Share this photo on Twitter Share this photo on Facebook

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 30 May 2009 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

When I was a kid my father, a serious amateur photographer, captured his "signature image" on a family camping trip to Yosemite, a rainbow splitting the face of Half Dome (read "My Father's Rainbow" here: Ever since I’ve had a thing for rainbows, and try to position myself to photograph them whenever I can.

For me the Holy Grail of Yosemite photography has been capturing my own rainbow over Yosemite Valley. A year and a half ago I waited for over an hour at Tunnel View (ideally situated for a rainbow because from there the late afternoon sun lines up perfectly with Yosemite Valley) in a pouring rain for the sun to pop out and was finally granted a beautiful, 30-second splash of color in front of Half Dome. Several times I’ve been at Tunnel View for a faint, short-lived rainbow. But I’d never gotten the rainbow shot.

That all changed Tuesday evening. On my drive to Yosemite Tuesday afternoon the sky above the San Joaquin Valley was clear, but I was encouraged to see dark cumulus clouds billowing above the Sierra to my east. Sierra thunderstorms in May are rare, but not unprecedented. At the very least I knew the clouds would make for interesting photography. As I entered the park via Big Oak Flat Road a few large drops dotted my window. The afternoon sun was now obscured by clouds, but the sky to the west remained virtually cloudless, a good sign, but nothing I hadn’t seen before.

By the time I reached Yosemite Valley the rain had increased enough to require me to activate my wipers and my mental wheels started turning. I was in the park for a one day, private photo tour with a couple from Dallas. The arrangement was to meet at Yosemite Lodge for dinner and to plan the next day’s activities, then to go shoot sunset. But while there was no rainbow, the sky was beautiful, and I had finally allowed myself a dash of hope that a rainbow might materialize.

With about 20 minutes to spare I dashed up to Tunnel View to survey the valley. I liked the way things were shaping up and if I’d have been by myself I’d have skipped dinner. I stayed as long as I could; by the time I reached the lodge I knew I could be sued for malpractice if I didn't at least suggest that we take advantage of what had evolved into amazing light.

We completed our introductions in front of the cafeteria, but before entering I suggested that maybe we should forget dinner for now. Robert and Kristy were as excited about the conditions as I was but had just completed a long hike and were famished, so we rushed in and grabbed pre-made pizzas to eat on the road.

Twenty minutes later we were sitting on my favorite granite slope in the general vicinity of Tunnel View. (I take my groups here, and have occasionally encountered other photographers, so this spot isn’t a complete secret, but I don’t publicize it in print because it’s nice to shoot in relative peace sometimes, and the Tunnel View vista can be something of a zoo. I also prefer the foreground here.) We were immediately greeted by a flash of lightning, followed a few seconds later by a blast of thunder. As a Californian I’m not particularly experienced with lightning, so I deferred to the Texans and was reassured that we were safe.

Rainbow photography is equal parts preparation and providence. The preparation comes from understanding the optics of a rainbow, knowing the conditions necessary, where to look, then putting yourself in the best position to capture it; the providence is a gift from the heavens, when all the conditions align exactly as you envisioned.

First, and most obvious, you need rain and sunlight (actually any airborne water and strong light source will do, but today I’m talking about the familiar atmospheric rainbows we associate with rainstorms), an often mutually exclusive combination.

The next essential contributing condition is the angle of the sunlight, which can’t exceed 42 degrees—in other words, the sun needs to be fairly low in the sky (think early morning or late afternoon). Visualize a line drawn from the top of your head to the top of your shadow—the less steep this line (the longer your shadow), the higher the rainbow. As the angle of this line increases (as it does when the sun rises) the rainbow flattens out, eventually disappearing when the line’s angle exceeds 42 degrees.

And finally you need to know where to look for the rainbow. This is the easy part: Just look in the direction your shadow’s pointing. Of course this isn’t a big trick when the rainbow’s already visible, but this knowledge is essential when you're trying to set up a shot in anticipation of a rainbow.

Robert, Kristy, and I had been admiring the view and photographing intermittently in a light, warm rain for about thirty minutes when the rainbow appeared. It started slowly, as a faint band in front of El Capitan, and quickly developed into a vivid stripe of color. For the next seven minutes we shot like crazy people—I varied my compositions with almost every shot and called to them to do the same. When it ended we were giddy with excitement—never let it be said that a professional nature photographer can’t get excited about his subjects—and even though the rainbow never quite achieved a complete arc across the valley, it had been everything I’d hoped for and I knew I’d finally gotten my rainbow shot.

