Photographing Rainbows

Rainbow Over Manhattan.

Photographing Rainbows

Some say that rainbows are symbols of hope. I tend to believe that. I love rainbows. There’s something awe-inspiring, breathtaking about them. So, let’s take a look at photographing rainbows.

Rainbow over Napali Coast. Aerial view. Photo by Alina Oswald.

What is a rainbow?

Without getting too much into the science behind the rainbows, we’ve learned in school that when white light passes through a prism, it decomposes into what we often associate with the rainbow colors, visible light:


But it doesn’t have to be a prism. Light traveling through water drops–rain, clouds, or fog–enters the water drops as white light and comes out as visible light, the colors of the visible spectrum or, as we often call it, the rainbow. Hence, during a sun shower (when it rains while the sun is still out) there’s a good chance that we see a rainbow.

When the bow does appear in the sky, it often shows itself as an arc in the sky (the French name for rainbow is just that, “bow (or arc) in the sky” or “arc-en-ciel,” I was reminded of that by activist Carlos Idibouo, whom I interviewed and photographed for A&U Magazine not too long ago.)

Hawaii is also known as the land of the rainbows. The rainbow is part of the HI license plate. Oh, and by the way, the Hawaiian word for “rainbow” is “anuenue.”

Here’s a partial rainbow crossing an angry sky, reaching the palm trees on the island of Maui, Hawaii.

Rainbow over Hawaii Palm Trees. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Wind and rainbow through Aloha palm trees. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Some call the rainbow an optical illusion. Others consider a certain kind of rainbow, the fog bow or Brocken spectre, an optical illusion. The rainbow (fog bow) is much larger than a usual rainbow. The fog bow (Brocken spectre) is about half a circle that surrounds your shadow if you happen to be in the right spot. This rare, amazing apparition lasts for only a few short moments.

Brocken Spectre. A closer look. Photo by Alina Oswald.

And here’s an image of the Brocken Spectre captured with a wide-angle lens:

Rainbows are actually full circles. When we see a “full rainbow” we often see only half of that circle. More often than not, rainbows appear as bows of visible light crossing the sky. We can see them from the ground level or from the sky. And we can also fly through a rainbow if we’re lucky.

How to have the chance to fly through a rainbow?

When in Hawaii, take helicopter rides in an open-door helicopter. It’s pricey, but it’s definitely worth the money. That’s the only way you can have the chance to actually fly through a rainbow or a double rainbow like I did. Pure luck!

Here’s a look at the rainbow we were about to fly through:

Aerial Photography by Alina Oswald. ©Alina Oswald
Flying through a full double rainbow in Hawaii, in a no-door helicopter. Photo by Alina Oswald.

And here’s a bit of a video from that flight:

But, back to rain- and other bows…. Moonbows are rainbows created by the light reflected off the moon’s surface. I hope I’ll be able to capture a moonbow one day.

But one doesn’t have to travel to the Aloha islands to spot a rainbow. One can also notice rainbows over New York City.

Oftentimes the rainbow creates an arc, a bridge over the river, between Jersey City and Manhattan. Here’s an image capturing such a rainbow. The end of the rainbow reaches the Holland Tunnel air vent on the Jersey side of the Hudson.

Rainbow crosses the Hudson River, from Jersey City to New York City. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Rainbow over Manhattan skyline. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Here’s another, pretty bright rainbow from a few years ago, and a ferry boat sailing down the Hudson through that rainbow.

NYC Rainbow and Ferry. Photo by Alina Oswald.
NYC Rainbow and Ferry. Photo by Alina Oswald.

And a close-up image of that ferry sailing through the rainbow.

Ferry sailing down the Hudson, through the rainbow. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Sailing the Hudson Through the Rainbow. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Sometimes the rainbow colors are bright, vibrant; other times, barely there. Sometimes the rainbow appears against a clear blue sky, while other times its bow is interrupted by pockets of clouds.

Depending on where you are and what gear you have with you, do try to capture the rainbow if you do spot one.

You can capture the rainbow as part of a landscape or cityscape, or you can zoom in on the rainbow as it crosses a certain part of the landscape or cityscape. If possible, include landmarks, recognizable buildings or objects in the image.

Use a polarizing filter.

Use a tripod, if you have one with you.

If you have to photograph in the rain or mist, protect your gear. Use a lens hood (not only for mist, but in general, to protect your lens), and also buy a couple of lens sleeves to protect your lens and camera body if you happen to shoot in the snow, rain or mist. If it does pour outside, maybe it’s a good idea to find shelter, a place from where you can photograph without getting completely soaked–you or your photo gear. The lens sleeve won’t help much when it pours.

Here’s a close-up image of the rainbow reaching a Manhattan high-rise.

Into the rainbow. A close-up look of the end of the rainbow, reaching NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald.
A rainbow reaches Manhattan. Photo by Alina Oswald.

And here’s an image of the rainbow crossing the Manhattan skies on a stormy day:

Rainbow over Manhattan skyline on a stormy day. Photo by Alina Oswald.
A Rainbow crosses a stormy Manhattan sky. Photo by Alina Oswald.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald


    1. Thanks so much, Gloria! You’re too nice, as always 🙂 . I always watch for rainbows, especially after a rain shower, usually during summer. Thanks again for your kind words. Appreciate it very much! xo


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.