Triple Rainbow and Guanaco

Triple Rainbow and Guanaco

Moving rainbows and making photographic luck

During our recent visit to Torres Del Paine I witnessed the most amazing and unique light show of my entire life. Having already shot two sunrises at Lago Pehoe, I was in search of something a bit different that would include fall colors and a reflection. After searching for several days while we were out with the family exploring the park, I finally found a good location late in the trip. Knowing the weather forecast was calling for thick low clouds and rain the next morning at sunrise but clearing by mid mid-morning, I decided I hedged my bets and wait out the weather just in case some sunrise light snuck in under the clouds.

Being that my chosen location was close to the car, I decided to bring along my laptop and do some editing while waiting for the light. As expected, the mountains were covered in clouds at sunrise, and I sat in the truck hiding from the rain. But by 9:30 I could see the clouds starting to thin towards the East. Thinking sun and rain often means rainbows, I decided to wait a bit longer to see what happened. By about 9:45 as the rain started to breakup, I could see a faint rainbow growing to my west as the sun was coming over the hills to my east. Within a few minutes the rainbow started gaining strength and became a double rainbow… I knew the game was on. From my sunrise location the rainbow wasn’t a particularly interesting composition, with just some rolling hills to my west. But knowing rainbows can be moved based on your angle toward the sun, I thought maybe if I moved toward the northeast I could reposition the rainbow over the mountains.

With my wipers running full speed and mud flying into the air I did my best offroad rally driving impression along on the dirt park road. Good thing there are basically no other cars on the road during the winter. As I worked my way north the rainbow started to shift position, but as the road bent more toward the east, I could tell it wasn’t going to line up over the mountains as I had hoped. Deciding to compromise (rainbow vs mountains), I skidded to a halt in the dirt parking lot of Mirador Nordenskjold and pulled out my camera. After taking a few quick photos from the parking lot I could see the composition still wasn’t quite working because there was a harsh shadow across the bottom of my field of view.

Thinking of the late Galen Rowell and the story of his famous rainbow shot of the Dalai Lama’s palace in Tibet, I decided to move the rainbow with my feet. I quickly grabbed and extra battery and made sure I had plenty of space on my memory card. Knowing there were no horse tours that time of year I started running tripod in hand along the horse trail that leads north from the parking lot. After about 20 min of running, I crested a hill and found the double rainbow had now become a triple rainbow like none I had ever seen. The third rainbow was at a completely different angle from the other two. Combined with a dark foreboding sky and the mountains, I began to search for a composition when a tiny guanaco crested the hill below the rainbows.

It was almost as if I had dreamed the shot, or it was being given to me from a higher place. All I had to do was be open to the idea and put myself in position and the rest just would happen on its own. I spent the next 30 minutes photographing the scene as the clouds moved, the rainbows came and went, all the while the guanaco posed on top of the hill. As I moved around searching for different compositions, I knew full well this was a chance of a lifetime and was something totally unique and unrepeatable. I shot every composition and exposure I could possibly think of while obsessively checking my camera settings to make sure I wasn’t screwing things up.

In the end I had visualized the potential for an image of more than just a rainbow, by understanding how one’s angle toward the sun changes the location of a rainbow I was able to make my own photographic luck. While the shot I had previsualized of the rainbows leading directly to the mountains didn’t quite work out, being in the right place and open to possibilities created something even more special that will always be one of my favorite photos. Just don’t tell the rental car company! With a white rental truck that was now completely brown with mud, I drove slowly back across the park to our hotel with the Shakira cranked on the radio, and the joy that comes from knowing I had witnessed something special and nailed the shot as well. Needless to say, my family was a bit worried when I showed up more than two hours late from shooting sunrise, but when they saw the photo, they also realized something special had happened.

Recap: I knew I had a good shot, but after I shared the shot with a few friends I started to realize that this might truly be a once in a lifetime shot. After some research it turns out a triple rainbow is rarer than I expected. No one I know has ever seen or recorded one. I am guessing the third rainbow is made from sunlight reflecting off the lake in the foreground, which could explain why it is at a different angle than the other two rainbows. A friend found a BBC article that says only 5 triple rainbows have ever been photographed (which I find hard to believe). I have since sent the photo off to the BBC and Optica (which studies the “science of light”) and look forward to hearing their thoughts on the photo.