Water falls, moonbow shines, aurorae glow

By Phil Plait | November 28, 2011 7:00 am

Some pictures really go the extra mile (1.6 kilometers) when capturing the beauty of nature. This picture, by Stephane Vetter, goes even farther than that:

How about that? There’s so much to see in this picture from southern Iceland (and click to embiggen and get the amazing and beautiful details).

First, I love the waterfall; in time exposures the frothy water takes on an almost satin-like quality, silky, milky, and smooth. It can be hard to get long time exposures during the day, but in this case the water was lit by the Moon at night!

But wait a sec: if it’s night, why is there a rainbow?

There isn’t! That’s a moonbow, caused by aerosolized water droplets at the base of the falls hanging in the air and acting like little prisms, bending the moonlight and splitting it into its colors. Moonbows are pretty faint, so it takes a time exposure like this to be able to discern them clearly.

Looking up, you can also see some stars — the Big Dipper is just above the rocks on the left — as well as the faint green glow of the aurorae. All in all, there’s a little bit of everything in this picture… well, almost everything.

It’s amazing what you can see if you just go out and look. I don’t like to use the word magic, because it’s burdened with meaning that is the exact opposite of science, but really the term "magical" might be appropriate here. In that sense, it triggers our wonder and sense of beauty, our awe of nature. That’s precisely what I feel when I see pictures like this. It can be beautiful outside, so go see.

Image credit: by Stephane Vetter, used by permission. Tip o’ the lens cap to APOD.


Related posts:

- Ring around the Moon
- Polarized rainbow, what does this mean???
- Halo, how ya doin’
- naked rainbows

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: aurora, Moon, moonbow, waterfall

Comments (34)

  1. Beautiful photo indeed, but “moonbow”? We don’t call daytime ones “Sun”bows so that name doesn’t seem quite right. I’d prefer to call it a “waterfallspraybow” :-)

  2. Knockers

    How can you expose the rocks and yet the stars are not blurred into trails? What are the details of this exposure?

  3. BigBob

    Lit by the Moon?! Superb! I’m going to try that. The longest exposure I can get is 8 seconds but I can mess around with my camera’s ISO number.

    Totally OT, but can I mention, there are now less than 5 days left in which to buy your own satellite – a Chipsat. http://tinyurl.com/6jpgwxl
    I bought one. Couldn’t help myself.

  4. That almost looks like it’s a computer generated image like the moon/sun image at teh north pole that you posted a little while ago. Just so weird looking. And magical is a good adjective.

  5. the picture is impressive.

    but

    it’s really weird how, given the amount of effort taking a picture like this involves, the photographer got the horizon “wrong”. I know, it’s not the horizon but the coastline, but seeing it like a diagonal line where the horizon should be creates a very strong impression of something wrong in the picture!

    @5 yes, that’s what i thought too… it’s just that i keep tilting my head to try to get it straight! ;)

    M

  6. Cmdr. Awesome

    @4
    At first glance it does appear “wrong” but I think what’s happening there is that the cliff/water boundary is not a straight line. The cliffs at the left side are further back than the cliffs on the right hand side, and it gives it an odd crooked sort of perspective.

  7. Also you can find Moon. Not directly (it’s not on the picture) but you can deduce it’s position. When you connect a camera and center of a moonbow and extend this line it will finally hit the Moon. So Moon was behind camera and slightly above horizon (not very high).

  8. I agree with 1
    Nothing about the word rainbow implies sun or moon. Only the refracting medium and shape are specified, and as 1 said the refracting medium here is not rain, so you’re right it’s not a rainbow, but It should be a waterfallbow, or riverbow, or mistbow. We should also have icebows (sun/moondogs) prismbows, sprinklerbows, gardenhosebows, chandellierbows, maybe even Enceladusgeyserbows or f-ringbows (related to icebows/sundogs)

  9. Lupine

    I’d say it’s a composite image. Pretty but not real.

  10. Skogafoss is pretty freakin’ spectacular on an average day; that image makes it look positively otherworldly. I’ve got to get back to Iceland someday, preferably when the sky is full of aurora.

