Fogbows and the Spectre of the Brocken

A light show on Marin's shoulder.

My sister-in-law and her husband visited this past month and, as they needed a ride to the airport and I wanted to see sunrise over the clouds, we ascended the ridge above Spencer Battery wet and weary. The crescent moon was supposed to be visible over the city just before dawn, and I had high hopes of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge's and San Francisco's upper reaches above the fog. We saw neither. Instead, we were treated to an incredible display as a glorious sunrise mixed with the upper limits of an intense fog layer.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say that photography is equal parts planning and reaction. Although carefulplanning can often place you at the right place at the right time, some of my favorite photographic experiences are those that arose from weather not cooperating with my plans. Returning home with a card full of great images that arose of unexpected circumstances is a wonderful feeling.

So it was this past weekend. Only the very top of the Sutro Tower pierced the clouds. Fog city and the International Orange uprights of my favorite bridge lay within the blue confines of an October marine layer. Truth be told, were it not for the great bulk of the headlands, the incessant deluge of the Pacific's breath would have blanketed us as well (as it has in the past).

I stood on the ruddy, stony headland slopes and photographed a truly beautiful sunrise (photographs of which will be the subject of my next post). Upon regaining the summit, the three of us were greeted with a one of the most unusual and beautiful optical phenomena: the fogbow (including glories of "holy light" around our shadows) and the Spectre of the Broken.

On our way home, I grabbed the following frame of another photographer who was just a few minutes late to the party. I waited for him to hit the patch of trail just under the bow and hit the shutter:

Fogbows and the Spectre of the Brocken

The halo of the fogbow was very intense when we first saw it. Further, it was "white" insofar as it didn't have the clear separation of the spectrum as one sees in a rainbow. Moreover, its radius was very small compared to a rainbow. Of course, all of these observations are in line with the known properties of a "white rainbow" or fogbow. From M.G.J. Minnaert's "Light and Color in the Outdoors," p. 201:

"When the drops are very small, the appearance of the rainbow is quite different. This can be seen very well if you stand on a hill with your back to the sun and with fog in front and below. The bow then has the appearance of a white band, as much as twice the width of an ordinary rainbow, orange on the outside, blueish on the inside."

What's more, at the center of the fogbow, around our heads' shadows was a glory—a shimmering spot of light that looks like a halo. With the lenses I had, images of the glory simply didn't impress. We headed across the hilltop to see if the fogbow and glories could be seen more clearly against the murk of the marine layer.

On the edge of the cliff, the solar glory faded, but we could just barely make out the Spectre of the Brocken: our shadows projected within the reflected light upon the depths of the cloud bank.

As we headed down the hills, I began to reflect on how unusual and special the experience was. I've already planned on when next I will return.

Fogbows and the Spectre of the Brocken
Fogbows and the Spectre of the Brocken
Fogbows and the Spectre of the Brocken
Fogbows and the Spectre of the Brocken