11 Stunning Images of Rainbows and Their Less-Famous Cousins

Storm clouds and rainbow at sunset

Busà Photography / Getty Images

We tend to associate rainbows with myth because they call to us with the promises of riches. But rainbows are not the only masterpieces that nature paints across the sky. There are also moonbows, triple sunrises and even fog bows that arch over the horizon. Here are some impressive images of rainbows and their cousins.

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Reflection and refraction

Rainbow over the mountain to the sea

Shoko Shimabukuro / Getty Images 

Strictly defined, a rainbow is a band of colors formed by the reflection and refraction of the sun’s rays inside raindrops. But regardless of the science, there is an element of the fantastic to rainbows. While their colors include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, they are also made up of an infinite range of hues that the human eye cannot see. Rainbows can appear as multiples or even appear without color at all. If you can see the shadow of the back of your head after a storm, you are very likely to look up to a rainbow as well.

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The colors of the rainbow

Double rainbow over pasture with evergreen trees and clouds

Tiffani Nieusma / Getty Images

At the same time, a rainbow truly is an individual experience. We see rainbows because the sun is behind us, reflecting sunlight off the rain, waterfall, mist, dew, or even a water fountain that is before us. But everyone sees their own individual rainbow according to their particular angle, light, and how their eyes interpret color. Combined, colors look white. Refracted, they are broken up into the blues, reds, and oranges we know. Double, or secondary, rainbows form when a beam of light is refracted twice.

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The color of order (and order of color)

The end of a rainbow with a field in the foreground - stock photo

gui00878 / Getty Images

A rainbow forms when each tiny droplet of water disperses sunlight. The pattern of light is always the same in a primary rainbow because each color is reflected at its own particular wavelength. In a primary rainbow, the colors will be in the order of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Or ROYGBIV. Red has the longest wavelength, with each color decreasing away from it. The colors seem to blend into each other because the light exits at different angles, rather than one unmoving angle. Here we see a supernumerary rainbow, an infrequent phenomenon that happens when faint rainbows are seen within the inner ring of a primary rainbow. Experts say that geometric optics does not fully explain the existence of supernumerary rainbows, which are likely created due to the varying wave nature of light.

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Six rainbows across Norway

Six Rainbows Across Norway

Terje O. Nordvik / APOD / NASA

When does the color scheme ROYGBIV get reversed? This will never happen in the primary rainbow, but a reflection might reverse the order of colors. NASA explains it this way: "multiple internal reflections inside water droplets sometimes make a secondary rainbow to become visible outside the first, with colors reversed." Pictured here are multiple rainbows photographed in Norway on Sept. 12, 2007. The third rainbow (the one in between the primary and secondary ones) was caused by sunlight that had first reflected off the lake, according to NASA. If you look into the lake itself, you'll see three more reflections of rainbows.

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A rainbow for fear or fantasy?

Monochrome rainbow (red)

www.rodjonesphotography.co.uk / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

There are many different kinds of rainbows. In addition to a primary rainbow, which is the most commonly seen, there are also secondary rainbows that occur when two reflections take place in a water droplet. Then there is the monochrome rainbow. These happen at sunrise or sunset, when the shorter blue and green wavelengths are scattered out before they reach the water droplets. Hence, the human eye sees only red. This unenhanced image was taken on July 6, 1980, just outside of Minneapolis, Minn.

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The glory of a circular rainbow

Glory (circular) rainbow over South Africa

Earth Science Picture of the Day / Raquel Yumi Shida / NASA

A rainbow gets its traditional semicircle shape from the horizon, which makes it seem as if it is half a circle. So when the same atmospheric conditions that create a rainbow are observed from an airplane, a rainbow can appear to be a full circle. This is called a glory, which NASA defines as an optical phenomenon that "looks like small, circular rainbows of interlocking colors." This glory was photographed from a plane over South Africa.

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Triple sunrise over Wisconsin

Rising sun and ice halos near Green Bay, Wisconsin

Jim Hoida / APOD / NASA

Rainbows aren’t the only atmospheric delights. Here we see a triple sunrise as photographed near Green Bay, Wisc., on Sept. 23, 2006. This was when the sun was rising due east on the Equinox. But these weird apparitions are actually more common than rainbows. "Produced by sunlight shining through common atmospheric ice crystals with hexagonal cross-sections," NASA writes, "such halos can actually be seen more often than rainbows." The two images on the right and left of the central sunrise are sundogs, which are extra-images of the sun created by falling ice crystals in the atmosphere.

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A fog bow over California

A fogbow over California

Mila Zinkova / APOD / NASA

Not all arches in the sky are filled with colors. Here we see a fog bow arcing over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, on Nov. 15, 2006. The principle of formation for a fog bow is similar to a rainbow, as the fogbow is a reflection of sunlight. However, as NASA describes it, the lack of relative colors are due to the relatively smaller water drops. "The drops active above are so small that the quantum mechanical wavelength of light becomes important and smears out colors that would be created by larger rainbow water drops acting like small prisms reflecting sunlight," writes NASA. The right end of the fog bow appears to dip right into the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Moonbow with sailboats

Moonbow with sailboats over St. John, Virgin Islands

Matt BenDaniel / APOD / NASA

Pictured here is a moonbow, also known as a lunar rainbow, as imaged on July 4, 2001, near Salt Pond Bay in St. John, Virgin Islands. Moonbows operate on the same principles as rainbows; however, they are possible because of the light of the moon instead of the sun. As moonlight is simply reflected sunlight, the colors of a moonbow are the same as a rainbow. Accordingly, as the sun is much brighter than the moon, moonbows are much fainter and rarer than rainbows. While they usually look white to the human eye, their colors can be discerned in long exposure photos.

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Upside-down rainbow

Circumzenithal arc in San Francisco

Brocken Inaglory / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Then there's the upside-down rainbow, perhaps the happiest of all rainbows since it looks like a big, multi-colored smile in the sky. Also called a circumzenithal arc, these upside-down rainbows are pretty rare. As the interim president of the Mount Washington Observatory Ed Bergeron explained to SeaCoastOnline, these rainbows only crop up when the the sun and a cirrus cloud are low or parallel to one another. "Typically you see them when you're hiking and you're able to see above the cloud of moisture."