  11. What surprises me (but shouldn’t) is that the sky is blue at night.

  12. RwFlynn

    This was my desktop picture for weeks about a month ago and I had no idea this was taken at night! It truly does have quite a few little surprises. This calls for a rare “wallpaper rollback”, or something to that effect.

  13. katwagner

    What bothers me is the line where sky meets mountain. Like the sky is the backdrop and the mountains are a flat hunk of cardboard placed there. I could be wrong but something about this shot doesn’t seem right to me. To light the mountains you’ll need some time, and there aren’t any star trails. Yes, it’s pretty. Photoshop can make anything pretty. Jus’ saying.

  14. Just guessing, but regarding the lack of blurred stars, I’m thinking that with the right… camera and film (can you tell I don’t know photography?) an exposure of maybe 20 seconds would be enough to yield an image like this without star streaks.
    The other possibility is that it’s a composite image, with the foreground taken at one exposure, the background at a different one (and possibly on an equatorial mount) and then the two images ‘shopped together.
    @13 katwagner: To be fair, this isn’t the first astronomy photo Phil’s posted that’s been edited. In some cases, editing is necessary to actually show the scene “as it is.” I don’t recall seeing any promises on Phil’s part that all images are completely unprocessed :)

    I wish there was a higher-res version. I’ve got a 1600x wide monitor :-P

  15. HvP

    Lovely picture.

    It may very well be a stacked composite image using the best of several different exposures. There is nothing controversial about this nor does it detract from the very real talent, hard work and vision that it takes to create an image like this.

    It’s a technique that dates back to the very infancy of photography (double, triple exposures, cross processing, literal cutting and pasting, etc.) Let’s not forget that the software “Photoshop” was named after real-world photo shops where this kinds of processing was done manually.

    It’s all just part of the effort to allow the product to reflect the artist’s vision.

  16. Apropos of nothing important, I like how Phil describes the scene using the words “milky” and “silky”, which either rhyme or don’t, depending on your dialect/accent, despite being spelled the same way. In my parlance, they don’t, as, growing up in Northern Illnois, I learned the pronunciation “mehlk” (rhymes with “elk”) for the word meaning “cow juice”. But a friend of mine from upstate New York mocks me for this all the time and insists that “milk” should rhyme with “silk”. My favored pronunciation makes “silky, milky” a bit of a tongue twister.
    :)

  17. Jeffersonian

    Totally ‘shopped.

  18. Ilia

    The horizon *is* tilted. If you look at the cliffs to the left of the waterfall, then it is obvious that those that are close to the waterfall are behind those that are far from it; yet their bases are lower on the picture. Note that what you see in the foreground is not sea, but black sand deposited by the stream (just search for Skogarfoss in Google Images to see daylight pictures); it might have a slope, but then the base of the falls would be above the foreground, not below!

    The problem is that if the photograph had been aligned so that the horizon looked level (which is IMHO the right thing to do anyway, but this is debatable), then it’s the waterfall that would look tilted. This is a fairly wide-angle shot, and the camera was not aimed exactly at the falls, so there is some perspective distortion.

  19. SocraticGadfly

    Another moonbow for you, at Yosemite Falls: https://picasaweb.google.com/108891649959454176587/2009SpringVacation#5629095245007881506

    And, composite images are part of what’s behind today’s HDR photography. (My linked photo is from a single image.)

  20. Chris A.

    It must be faked, because there are stars in the picture…oh, wait… ;)

  21. What a stunning image.

  22. Louis Gordon

    Phil state: “Moonbows are pretty faint, so it takes a time exposure like this to be able to discern them clearly. ”

    Not true. I have been on the ocean more than once with a full moon and seen a ‘rainbow’ created by the moon just as the sun would have done. Those Moonbows were white with no color

  23. 22. Louis Gordon Says: “I have been on the ocean more than once with a full moon and seen a ‘rainbow’ created by the moon just as the sun would have done. Those Moonbows were white with no color”

    Actually, the colors were there, you just couldn’t see them because your retinal cones (color sensors) don’t work at the light levels found at night.