Little did we know that that first rainbow was just a prelude; less than ten minutes later a second rainbow appeared, becoming more vivid than the first, growing into a full double rainbow that arced all the way across Yosemite Valley, from the Merced River to Old Inspiration Point. It lasted over twenty minutes, long enough for me to set up a second camera and do multiple lens changes on each. We actually reached the point where we simply ran out of compositions and could only laugh as we continued clicking anyway.

So now I have about a million Yosemite rainbow images. I don’t even know whether today's is my favorite, but over the next few weeks I’ll spend some time with them and whittle the inventory down to three or four. If I come across anything else that’s significantly better or different, I’ll post it. But until then I just had to share my good fortune (and to let everyone know how much I still love my job).

Next post: June 2 (to view previous posts, click the arrow in the upper left of the image)

* My Facebook page *

Upcoming workshops

Yosemite winter, spring, and fall; New Zealand; Grand Canyon; Death Valley; Eastern Sierra; Maui; Hawaii's Big Island; Columbia River Gorge

Other Links

* Facebook

* WordPress Blog

* Website: Eloquent Images

Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

shoti from Everywhere in the, Philippines

this one's truly magnificent. inspiring. like a shot from lotr. simply fantastic :)

30 May 2009 9:05am

sawsengee from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

stunning image....beautiful lights, atmosphere & view......thank you for this excellent shot & a splendid documentary to explain the shot

30 May 2009 10:07am

Betty from New Jersey, United States

This image takes my breath away, and I can totally understand your excitement. I can feel it just looking at this beautiful shot. Your narrative just adds to it all! I can't wait to see more!

30 May 2009 11:23am

Lila from Hawaii, United States

Gorgeous! I love how it's a different view than the ones you always see of Yosemite. I'd love to see more of these, even if they are similar.

30 May 2009 12:34pm

@Lila: Thank you, Lila. Believe me, it's not easy to find views of Yosemite that haven't been photographed. :) I'll likely post at least one more rainbow, probably a horizontal wide shot. If I have a decent tight shot I may post that too. Stay tuned....

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

Thank you, Gary, for the lesson behind this image and the time you spent writing it.

Your double rainbow shot is a beautiful tribute to your love of photography, your patience and . . . in loving memory of your father, Reverend J. Richard Hart. Hopefully we'll see a few more of your shots.

30 May 2009 1:17pm

@Judy: Thanks, Judy. As often happens I sat down to write a quick paragraph or two and ended up spend a couple of hours. Usually it's when I'm particularly excited about an image or a topic, as was the case with this one. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Don Smith from California, United States

Congratulations Gary - this is beautiful. Thunderstorm conditions in May do seem rare for the Sierra, but we have had lots of fog on the coast this week, a sign that temperatures must be heating up in the central valley. I'm glad you were there to witness and capture this rainbow. I know your dad is smiling!

30 May 2009 2:10pm

@Don Smith: Thanks, Don. I got your message but was still in Yosemite. On Wednesday (the day after the workshop) the conditions were still very nice but I'd show Robert and Kristy a nice scene and they'd laugh and say, "Yeah, it's really pretty but we already have something better." I told them that's the last time I arrange for a rainbow on the first day of a workshop.

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

Wonderful! Even though I knew you got the shot, I was anticipating & cheering for you through your story! You are not only a fantastic photographer but a great writer too!

30 May 2009 2:35pm

@Tracy: Thanks, Tracy. I've actually been a writer longer than I've been a photographer (I date my writing roots all the way back to third grade). :)

Rick Trautner from Greenbrae, United States

Truly awesome shot! Too bad your dad isn't around to see it...

30 May 2009 3:36pm

@Rick Trautner: Thank you, Rick. Yeah my dad would have been very excited (and proud). It's pretty cool that both my youngest brother and I have become very serious about photography. Jay joins me on many of my personal trips--we sometimes feel blessed by the conditions we're granted and talk about how Dad must be watching over us.

Ashley from San Francisco, United States

This is AMAZING.
One problem, though - if you've found your "Holy Grail," what's the point of continuing? Isn't it all just downhill from here? ;)
Grandpa would have been proud.

30 May 2009 6:17pm

@Ashley: Good point, Ash. I think I'll tackle knitting now. (What's the Holy Grail of knitting?)

joel collins from alliance, United States

The best shot of yours in weeks of looking at the blog, bravo! the best days at any job are the ones when we look around and realize "they" are paying us to do something we'd do anyway. You had another on this day, didn't you?

30 May 2009 6:19pm

@joel collins: Thank you, Joel. You're right, I think I did take one or two more. May has been a very good month for me photography-wise. Three trips to Yosemite and keepers each time. That's good because summer is almost here and with it the blue skies (death to photographers), shrinking waterfalls, and hoards of tourists (not that there's anything wrong with that) in Yosemite. So I'll probably only be back once or twice before October, which may just be (though it's impossible to say for sure) my favorite time to photograph there. But next week it's off to Mendocino with Don, and I'm looking forward to getting some variety in my recent images.

