The Green Flash

Cecil says you can’t photograph a Green Flash with an ordinary camera. Actually, you can.

If you look up Green Flash in Wikipedia, one of the photos used to show the effect was taken by an ordinary SLR camera in Santa Cruz, California at the beach over-look behind the Abbott Lighthouse.
I’m a guide there and, if there is clear weather, you are likely to see a green flash more often than not. As Cecil mentions, sometimes it’s a blue flash and, rarely, a violet flash-- and often it’s more than one, a series of flashes one after another, depending on the instability of the air at sunset.
When the sun is low and it’s possible to look at it directly without frying your eyes, watch for distortions on the edge of the sun as it sets through layers of air of different temperatures. The distortions will work up to the top of the sun and a small blob of the sun will float off and flash as it dissipates. And, as said above, there may be just one or a series of flashes depending on the air that evening.

Almost every evening at sunset I set up a spotterscope and provide binoculars for people passing by so they can see the effect. They are seldom disappointed. We are usually rewarded with flashes that can range from “not tonight,” to muted by haze, to brilliant emerald green, to sapphire blue, to a deep violet.

I actually have a sort of Green Flash Society going with some local people stopping by to watch the effect as a group. Some take pictures. The image is small, but with a zoom lens and computer you can get a really nice, enlarged image.

Also, as an added bonus, after sunset you can turn around and watch the Belt of Venus rising over the Santa Cruz Mountains to the east. (Again, see Wikipedia.)

There is a curse involved, however: Once you’ve seen the Green Flash you’ll never watch a sunset again. You’ll be so busy looking for the flash, you won’t spend the quiet time watching the sunset.
It’s the price you must pay for seeing this beautiful event.

(Note: I just returned from Costa Rica and was unable to see the flash there. The air was too stable every night and no flash developed. Disappointing.)

Ah, Santa Cruz!


First, link to column in question:

Second, thanks for the comments. However, please note that column was from 1988, prior to digital photography, so the situation may well have changed. I’ll bring this to Cecil’s attention to see if he’d want to do an update or footnote revision or something.

Surely the article is quite old, as green flashes have been recorded quite often. Granted, they looks smaller and less green than they do the naked eye, but they are there. When pop science channels on YouTube have made videos about it, you know it’s no longer obscure.

Please consider updating this article, Cecil.

A 1986 film directed by Eric Rohmer and a 1882 novel by Jules Verne are both called The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert), although the film is more commonly called Summer in English-speaking countries. They both talk about how rare it is to see a green flash. Both the film and the novel have a climax in which a green flash is finally seen. I don’t know whether the shot of the green flash in the film is a real green flash or just a special effect.

In showing the green flash to people over the years, I’ve found that there are many who think it’s a myth and have to be convinced it’s real. Then there are those who think it’s supposed to look like the green flash in “Pirates of the Carribean,” that shows the flash as a burst of green light erupting out of the sun and radiating out over the whole sky. Photos of how a green flash really looks are available online, although these are the best photos and most green flashes aren’t that brilliant. I have fun “rating” the flashes, 1 through 10, and recording them in my visitors logbook that i keep as a guide for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Most rate about a 5, more or less, and I rarely rate a flash an 8 or a 9. I’m saving the 10 spot for that most memorable flash that is yet to come.
The flash (and also large sunspots) can be seen with the unaided eye, but are much more appreciated with a pair of binoculars or a spotterscope.
It also helps if you are guided by someone who knows what to look for.
Here in Santa Cruz we seem to have about as many blue flashes as green and we are rarely rewarded with a violet flash.
I show people sunspots by projecting the image of the sun through my soptterscope onto a hand-held white piece of paper. It just occured to me I might be able to do the same with a green flash. :smack:
I’ll try it the next clear sunset and post the results.
If anyone else tries this, please let us know what you get.


Well Cecil does not say the flash cannot be photographed at all, he says it cannot be photographed with an “ordinary camera”, which may have been true at the time of writing (1988) when “ordinary cameras” used film. Certainly it could be photographed back then, with the right equipment. I have never been lucky enough to see the event ‘in the flesh’, but I had a copy of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy way back in the 1960s which included a color photograph of what it called “the rare green flash,” taken, IIRC, at the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo in Italy. I don’t know what equipment they used, but obviously it was photographable, and was quite clear in the picture.

As Dex implies, things may be different now that “ordinary” cameras ae digital. I supose a digital camera is what **Santa Cruz’n’ **is usin’.