    - Jack

  24. Nigel Depledge

    Wow, totally stunning image.

    To all those complaining about the horizon – it looks to me as if the image was aligned so that the falling water was vertical (obviously allowing for the clear divergence of the flow at the same time), which on rough terrain is sometimes the best indicator of up / down, because the visible “horizon” may not actually be horizontal.

    To all those claiming photoshop – well, maybe. It would not suprise me if there were some post-processing involved, but that does not mean that the image has been faked in some way.

    In bright moonlight with aurora going on, a minute or two’s exposure might be more than enough to see the colours in the moonbow and in the sky. Since the Earth rotates 15° in an hour, each minute of exposure time would make a star subtend 0.25° of arc. At a wide angle as was used here, this would not be apparent unless you magnify the images of the stars.

    And, if the guy has a decent DSLR that gives fine images at high ISO settings (say, in the region of ISO6400), this might be as short as a ten-second exposure.

  25. katwagner

    @ Joseph, 14. Pffft. OK, my favorite lens is a 24mm – wonderfully wide and with not much distortion. In the photo here, all the elements look stuck together so is it really a photo? I try to tweak all the controls in camera so I hardly do any post processing. I’m a film photographer at heart!

  26. Jeff

    i’ve taught the earth science students for 20 years and even enjoy that subject better than teaching planetary science , since I find the earth the most interesting planet, plus i can take fieldtrips here on earth. I wish I could take a fieldtrip to Mars, i might change my mind then because from the surface mars is probably equally fascinating.

    water always carves out valleys so it looks like the stream is in a slight valley notch, the power of water erosion always amazes me; I was amazed as a kid seeing all those boulders at the bottom of the American side of Niagara Falls.

  27. @25 katwagner: My mother and a couple of friends are also photographers (amateur and professional respectively), and I think it’s a fascinating mix of art and science, but somehow I’ve just never managed to soak up any of the lingo.
    Still, I can appreciate what you’re saying. Anyone can digitally manipulate, these days. It takes a lot more skill to capture everything just the way you want it from the get-go, be it on film or CCD :)

  28. HvP

    katwagner, “I try to tweak all the controls in camera so I hardly do any post processing.”

    Which is not only admirable but necessary for proficient photography. However, if the dynamic range of your scene is greater than the range of your camera’s sensor or film then you may have no choice but to stitch images together in order to show what your mind remembers.

    No one observes a scene like a photograph. As your eye scans across multiple elements of the scene the eye adjusts to differing light and contrast levels. Your brain adjusts for odd angles and perspective effects. And your memory is more likely to preserve details about meaningful or noteworthy elements rather than less interesting parts.

    Now let’s say that you wanted a single image that shows a waterfall (with motion blur), stars (without trails), aurora (with color), rainbow (with color), and landscape (at night) all together. Raise your hand if you think it’s likely that even the best cameras can properly expose them all in a single exposure.

  29. Messier Tidy Upper
  30. Hello,
    I am Stephane, the author of this picture. Thank you all. I feel sorry for those who doubt, but this image is a single shoot. It was made October 9, 2011 at 23:30 UT with a Nikon D3 and a Nikkor 14-24mm/2.8 at 18mm, 10 seconds at 800 ISO and full aperture.
    For those who think that the photo is a fake, this is a time lapse of 46 images of 23h23 to 23h34 (Quicktime required):
    http://www.nuitsacrees.fr/tlskogarfoss/index.html

    And if it is not enough, another camera further back, was taking pictures every 30 seconds, a time lapse of 83 images of 22h30 to 23h14:
    http://www.nuitsacrees.fr/DP/Islande2011oct/SkogarMakingOf.mov

    I understand your uncertainty to the river that seems leaning. The reason is simple, the picture is taken with a 24X36 camera and a ultra wide angle lens (18 mm), which causes a significant distortion in the picture. The purpose of this photo is to show the Big Dipper, the moon bow and the waterfall. Framing with the waterfall on the right necessarily tipped it. During the shooting, the camera has been tilted so that the waterfall is vertical. I think you would have been even more shocked if the water of the waterfall would not have flowed vertically … . Of course, we could correct this distortion with software, but in this case the frame would be severely reduced.

