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: http://www.garyhartphotography.com/writings.shtml#). 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)
* Website: Eloquent Images
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