Three quarters of a double rainbow, plus an accidental snapshot of a tertiary, Mt. Zschirnstein, Germany, May 15th, 2016

Over the past two decades it has become a tradition among my friends to carry out a bicycle tour to the Elbe Sandstone Mountains (“Saxon Switzerland“) at the Pentecost weekend. We then often pay a visit to a table hill named “Großer Zschirnstein“ (561 m), which features a remarkable cliff of 70 m in height at its south-eastern edge.

Almost 15 years ago, on the evening of June 3rd, 2001, we had the opportunity to observe from there a rainbow extending well below the horizon almost down towards its bottom. Unfortunately, we only had a compact camera without a fisheye lens at hand back then, so the old photos show only some sections of the whole phenomenon.

This year, on May 15th, we were finally granted the proverbial second chance. I already anticipated some rainbow potential in the “Icelandic” weather that day. In the early afternoon, there had already been a rain shower while the sun was shining, but as we had not yet ascended the mountain and the sun was still high in the sky, there was no chance for a rainbow observation.

Some minutes after reaching the plateau in the evening, we had to retreat to the shelter when a rather strong shower of hail and rain set in. To the west a stripe of clear sky widened, and sunshine seemed at hand soon. It took longer than expected, as the clouds were moving rather slow. On the left side, a small rainbow fragment suddenly appeared at the horizon, resulting from sunlit drops a few kilometers off. It was a rather unusual observation to see this rainbow streak vanish and reappear again, as its sight was repeatedly obstructed by scudding (and non-illuminated) mist around the Zschirnstein massif:


(19:42 CEST, f = 88 mm, Pentax K-5)

Finally the great moment came: Sunshine was reaching the Zschirnstein while the shower, now mostly composed of rain instead of hail, still continued. Within a few minutes we could enjoy this marvelous view:


(19:56 CEST, f = 10 mm / fisheye)

Unfortunately there was no safe way to access a viewpoint which would have allowed to study the missing quarter, as this would have required some careful climbing around the sandstone rocks for which I already felt too excited at that moment. The fisheye picture can hardly express how huge both rainbows looked like, and how beautiful the raindrop clusters glittered as they drifted around the cliff some 10 m further down. These are certainly the moments that make you understand that famous “double rainbow enthusiasm”, thought not everyone is as outgoing as other people on the internet. Maybe we also stayed a bit calmer because the strong and cold wind added a rather painful component to the taking of photographs and videos.

Later the right part of the primary close to the horizon became especially bright:


(19:59 CEST, f = 80 mm)

This photo has been processed in a way that no color channel reaches saturation, which is a necessary prerequisite for analyzing possible kinks in the rainbow. In this case, the red rim looks as if would bend inside a bit below the horizon, but this might only be an illusion due to the intensity gradient.

The primary’s right foot above the horizon remained still visible for a rather long time, as the shower withdrew in this direction:


(20:19 MESZ, f = 50 mm)

But the story does not end here. When going through the pictures later at home, I suddenly realized that I had missed to look for higher order rainbows, or to deliberately take some pictures in the appropriate directions. I was a bit disappointed about my inattentiveness, since this had been my best rainbow display in years and, moreover, I had not been hindered by the limited field of view from a window in a city building. I am often forced to decide between the sunward or antisolar hemisphere when observing rainbows from there.

Luckily I had taken two pictures (an exposure bracket) towards the sun just at the moment when the three-quarter rainbows started to evolve. The reason for this was only the lighting atmosphere – it was the moment when the sun rays had first reached the Zschirnstein plateau. As I deduced later from the movement direction of the shower, there had been rather good conditions for the formation of tertiary and quaternary rainbows when the picture pair was taken. So I decided to apply the strong filtering procedures which are needed to extract higher-order rainbows from photographs. The shorter exposure just gave noise in the interesting region. However, in the longer exposed version something interesting popped up.

Original image:


(19:54 MESZ, f = 17 mm / fisheye)

Processed image:


Slightly to the right above the stone pillar, a red-green stripe in the color ordering of the tertiary rainbow can be discerned. For an unambiguous identification it would, however, be necessary to calibrate the picture in order to assign scattering coordinates to the photo’s pixel matrix. Though I had previously calibrated the projection of the lens for the used focal length (the upper end of the zoom range), I would need two reference marks with known elevation and azimuth which are included in this specific photograph to complete the analysis. On the horizon, no distinct remote references could be found. This means that I would have to reconstruct my precise position on the plateau to minimize parallax errors, and then to record a starfield image from there at night, enabling me finally to use the stone pillar or nearby trees as references. Unfortunately, it would take an inconvenient amount of time to access the spot again and the effort for such a trip would be a bit over-the-top for the sole purpose of calibrating a photograph.

But there was still a piece of hope: From the shorter exposed version (-2 EV),  I could estimate the position of the sun quite accurately, as there is only a small overexposed area around it. This allowed me at least to draw lines of constant angular distance from the sun into the photograph in order to decide if the colored stripe appeared at the correct position or not. Using the previously measured spectral sensor response of my camera, and estimating the temperature of the water drops to be around 5°C, I derived the following values for the Descartes angles of the tertiary and quaternary rainbows: 41.7° / 43.7° (red, 620 nm), 40.6° / 45.1° (green, 530 nm), and 39.3° / 46.8° (blue, 460 nm). In the following animation, these angular distances from the estimated position of the sun have been marked by their respective colors:


The colored stripe seems to fit reasonably well to the Descartes angles of the tertiary rainbow, especially when taking into account that the positions of maximal intensity are shifted a bit inward from the Descartes angles for the tertiary (and outward for the quaternary) due to wave-optical effects. This shift was also noted in the analysis of the very first photograph of a tertiary rainbow. Further contributions form distorted drop shapes are of minor importance here, as the sun elevation is small and we are looking at the rainbow’s sides. Therefore the effective cross section of the drops should remain nearly circular, even if they are squeezed in the vertical. I leave it to the readers to decide if also traces of the quaternary might be visible among the color noise slightly to the left above the stone pillar.

Addendum: A short video clip from the observation can be found here.


Posted on May 19, 2016, in observations, phenomena, rainbow and fogbow. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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