Sun Halos: Always Look Up


Have you ever seen a ring around the sun? Or a pair of bright spots flanking it? Or a rainbow-colored cloud? Just as sunlight reflecting and refracting inside raindrops can create a rainbow, sunlight reflecting off of ice crystals can form fascinating and beautiful halos. It doesn’t even have to be cold at ground level: if the ice crystals are high up in the atmosphere, spread in a thin layer of cirrus cloud, you can still see them… even in places known for warm weather like Los Angeles. I have a whole gallery of halo photos I’ve taken in southern California. You’ll see them more often than you expect. You just have to look up.

Fleeting Rays of Sunlight

Fire Dragon

I’m fascinated by the interplay of sunlight and clouds, particularly oddly-shaped clouds and optical effects like haloes and sundogs. The trick with photographing them is that you have to take the picture now. You can’t run and get another camera and come back. You can’t wait until you reach your destination even if it’s only 5-10 minutes away.

Lighting conditions will change. A halo might get stronger, or it might vanish entirely. A cloud that looks like a flaming dragon or phoenix right now will be a dull gray in a few minutes. Patterns of rays will fade from view. I’ve missed my chance a lot of times by being stuck on the road, unable to find a suitable place to stop until the moment had passed.

Light Rays After the Storm

Flying into the Sunset

Feathery Not-a-Rainbow

This last shot is a circumhorizon arc formed by ice crystals. It always appears parallel to the horizon, like a flattened out rainbow, and if the crystals cover enough of the sky it will actually form a circle all the way around the sky. I spotted it while walking back to work from lunch and only had my phone with me — and I actually ran the rest of the way to the office so I could get my camera. I was lucky, since these really don’t appear very often.

Not a Rainbow

Feathery Not-a-Rainbow

An amazing circumhorizon arc that I saw last May. I had just crossed the street while walking to lunch when I looked up, saw it…and walked back to the office to get my camera!

It started out as just a couple of small segments, but as the clouds drifted into position it quickly grew, and at its strongest it was just long enough to fill the field of view on my camera. There were also a couple of fragments of a 22° circular halo visible at the time.

It looks like a sort of straightened-out rainbow, but it’s actually caused by ice crystals. If the right type of crystals cover the entire sky, this will actually stretch in a circle all the way around the sky, parallel to the horizon.

At times like this, I really wish I had a DSLR, but the point-and-shoot will do in a pinch.

Location: Irvine, California. May 14, 2010, 1:30pm