Better Rainbows

Enhance Rainbows with a Polarising Filter

Rainbows are somewhat of a cliché in landscape photography. However, it is undeniable how they can add interest to a scene that would otherwise be drab and perhaps boring. Sometimes in photos, they will look washed out and uninteresting- a poor representation of what you can see before you. Thankfully, it is easy to enhance rainbows in your photos through the use of a circular polarising filter (CPL).

You might think that as a CPL is usually used to cut out polarised light and that rainbows consist of some degree of polarised light that using a CPL to photograph rainbows is a bad idea. However, if you’ve never tried experimenting with CPLs and rainbow photography then the next time you see one give it a go.

You will find that the intensity of colours in the rainbow is directly affected by the polariser’s rotation. If you rotate the polariser you may find that the rainbow entirely disappears; this isn’t what we want in this particular situation. If you keep rotating the polariser, you will find the colours of the rainbow will become more intense and much brighter.

This is because when light reflects off droplets of water to produce the rainbow it is polarised in more than one direction (or plane). By using a CPL it is easy to enhance one plane of polarisation by cutting out another. This makes for a more brilliant photograph of the rainbow. That’s all there is to it. You don’t really need to understand the physics though- just know that it works! Next time you’re out and about and see a rainbow quickly screw on a CPL and try for yourself!

Just as an example, here is a photograph first taken without a CPL and then another very similar shot taken immediately after with a polariser. As you can see the rainbow is much more intense and much more visible. Both these photos are unedited and straight from the camera.

Without a polariser

With polariser

Now, with some very simple edits in Adobe Lightroom, it is easy to get a much more vibrant and interesting photograph as you can see below:

Finished Photo

If you have any experience with this or want to ask any questions then please let me know in the comments below!


  • Richard Handler

    You are so right!

    In the linked photo from Te Anau, NZ I was waiting to board the blue and white boat to be taxied to a trailhead across the lake. This rainbow appeared. I had only my Fuji x100v with its fixed 23mm lens and a 49mm CPL. To capture the entire rainbow required a quick handheld panorama. As I panned it was necessary to make small adjustments in the CPL for each new frame. Since winds were shifting the rain as I panned, merging the pano resulted is a minor discontinuity of the rainbow.

    • A

      Thanks for the comment. That’s a great photo Richard! Never tried a panorama with a CPL on but I imagine it would be tricky to keep the effect even! The minor discontinuity you mentioned is barely noticeable – I had to look very closely to even notice it. Best wishes, Tom

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