appear in front of them.
  • When a rainbow is produced by sunlight, the angles between the sun, each droplet and the observer determine which ones will form part of a rainbow and which colour each will produce.
  • Rainbows always form arcs around a centre point (called the anti-solar point).
  • The axis of a rainbow is an imaginary line drawn between the light source and observer during the period the bow is visible. The anti-solar point is on the same axis.
  • If you can see your own shadow and a rainbow at the same time, then the anti-solar point (the centre of the rainbow) is aligned with the shadow of your head.
  • Seen from the air a rainbow can appear as a complete circle, but a rainbow produced by sunlight is usually reduced from a circle to a semi-circle or an arc because the ground around an observer gets in the way.
  • The sky inside a rainbow is brighter than on the outside because raindrops direct light there too.
  • When you see a primary rainbow, the band of red appears on the outside, followed by orange, yellow, green, blue, with violet on the inside.
  • When you see a double rainbow then the secondary rainbow is above the primary bow, it is usually less intense, and the colours are in reverse order with violet on the outside.

About the diagram: How to take a photo of a rainbow

So you want a photo of a rainbow?

  • Make sure you are always carrying your camera, phone or computer with you. Natural rainbows are rarer than you might think? You may get your photo on the first day, or it may be weeks before the conditions are right.
  • If you can’t wait for nature to make you a rainbow, then there are other options. Rainbows can be produced by waterfalls, water fountains, lawn sprinklers and other things that create a spray of water.
  • Once you find your rainbow then ideally, place your camera on something solid or use a tripod.
  • If you are using a phone then set it to maximum resolution (the largest file size).
  • If you are using a camera, have the option, and plan to edit your shots, then select camera raw. This is a file format that gathers as much detail as possible without worrying about file size.
  • Take plenty of exposures of the scene without moving the camera.
  • It’s best to take a whole series of photos in one position. Then check your framing and do another series from a new position.
  • If you have the option, then use a range of exposure settings. This is sometimes called exposure bracketing. The rainbow will show up best if the photo is a bit darker so that there is more detail in the sky.
  • If your camera has the option, the select HDR (high dynamic range) for some shots. This mode allows your device to take three (or more) shots at different exposures and then blends them together to create a better overall result.
  • Once you have the photos the next option is Adobe Photoshop or similar. With the right set of skills, you can make endless edits and adjustments until your rainbow looks just right.

Remember that:

  • To see a rainbow, the rain must be in front of you and the sun must be in the opposite direction, at your back.
  • Rainbows are caused by sunlight reflecting, refracting and dispersing into separate colours inside water droplets before the light reaches your eyes.
  • Rainbows are rare in areas with little or no rainfall such as dry, desert conditions with few clouds.
  • Hills and mountains often create ideal conditions because clouds form quickly, and the weather can change several times a day – especially during spring and autumn. But too much cloud is bad because it blocks direct sunlight.
  • The best rainbows appear in the morning and evening when the sun is strong but low in the sky. This results in semi-circular rainbows with high arcs.
  • Far northern and southern latitudes are good for rainbows because the sun remains lower in the sky all day and rises and sets more slowly than nearer the equator.
  • Winter is not the best season for rainbows because the days are shorter, the sun isn’t as strong and there can be too much cloud.
  • Rainbows are less common around midday because the whole bow may appear to be below the horizon. This is because as soon as raindrops land on the ground there are no more droplets to reflect light towards you.

Follow the blue links for definitions . . . . or check the summaries of key terms below!

Some Key Terms

Move to the next level! Check out the following terms.


Dispersion (or chromatic dispersion) refers to the way that light, under certain conditions, separates into its component wavelengths and the ...
Read More

Light source

A light source is a natural or man-made object that emits one or more wavelengths of light. The Sun is ...
Read More

Rainbow colours

Rainbow colours are the bands of colour seen in rainbows and in other situations where visible light separates into its ...
Read More


Reflection takes place when incoming light strikes the surface of a medium, obstructing some wavelengths which bounce back into the ...
Read More


Refraction refers to the way that electromagnetic radiation (light) changes speed and direction as it travels across the interface between ...
Read More

Spectral colour

A spectral colour is a colour evoked in normal human vision by a single wavelength of visible light, or by ...
Read More

Visible light

Visible light is the range of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation perceived as colour by human observers. Visible light is a ...
Read More

Visible spectrum

The visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum is called the visible spectrum. The visible spectrum is the range of wavelengths ...
Read More

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