The Easy Guide to Creating Rainbows


Would you like to learn how to easily create this …

… from this?

If yes, and you have Photoshop, then this guide is for you. It’s just a few simple steps to creating a rainbow effect using a special effect specifically designed to do all of the hard work. The basic method which is described by the series of steps is not mine, as I learnt how to create my own rainbows from an article in Digital SLR Photography by Matty Graham. This tutorial, however, is all my own work.

Step 1 – Choose your image

Got a landscape shot with clouds? If not, then blue sky will have to do but remember the point throughout the guide is to create an effect that’s reasonably realistic, so a clear blue sky doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

And heed the sage advice of Jim Worrall, who gave this crucial tip in a comment (below) when I first uploaded this tutorial:

“One thing that I would add is that to maintain a sense of reality (in an image) a rainbow should only be placed in a photo where the sun was behind you when the shot was taken.”

For the purposes of this guide I chose an image shot at Crescent Head over 1 second at f8 using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF 24-70mm f2.8L lens at 24mm. Was the sun behind me? Umm…. OK let’s move on.

Open your selected image in Photoshop, like so:

Step 2 – The rainbow layer

If you haven’t used Layers before don’t worry. This is dead easy. We are just going to create a copy of your selected image and create the rainbow on the copy, then merge the layer with the original. It means we can apply adjustments in the copy which only affect the rainbow. Cool.

Ok, from the horizontal toolbar, select Layer then New then Layer, like so:

A rectangular window should open, like this one:

Type in a name for your rainbow layer and click OK. I’m calling mine Magic, like so:

Once you’ve clicked OK, run your eye over to the right hand panel. Does it look like this?

(If it doesn’t, start again.)

Step 3 – Magic happens

Click on the Gradient Tool from the left hand toolbox. The icon looks like a shaded box, like so:

(You can also select the Gradient Tool by typing “G”.)

Now click on the long rectangle second from the left in the new horizontal toolbar at the top. It’s called the Gradient Picker and it’s either shaded grey or multi-coloured, like so:

A new window should open, called Gradient Editor, like so:

We now have to select one of the Presets, called Russell’s Rainbow. To do this, look for the little arrow near the top of the window directly to the right of the Presets box, like so:

Click on the arrow, and from the drop-down menu select Special Effects (near the bottom):

A new window should pop up:

Make sure you select Append. From the new Presets which appear, look for the one like this:

It’s called Russell’s Rainbow. Make sure this is the name in the Gradient Editor before clicking OK:

Now, look back up at the horizontal toolbar for the Gradient Tool. See the 5 grey boxes in a row? Select the second one from the left – the Radial Gradient:

OK, move the mouse to the bottom of the image, around halfway, then click and hold down the mouse button and drag the mouse up the image. You should see a line following the mouse from the bottom. Let go of the mouse button at the midpoint between the top of the image and your horizon.

Does your image now look like this?

(If it doesn’t, start this Step again.)

Step 4 – Fine-tuning your rainbow – positioning

There are 2 distinct aspects of fine-tuning your rainbow – positioning and intensity. It’s easier to do the first before worrying about the second, and positioning will also depend entirely on the image YOU have selected to “enhance”.

Photoshop will help you get the right perspective, scale, distortion, and angle as part of the positioning process. Each of those things is achieved by using a different preset selection and moving the rainbow yourself with the mouse.

I’ll show you the different presets, but basically it will be a case of trial and error once you’re familiar with the nature of the changes each preset dictates.

But, in the interests of getting you doing it, here’s a suggestion. You don’t have to follow it, it’s just how I’ve been starting the positioning process myself.

Firstly, my preference is to get one end of the rainbow hitting the right spot and THEN worry about all else. For a seascape such as our sample image, the motive is to get the end of the rainbow disappearing into the horizon. This will thus present a need to get the distance perspective right, but for now it’s just about plonking that rainbow dead onto the horizon.