    I also have an annotated version of this picture :
    http://www.nuitsacrees.fr/DP/AP/apskogar_1200annotated.jpg

    I spent seven days in Iceland from October 3 to 10, mainly for shooting Moonbow, here’s a preview:
    http://www.nuitsacrees.fr/icelandicmoonbow/index.html

    The most significant with some nice auroras:
    http://www.nuitsacrees.fr/octobre2011/index.html

    Sorry for my broken English …
    Have a nice day.
    Stephane

  31. Nigel Depledge

    Joseph G (27) said:

    Still, I can appreciate what you’re saying. Anyone can digitally manipulate, these days. It takes a lot more skill to capture everything just the way you want it from the get-go, be it on film or CCD

    Well, yes and no.

    First off, you cannot add something in post-processing that wasn’t there in a photograph, so if your initial photo is out of focus, this cannot be fixed in Photoshop.

    Second, while there now exist some powerful post-processing techniques (HDR springs to mind), they can’t make a rubbish photo into a brilliant one.

    Third, there is a certain amount of skill involved in knowing what to adjust and by how much – it is too easy to get carries away in post-processing and end up with unrealistic colours, or with excessive grain (due to over-adjustment of contrast or brightness), or with too much noise reduction that smears out detail, or with any of several other artefacts that can be introduced into a photo with post-processing.

    For example, I have recently (over the last year or so) started experimenting with HDR (which stands for High Dynamic Range, meaning the scene has a very large contrast between the brightest components and the darkest components), in which you stick the camera on its tripod and take several shots at different exposure levels, which the software subsequently stacks together so as to take those parts of each shot that are “correctly” exposed. Sometimes the results make the picture look more like the way the eye would see it, and sometimes they make it look flat and lifeless.

    I agree that it takes skill to achieve a desired effect “in camera”, but it also takes skill to achieve a desired effect through post-processing.

  32. Nigel Depledge

    HvP (28) said:

    Now let’s say that you wanted a single image that shows a waterfall (with motion blur), stars (without trails), aurora (with color), rainbow (with color), and landscape (at night) all together. Raise your hand if you think it’s likely that even the best cameras can properly expose them all in a single exposure.

    I do.

    First, a waterfall moves a damn sight faster than the stars, so any exposure between about 2 and 20 seconds will achieve motion blur of the water but no detectable star-trailing, unless you have zoomed in on the stars, but this is quite clearly a wide-angle shot.

    Second, the scene is moonlit, so it’s not quite dark.

    Third, modern top-end DSLRs have sensors that can give very fine image quality at high ISO settings (in the range of ISO6400, IIUC), and if you add this to the length of exposure (maybe around 20 seconds or so), you would expect to see colour in the moonbow and the aurora. I’ve taken 5-second shots of a twilit sky that showed up as a rich deep blue colour, with a low ISO setting.

    Add to this the possibility that the guy has a fast (i.e. wide-aperture) lens (maybe as fast as f1.4), and you’ve got a package that ought to give exactly the result we see here. If the lens is sufficiently wide-angle, you might even be able to extend the exposure to 60 seconds without seeing star trails.

  33. Nigel Depledge

    Nuitsacrees (30) said:

    I am Stephane, the author of this picture. Thank you all. I feel sorry for those who doubt, but this image is a single shoot. It was made October 9, 2011 at 23:30 UT with a Nikon D3 and a Nikkor 14-24mm/2.8 at 18mm, 10 seconds at 800 ISO and full aperture.

    Heh. Once again, I got pre-empted by a subsequent comment.

    I can see that my guesses were not too far off the mark, apart from the ISO setting. I was expecting the ISO setting to be quite high, but ISO 800 is pretty middling for a decent SLR such as the Nikon D3.

  34. Michele

    I know nothing about cameras but i do know God and His creations are mesmerizing and i am so happy you have the ability to capture what we might not ever see……thank you Stephane…dont stop snapping!!

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »