# Would you see a rainbow from refraction when the sun is in front of you?

I know how rainbows are formed, and why.

Usually it is said that the Sun must be behind the observer, in order for its light to be totally reflected inside the droplet and then reach the observer.

But surely not all the light is totally reflected?

There must be some radiation refracting from inside the droplet to the air: since different wavelengths refract through different angles, shouldn't we also see a rainbow when the Sun is in front of us?

• As an aside, you might be interested in hunting down a copy of Color and Light in Nature
– user20936
Mar 31, 2014 at 20:28

You are right. Rainbows can occur all over the sky. However the traditional one and two internal reflections of the primary and secondary bows send light back towards the sun and hence their bows appear opposite the sun and centered on the antisolar point. The reflection of the main light makes these bows stand out.

And only the light that enters a droplet is reflected in some manner. Sometimes it is a single reflection and you get a primary rainbow which everyone is familiar with. Depending on how dense the droplets are some light will pass through all the drops and will not be reflected creating a hazy or dim rainbow.

If some of the light bounces inside the droplet (enters but does not exit and bounces inside twice more) you'll see a weaker double rain bow caused the the light that has bounced 2 times.

So there are many orders of rainbows:

A zero order is when there are no internal droplet reflections and the droplet is sun ward. This creates an orange shifted glow.

There must be some radiation refracting from inside the droplet to the air: since different wavelengths refract through different angles, shouldn't we also see a rainbow when the Sun is in front of us?

The width you see of the rainbow represents the spreading of the frequencies and their slightly different refraction angles. Light can be refracted in many different ways from the droplets with the sun in between you, but they don't form the traditional bow shape which has to do with the arc of the sun being behind you and refracted back. This is mostly because the suns brightness make it too hard to see.

And here are some other refraction examples that are not really considered rainbows.

Take a look at this site for more about atmospheric optics.

• Ah, nice clarification. Tbh I thought a zero order would be completely unobservable with the naked eye. Am I right? Is this something you can observe with a camera/filter only? Mar 31, 2014 at 18:49
• No this is a type of scattering and it is caused by water droplets or other particles in the air. Like the red sunset/sunrise. Mar 31, 2014 at 18:52
• In case one didn't take a close enough look at secondary rainbows (because they're fainter): note the inverted order of colours due to the extra refraction. Mar 31, 2014 at 21:54
• The third and fourth order rainbows were first photographed in 2011 atoptics.co.uk/rainbows/ord34.htm and the fifth order rainbow in 2012 earthsky.org/earth/first-ever-image-of-5th-order-rainbow Jun 16, 2016 at 19:53

Check this: You can see that the angle difference is much bigger when the light gets reflected, and can be differentiated much easier. Also another factor which probably plays a very important role is that the sun is in front of you, and its simply too strong in comparison with the light from the droplet, thus making it even more difficult to inspect this phenomenon.