I do this by selecting from the top menu Edit then Free Transform from the massive drop-down menu, like so:

(You can use just the Free Transform tool for all your positioning if you want, it’s just a bit fiddly)

By holding down the mouse button on the edges of the rectangle which now appears, I move my rainbow to hit the horizon, like so:

Second, now make adjustments using each of the options in the drop-down menu after selecting Edit again, then Transform, like so:

Depending on your image, you may wish to try one or more or all of the Scale, Rotate, Skew, Distort, Perspective tools and maybe even the Warp one (though that one can get decidedly funky and spaced-out). If you’re unhappy with any adjustment, just hit Edit and Undo and try again.

For example, here’s the result of using the Perspective tool:

I found this useful to give a bigger height to the rainbow, being a distant one.

Once you’re happy with the position of your rainbow, it’s time to adjust the intensity. So find the Tick in the top menu and click:

Step 5 – Fine-tuning your rainbow – intensity

Now, look over to the Layers toolbox over on the right hand side of the screen, and adjust the Opacity to somewhere between 20% and 50%. Matty Graham recommended 35% in his article, but I’ve chosen 30% for this image, like so:

My image now look like this:

Nearly done!

To soften the rainbow, now select Filter from the main horizontal toolbar, then Blur from the drop-down menu, followed by Gaussian Blur from the next drop-down menu:

A new window should open, like so:

Select somewhere between 20 and 30 pixels then select OK. For this image, I chose 20.

To soften some edges, now select the Eraser Tool from the left-hand toolbox. It looks like this:

Now set the pixel count to 75 and the Opacity to 50%, form the Eraser Tool horizontal tool bar:

With the mouse, now touch up the edges of the rainbow to suit.

Finally, to lighten the point where the rainbow hits the horizon (or ground or water or whatever) ramp up the pixel size of the eraser and lower the Opacity to 20%, like so:

… then hold and click the mouse over that point of the rainbow (the eraser tool should be a circle with a diameter much bigger than the width of the rainbow). If one click doesn’t make difference, click again! And again, if necessary. If you do click more than once at the base of the rainbow, then move up the rainbow and click as well but in decreasing increments.

This is my final image, as a result of clicking several times then moving back up the rainbow to enhance the distance effect:

How cool is that?

The last thing you now need to do is “flatten” the 2 layers into one layer, your final image for saving and converting to a jpeg and uploading to RB! You do this by going over to the right-hand side Layers palette, right-clicking your layer window, mine is Magic remember, and then selecting Flatten image from the drop-down menu, like so:

You’re done! You can now save your (not) right time right place masterpiece! that’s it from me, but if you enjoyed this tutorial, you might also want to check out some of my others:

Serious-but-easy-to-follow stuff

  1. The concepts of Aperture and f stopexplained
  1. Understanding ISO – explained here
  1. Orton Effecthow to do it
  1. Basic Photoshop tips, eg sharpening, straightening, cropping
  1. Creating artwork samples for your profile or public view page – how to
  1. Creating a linked samplehow to
  1. Creating linked text – just like this
  1. What is mirror lock-up and when to do it – a guide
  1. Motion blurhow to
  1. Adding clouds to an image – how to
  1. All your questions about shooting in RAW answered here
  1. The most comprehensive easy-on-the mind guide to Neutral Density filters on the planet
  1. All your questions about converting a digital camera to infrared are answered here
  1. An Introduction to Tilt+Shift Photography – it’s the real deal!

Not-so-serious Stuff

  1. How (not) to shoot seascapes like a pro – an easy-to-follow guide here (not)
  1. An alternate use for Canon lenses (ouch!) shown here


Tutorials currently in progress:

  1. The Photographer’s Guide to Blue Mountains Waterfalls
  1. The Easy Guide to Composing a Photograph



29 September 2010 – Tutorial originally published
30 September 2010 – Revised to include tutorial list, advice from Jim Worrall, and some minor typo edits

Journal Comments

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