Rainbows make amazing photographic subjects – but capturing a rainbow in all its glory can be surprisingly difficult. For the best shots, you need to:
- Find a stunning rainbow
- Select the right settings
- Arrange a beautiful composition
- Apply careful post-processing
It’s enough to make anyone overwhelmed – but don’t fret! In this article, I explain everything you need to know for amazing rainbow photography, including handy tips to improve your compositions, pick the right settings, level up your post-processing, and more.
So if you’re ready to learn all the secrets to photographing rainbows, then let’s dive right in!
1. Find a beautiful rainbow
If you want to capture stunning rainbow photography, then – obviously! – you’ll need to find a subject.
This is often the hardest part of the process; in many locations, rainbows are a relatively rare occurrence, and when they do appear, it’s often completely out of the blue.
Rainbows are formed when sunlight is refracted by water, so you should look out for rainbows when you have two elements present:
- Falling/spraying water droplets
- Bright sunlight
Therefore, keep an eye on the sky when a storm is approaching or just wrapping up. You can also look for smaller rainbows around waterfalls, fountains, and even sprinklers.
Note that rainbow visibility also depends on the angle of the sun. You won’t ever see a rainbow when the sun is high in the sky (e.g., at noon in the summer in many latitudes). Specifically, the sun must be at an angle of 42 degrees or lower (relative to the earth) for a rainbow to be visible, so it’s often futile to search for rainbows in the middle of the day.
Instead, make sure you head out at least a few hours from high noon (and before or after storms). Make sense?
2. Use a narrow aperture for a sharp scene
The best rainbow photos tend to feature a sharp rainbow in the background and a sharp foreground, so it’s important you adjust your camera settings to ensure you have lots of depth of field. (Depth of field refers to the window of sharpness in your photo; in rainbow photography, more depth of field is generally better!)
Start by setting your camera to Manual mode. Then dial in a relatively narrow aperture – such as f/8, f/11, and beyond – to achieve plenty of depth of field. You’ll also need to carefully focus about a third of the way into the scene, which will maximize sharpness by keeping both the foreground and the background in focus.
Note that a narrower aperture will let in less light, so to produce a bright image, you’ll need to compensate by boosting your ISO or slowing down your shutter speed. I’d recommend against raising your ISO, as higher ISOs produce image-degrading noise. Instead, lower that shutter speed, but make sure you follow my next tip:
3. Never forget your tripod
As you now know, you’ll generally want to use a narrow aperture and a slower shutter speed for the best results. Unless the light is strong, you’ll often need to drop the shutter speed to 1/80s or below – which will lead to blur due to camera shake if you try to shoot handheld.
That’s where a tripod comes in handy. Mount your camera to a sturdy tripod, and you won’t need to worry about lowering your shutter speed to 1/80s, 1/30s, or even 5s. That’s why I encourage you to always travel with a tripod!
In fact, because rainbows often appear so suddenly, it’s a good idea to keep a tripod in the trunk of your car. That way, if you see a rainbow on the horizon, you can bring out your camera, whip out that tripod, and get a sharp, well-exposed photo.
Plus, even when you have enough light to photograph handheld, a tripod can still come in handy. It’ll force you to slow down your shooting process, and as a result, you’ll be able to find gorgeous compositions that you might not have noticed otherwise.
4. Use exposure bracketing to prevent clipping
Even if you carefully select a good aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, correctly exposing your rainbow photos can be tricky. On the one hand, you need to ensure that you capture plenty of detail in the foreground. On the other hand, you need to ensure that you capture plenty of detail in the sky.
But because the sky is so much brighter than the foreground, cameras – especially older cameras – can struggle to retain detail in both the dark foreground and bright sky areas. They’ll clip the scene, which means they’ll produce blown-out highlights or pitch-black shadows. And as you can probably guess, this does not look good.
So what do you do? How do you retain detail in both the foreground and the sky of your rainbow shots?
One option is to use a graduated neutral density filter, which will darken the sky while leaving the foreground untouched. It’s a fine strategy, but ND grads can be pretty expensive, plus they can be somewhat inflexible when working with certain soft-edged subjects. That’s why I prefer a more versatile alternative:
With your camera mounted on a tripod, simply capture one image that includes plenty of detail in the foreground, one image that includes plenty of detail in the sky, and one image that falls in between.
You can do this in a few different ways, but if you’re working in Manual mode, just start with a fast(er) shutter speed (for the sky shot), then lower it a stop or two (for the mid-level shot) and lower it again (for the foreground shot).
Then, when you get back home, blend the three images using your favorite post-processing software (it’s easy to do in Lightroom or Photoshop). Your final file will include plenty of detail in the sky and in the foreground.
5. Pay attention to the background
A rainbow isn’t a solid object. Therefore, for the best results, you must photograph in front of a background that helps the colors stand out. A too-bright or busy background will detract from the rainbow, and the viewer may even fail to take notice.
