Rainbows are sacred in many religions and are often considered a bridge to the heavens. But if you remember your elementary science lessons, you may know that a rainbow is an optical illusion that occurs due to the reflection, refraction, and scattering of light.
Unfortunately, you can’t just pack up your camera and go shoot a rainbow. You need to understand the science behind it and prepare for it.
Sound complex? Don’t worry. We have everything covered.
1. Know the basics
You can see a rainbow when sunlight falls on water droplets from the opposite direction at a specific low angle. This is the golden rule that you must remember if you want to photograph rainbows.
Also, keep in mind the direction: in the eastern sky, you can see the rainbow in the evenings, and in the mornings, you should look to the west.
Knowing this rule will help you find many opportunities and places to photograph rainbows.
2. Keep an eye on the weather
Your best chance of seeing a rainbow is when there are drops of water in the air with the sun shining straight on. Rainy days are an option, but you don’t always have to expect one, as we’ll see in more detail later.
You have a good chance of seeing a rainbow after a storm. There should be clouds in front of you, but the sky behind you should be clear, so the sun can shine on the water droplets and scatter through them.
3. Head to a waterfall or fountain
You can’t always wait for the weather gods to bless you with a rainbow to photograph. Where else can you find water droplets in the air? In the waterfalls and fountains, the water splashes everywhere. So, they have the perfect conditions to make a rainbow.
If you know of a nearby waterfall or fountain, visit it several times. So you can know precisely when there will be a rainbow. For example, at Niagara Falls, you’ll likely see a rainbow in the late afternoon while looking at Horseshoe and American Falls from the Canadian side.
4. Pay attention to the background
When you see a rainbow, it’s natural to grab your camera and quickly take a snapshot of it. But that won’t do the rainbow justice. So take some time to compose your shot of it. At the same time, remember that rainbows are usually short-lived.
You’ll likely see a rainbow in a natural area, but still scan the background for distractions. Adjust your angle to keep unwanted branches or rocks out of the scene.
5. Find an interesting foreground
Rainbows are beautiful on their own, but focusing on that alone isn’t going to push your creative limits very far. Make your rainbow photo stand out by adding an interesting foreground element. For example, put a model in front of the rainbow or add things like a boat or flowers. This can make for a compelling composition.
Adding layers to your composition is also a great way to add depth and dimension to your photos.
6. Try a polarizing filter
A polarizing filter is a great option for landscape photography. It can also be a great tool for capturing rainbows because it can darken the sky and bring out its vibrancy.
Experiment with the polarizing filter to find the right spot where the rainbow looks saturated. The polarizing filter can make your rainbow disappear if you’re not careful. Using your camera’s viewfinder is a good idea instead of the LCD screen on the back.
7. Use a small opening
You want your rainbow photos to be sharp, so going with a smaller aperture is a better idea. With a wide aperture, you’ll lose rainbow detail and can end up looking blurry.
Opting for a smaller aperture will also preserve detail in the foreground and background. Since a smaller aperture allows less light to enter your camera, you’ll need to balance ISO and shutter speed accordingly.
8. Manual focus is the way to go
For the most part, your camera’s autofocus mode will achieve focus, but choose manual mode for rainbow photos to ensure you don’t want your rainbow out of focus.
Remember to use your camera’s viewfinder to look at the scene and turn the focus ring until the rainbow is sharp. Then click on the image.
You can learn more about your camera’s focus modes if you’re not familiar with them.
9. Pack your tripod
Rainbows happen on dark and rainy days. So, you are already working with less light than usual. Also, when you use a small aperture to shoot rainbows, you should slow down the shutter speed to allow more light into the camera. If you add a polarizing filter, you reduce the light even more.
Therefore, it is essential to have a tripod handy when photographing rainbows. Like time and tide, rainbows wait for no one. Better safe than sorry. You don’t want your rainbow photos to look blurry. Therefore, always carry one if you are going to photograph rainbows.
Still don’t have a tripod? Here’s our guide on what to look for in a tripod.
10. Experiment with different focal lengths
Rainbows generally occur as semicircles. But, to capture the entire semicircle, you need an ultra wide angle lens. Of course, you can still take captivating rainbow images without a wide-angle lens if you get creative with your composition.
Therefore, do not hesitate to use other lenses to photograph rainbows. Play around with your zoom lens by trying out different focal lengths. Do you only have the famous nifty-fifty? It’s a great all-around lens that will work perfectly for rainbows too.
Be prepared to capture stunning rainbow photos
Photographing rainbows is not something you can do every day. You have to be on the lookout for the perfect conditions that a rainbow can bring.
When planning to photograph a rainbow, being prepared is key. Take all the essential gear with you. Be flexible and look for interesting elements to add to your rainbow photos. Above all, have fun and be inspired by it.