What is a Rainbow?

Double rainbow and supernumerary rainbows on the inside of the primary arc. The shadow of the photographer’s head on the bottom marks the centre of the rainbow circle (antisolar point).

A rainbowis an optical and meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection of light in water droplets in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky. It takes the form of a multicoloured arc.

Rainbows caused by sunlight always appear in the section of sky directly opposite the sun.

In a “primary rainbow”, the arc shows red on the outer part and violet on the inner side. This rainbow is caused by light being refracted while entering a droplet of water, then reflected inside on the back of the droplet and refracted again when leaving it.

In a double rainbow, a second arc is seen outside the primary arc, and has the order of its colours reversed, red facing toward the other one, in both rainbows. This second rainbow is caused by light reflecting twice inside water droplets.


The rainbow is not located at a specific distance, but comes from any water droplets viewed from a certain angle relative to the Sun’s rays. Thus, a rainbow is not an object, and cannot be physically approached. Indeed, it is impossible for an observer to manoeuvre to see any rainbow from water droplets at any angle other than the customary one of 42 degrees from the direction opposite the Sun. Even if an observer sees another observer who seems “under” or “at the end” of a rainbow, the second observer will see a different rainbow further off-yet, at the same angle as seen by the first observer. A rainbow spans a continuous spectrum of colours. Any distinct bands perceived are an artefact of human colour vision, and no banding of any type is seen in a black-and-white photo of a rainbow, only a smooth gradation of intensity to a maximum, then fading towards the other side. For colours seen by a normal human eye, the most commonly cited and remembered sequence is Newton’s sevenfold red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Rainbows can be caused by many forms of airborne water. These include not only rain, but also mist, spray, and airborne dew.

Rainbows can form in mist, such as that of a waterfall
Rainbow with a faint reflected rainbow in the lake
Rainbows may form in the spray created by waves (called spray bows)

Rainbow after sunlight bursts through after an intense shower in Maraetai, New Zealand
Circular rainbow seen while skydiving over Rochelle, Illinois

Rainbows can be observed whenever there are water drops in the air and sunlight shining from behind at a low altitude angle. The most spectacular rainbow displays happen when half the sky is still dark with raining clouds and the observer is at a spot with clear sky in the direction of the sun. The result is a luminous rainbow that contrasts with the darkened background.
The rainbow effect is also commonly seen near waterfalls or fountains. In addition, the effect can be artificially created by dispersing water droplets into the air during a sunny day. Rarely, a moonbow, lunar rainbow or nighttime rainbow, can be seen on strongly moonlit nights. As human visual perception for colour is poor in low light, moonbows are often perceived to be white. It is difficult to photograph the complete semicircle of a rainbow in one frame, as this would require an angle of view of 84°. For a 35 mm camera, a lens with a focal length of 19 mm or less wide-angle lens would be required. Now that powerful software for stitching several images into a panorama is available, images of the entire arc and even secondary arcs can be created fairly easily from a series of overlapping frames. From an aeroplane, one has the opportunity to see the whole circle of the rainbow, with the plane’s shadow in the centre.
Number of colours in spectrum or rainbow
A spectrum obtained using a glass prism and a point source, is a continuum of wavelengths without bands. The number of colours that the human eye is able to distinguish in a spectrum is in the order of 100. Accordingly, the Munsell colour system (a 20th century system for numerically describing colours, based on equal steps for human visual perception) distinguishes 100 hues. However, the human brain tends to divide them into a small number of primary colours. The apparent discreteness of primary colours is an artefact of the human brain. Newton originally (1672) divided the spectrum into five primary colours: red, yellow, green, blue and violet. Later he included orange and indigo, giving seven primary colours by analogy to the number of notes in a musical scale. The Munsell colour system removed orange and indigo again, and returned to five primary colours. The exact number of primary colours for humans is a somewhat arbitrary choice.


Light rays enter a raindrop from one direction (typically a straight line from the Sun), reflect off the back of the raindrop, and fan out as they leave the raindrop. The light leaving the rainbow is spread over a wide angle, with a maximum intensity at 40.89–42°

White light separates into different colours on entering the raindrop due to dispersion, causing red light to be refracted less than blue light.
Multiple rainbows
Secondary rainbows are caused by a double reflection of sunlight inside the raindrops, and appear at an angle of 50–53°. As a result of the second reflection, the colours of a secondary rainbow are inverted compared to the primary bow, with blue on the outside and red on the inside. The secondary rainbow is fainter than the primary because more light escapes from two reflections compared to one and because the rainbow itself is spread over a greater area of the sky. The dark area of unlit sky lying between the primary and secondary bows is called Alexander’s band, after Alexander of Aphrodisias who first described it.
A double rainbow features reversed colours in the outer (secondary) bow, with the dark Alexander’s band between the bows.

Monochrome rainbow
Occasionally a shower may happen at sunrise or sunset, where the shorter wavelengths like blue and green have been scattered and essentially removed from the spectrum. Further scattering may occur due to the rain, and the result can be the rare and dramatic monochrome rainbow.

Fogbows form in the same way as rainbows, but they are formed by much smaller cloud and fog droplets which diffract light extensively. They are almost white with faint reds on the outside and blues inside. The colours are dim because the bow in each colour is very broad and the colours overlap. Fogbows are commonly seen over water when air in contact with the cooler water is chilled, but they can be found anywhere if the fog is thin enough for the sun to shine through and the sun is fairly bright. They are very large—almost as big as a rainbow and much broader. They sometimes appear with a glory at the bow’s centre
For more information on Rainbows visit one of the following:-


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Posted on November 2, 2012, in Useful Information and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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