Ideally, you should aim for a darker background (think dark clouds, dark rock, or mountains) that’s as uncluttered as possible. Note how the dark colors of the cliffs serve to enhance the rainbow colors in this next image:
Of course, it’s not always possible to swap out a bad background for a good one when you’re out shooting, but you can often change your angle to get a better result. Another option is to zoom in (either with your lens or with your feet) and focus on just part of the rainbow – that is, the part that’s in front of a good background.
6. Include eye-catching foregrounds
While capturing a rainbow against a mountain or dark sky certainly looks nice, after a while, it can feel a little…boring. Instead, why not take your rainbow photos to the next level by combining a powerful foreground with a beautiful sky?
A foreground subject serves several purposes. It can add interest, it can draw in the viewer, and it can complement the sky. It can also balance out the composition, and/or it can lead the eye straight toward the rainbow in the background. In other words, if you can include a foreground subject, you should; the results are almost always great!
Now, you might be wondering: What kind of foregrounds work in rainbow shots?
You can use pretty much anything you can find, but here is a list of common foreground subjects:
- City buildings
- Street signs
- Road paint
- Fallen logs
- Crashing waves
One tip: Before you settle on a composition, scan the foreground carefully for distractions. Then do what you can to remove them (by adjusting your position, your focal length, or your camera angle).
7. Carefully determine your composition
I’ve emphasized the value of including a powerful foreground and a rainbow-enhancing background, but it’s also important to consider other key aspects of your compositions. In particular, pay attention to:
- Rainbow positioning. How you position the rainbow (and the rest of the landscape) within the frame can make or break the shot. Compositional guidelines like the rule of thirds can help you arrange the rainbow and the horizon line to create a balanced result.
- The rainbow endpoints. The rainbow will hit the “ground” at two points. These are natural areas of interest, so it’s essential to position them carefully within the frame. You may want to zoom in to emphasize one point of contact (and exclude the other). You might also want to change your own position so an endpoint lines up with some other object in the scene.
- Your focal length. If you have the time and the equipment, I encourage you to experiment with different focal lengths. Wide-angle lenses work great for rainbow photography and will produce some wonderful vista shots, but don’t forget that zooming in on a part of the rainbow (using a telephoto lens) can also lead to spectacular results. Look to emphasize points where the rainbow intersects with other objects or the ground.
8. Look for multiple rainbows
If you see one rainbow, you may be able to find a second – or at least another layer of rainbow that arcs over the first. If you can include both in the frame, you’ll often create extra interest, but be careful; you don’t want your composition to become too messy.
So before you back up to include that second rainbow in the frame, ask yourself: Will it actually add to the composition? And if the answer is “No,” consider excluding that second rainbow from the shot. Focus on making the more visible rainbow the focal point of your composition. Sometimes, less is more!
9. Try adding a polarizing filter
Polarizing filters help remove reflections and haze from the scene, and this can be hugely useful when shooting rainbows. So if you have a polarizer, try bringing it out, pointing your lens at the rainbow, and rotating the filter. See how it affects the resulting image.
In my experience, adjusting a polarizer will create different levels of color saturation, contrast, and reflections. This can help the rainbow stand out more, which is pretty much always a good thing.
A couple of items to note, however:
- You can buy lots of cheap polarizers on websites like eBay, but they’ll often degrade image quality and cause optical issues. I’d really encourage you to invest in high-quality products. Yes, they may cost a decent amount, but they’ll also give you the best results.
- Polarizers do reduce the volume of light hitting your camera sensor. While tripods are important for standard rainbow photography, if you’re going to be working with a polarizer, a tripod is absolutely essential.
10. Make sure you spend time post-processing
It’s important to get your images looking as good as possible in the field…
…but even the best photographers spend time post-processing each and every image they share. Why? Because post-processing has all sorts of useful applications. With a bit of editing, you can:
- Make the main subject stand out
- Emphasize (or deemphasize) certain colors
- Bring out detail throughout the scene
- Remove distracting elements, such as trash
In particular, I’d encourage you to use a basic editing program like Lightroom to boost the rainbow’s colors (try pushing up the saturation or even enhancing specific colors using the HSL panel). It’s often helpful to push up the contrast, and if you have the time, experiment with the tonal sliders (such as the Shadows and the Highlights).
Pay attention to your image’s exposure, and make sure that the sky and the foreground seem relatively balanced. You can use a graduated/gradient filter to darken the sky or brighten the foreground as required.
Rainbow photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to photograph rainbows – so you’re ready to head out with your camera and capture some gorgeous rainbow landscapes.
Just remember to use the right settings, carefully choose your composition, and don’t forget that tripod. With a bit of practice, you’ll be creating amazing shots in no time at all!
What type of rainbow photography do you plan to do? Share your thoughts (and images) in the comments below!