Ana Lúcia from Leiria, Portugal

A double rainbow must bring good luck.

30 May 2009 8:06pm

Onlymehdi from Wayne, United States

Double WOW

30 May 2009 8:45pm

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States


30 May 2009 10:39pm

Jen from St. George, United States

Congratulations on capturing your holy grail! It's an amazing shot to say the least, and I look forward to seeing a few more! Reading all about your experience was exciting, so thanks for sharing all the details! I won't sit here and list all the things I love about this photo, because that would take too long. But I will tell you one of my favorite elements is the brightly lit tree-covered rock outcropping in the foreground. It's simply perfect and without it, the photo wouldn't be nearly as strong an image! Once again, amazing photo, and thanks for sharing it with us all!

31 May 2009 12:30am

@Jen: Thanks, Jen. I'm glad you mentioned the lit foreground rock. As much as I love the vista from Tunnel View, I'm frequently frustrated by the lack of foreground options. That's why I scout other locations in the vicinity, and why I like this spot in particular. Even though this cliff face isn't particularly photogenic by itself, it adds enough interest to hold the foreground of the scene. And when it lights up like this, it becomes a very strong element, as you pointed out.

John Maslowski from Dallas, PA, United States

A double rainbow, absolutely a beautiful and impressive capture. Not only the rainbows, the landscape with the waterfalls are truly spectacular.

31 May 2009 12:55am

jelb from France

Wonderful composition..Amzing double rainbow..Bravo!

31 May 2009 12:29pm

Chuck from Chicago, United States

Gary, it's an awesome shot. As usual, your students really benefited from your wealth of knowledge and your passion for Yosemite. I'll never forget the show from the ledge you shared with our group a few years ago. Thanks for sharing!

1 Jun 2009 1:19am

@Chuck: Yeah, that's a great place for a group, isn't it? If memory serves, that was the same workshop with the amazing pink/orange cloud above Yosemite Fall on the last night. What a magic place.

mosleh from kurdestan_baneh, Iran

wowww ,Dreamy shot ,fantastic ,very beautiful and composition, I like it ,well done :)

1 Jun 2009 5:01am

Robert Kruh from Slovenia

Wow, this is lovely moment captured! Congrats, thanks for sharing :) Lovely ...

1 Jun 2009 12:15pm

Scott Schilling from San Martin, United States

Gary a wonderful shot and the double rainbow is fantastic! Have a great week!

1 Jun 2009 1:51pm

Giovanni from Milan, Italy

Such a breathtaking view!! This is a wonderful shot!

1 Jun 2009 5:46pm

Gina from Dallas, United States

Your photo and words brought tears to my eyes. Gorgeous! Your passion is contagious!

1 Jun 2009 6:21pm

@Gina: Thank you, Gina. Every landscape photographer's goal is to evoke emotion--your words are greatly appreciated.

Janice from United States

Gary, I am very happy for you. You deserved this. Congratulations. Absolutely gorgeous! I might have even stayed out on the rock for this one!

2 Jun 2009 7:37pm

@Janice: Thank you, Janice. I bet if you'd have been out there you would have totally forgotten about the drop-off. And of course the rainbow would have been visible from the "official" viewing area too, but it was sure nice to watch it without the hoards of tourists and photographers. It felt like we had the whole show to ourselves.

umal from buffalo, United States

Nice Photo, I loved it

3 Jun 2009 11:24pm

Dan Creighton from Pottstown, United States

Stunning. And considering all the views of Yosemite and the falls I've seen for me to comment on this I have to really like it!

4 Jun 2009 4:04pm

@Dan Creighton: Thanks, Dan. Yeah, unique views of Yosemite are getting harder to find. It used to be that you just had to find a unique composition, but it seems now conditions must also be pretty special. Knowing any area as well as I know Yosemite really helps getting a photographer to the right place at the right time.

photoMark from Edmonton, Canada

Incredible - I am glad you 'got it'

5 Jun 2009 8:07pm

rA from 大连(Dalian), China

what a wonderful 2 rainbows!! Lucky you!

14 Jun 2009 8:24am

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

A visit through your archives...Don't you know the legend wich tells thats , at the point where the rainbow reach the ground, there is a faboulous treasure...Probably you have catch it!

22 Feb 2010 9:02pm

Liberty Kifer from Lonepine, MT, United States

I've seen a LOT of nature photography, and every one of your images has something very special that sets it apart from the pack. I'm very inspired by your work, and will visit often!

17 Mar 2010 7:17pm