The art of double exposure photography explained

While it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that one of the most popular effects in photography was created by accident, its evolution has been anything but. The art of double or even multiple exposure photography dates back to the profession’s earliest days. Nowadays, there’s an ongoing quest to reach new heights in mastering both its technical and emotional facets.

The technology behind double exposure photography

The idea is simple. Take one photoreactive plate, film cell or digital still and expose multiple images onto it so that they create a composite that becomes more than the sum of the parts. If using film, you would shoot one photo, rewind the roll and shoot another photo over the same piece of film. With a DSLR, achieving the effect can be as easy as changing a few settings. On the surface, producing a double exposure image is just that simple. In reality, it’s a bit more complex.

The art behind the technology

People often use double exposure to convey emotional insight, show a progression of movement or relate a change in time. Planning your composition is essential for obtaining an optimal outcome, along with technological knowledge and perhaps a bit of luck. Pre-determining how your two images will interact with one another can mean the difference between a jumbled mess and a breathtaking composition.

You don’t have to be an expert photographer to do this. Practice and experience are your keys to success. The idea will get you halfway there, but the more you experiment, the better you will know your equipment’s strengths and limits.

The duality of the double exposure photography process

There are two main ways to achieve a double exposure effect. The first is to create the composite within the camera. For DLSR cameras, the method is fairly straightforward. Take your first photo. Then, when you’re ready to take the next image, enter the menu settings and turn on the multiple exposure option. On the surface, it’s really that easy.

Consider this a general guide, though. In reality, the exact method will differ from camera to camera. Be sure to check your manual for details. In some cameras, you may also have to choose a blending mode, which adjusts the math behind how the images are combined. Other cameras may require you to set these options before taking the first image. Also, keep in mind that not every DSLR will even provide a multiple exposure option. Fear not, though. If yours doesn’t, you can still get in on the fun.

Double exposure flowers in water and woman overlaid the scene

So what’s the deal with blend modes? Check out our article on the subject. Generally, you’ll want to start with “Normal.” This places the second image on top of the first without regard to what the first image is. It also screens the areas where each image intersects, intensifying based on the brightness of each exposure. From there, experiment using different modes on the same shots. Putting the results side by side will provide the best insight into which does what.

An alternative double exposure method involves recording the two images as separate photographs and then combining them in post-production with photo editing software. You’ll still need to employ the same shooting methods, but ultimately this option lets you better refine the results. You can experiment with the process a little more and often correct mistakes a little easier. It’s also easier to compensate and correct any inconsistencies.

Which is better?

There’s no definite answer here. Some would argue that spontaneity and fun are missing from producing composites in post-production. It’s an adventure to capture the moment with your camera. What you shoot is what you get, and if you didn’t get things right, well, you get what you got.

On the other hand, combining images in Photoshop allows a greater amount of tweaking. Detractors point to the fact that this is a different type of artistic endeavor and requires a skill set that departs from the art of capturing the moment. Camera composites can be made or broken in a single instance. Also, if you haven’t set up your original photos properly, no amount of tweaking will ever get you a final look you are satisfied with. When combining in post-production, it’s tempting to tweak forever, and you may never achieve your “final” look.

Of course, there’s a middle ground. Some cameras will record your composite image but also save the images separately. This provides you the advantage of capturing the moment and seeing your work right away but still provides the greatest ability to composite and refine details in a non-destructive environment. For beginners and intermediates, this may be the optimal way to learn the art. That’s because you’re forced to learn the initial planning required. However, you’ll still develop that feel of how far you can push your image later. It’s definitely the way to go if your camera has this option.

The process of duality

No matter which method you utilize for your photography, it is essential to plan your double exposures. First, determine your foreground or main subject. You’ll find the best results are when you shoot this photo first. The subsequent exposures should always be your background or fill.

The best composites showcase each individual image as well as the blend. Consider the best way to frame each image. Ensure they interact with each other. At the same time, make sure they don’t destroy each others’ individuality.

Next, contemplate all aspects of contrast. Should one image be simple while the other is complex? Should one be large and the other small? Do you want to combine certain parts of your images but have other parts remain distinct? Think about differences in color and lighting. More importantly, think of where all of these things will interact with one another in your composite. Will they oppose or complement?

Processing in post-production

If you’re compositing strictly in post-production, bring your images into your editing software and place your background image(s) on the layer(s) above your primary photo. Again, choose a blending mode and reduce the opacity of the upper layers. Changing blending modes and masking areas of effect will have the biggest impact on your results. At this point, the methods and options are limited only by your artistic skills and your mastery of your software.

Double exposure photography with a bridge and a city

There are many things you can try to refine this process further. Some people recommend underexposing your images by half a stop. This can reduce the amount of overexposure, but be careful. It may muddy your elements in the midrange. Start with two simple images first, one next to the other, and work your way to more complex integrations from there. Try blending black and white images. Get a real feel for how your exposures combine first, then bring in splashes of color to first one image and then the other. Work with shooting silhouettes and filling in the area with your second image. Consider how the images both relate to one another in meaning and how they oppose one another in content — or the other way around.

An incredible duality

Above all else, practical experience is the key to success. Try both methods and discover which works best for you and which you enjoy the most. Don’t get discouraged by less than desired results. Enjoy each attempt and the journey it takes you on. It’s a straightforward process to learn but is incredibly complex to master. Perfecting this genre does require learning both the art of composition and the technicalities of composting, but don’t be afraid to jump in and give it a try. The best part of double exposure photography is that you really can’t lose. If your image fails, you’ve learned something. When you succeed, the result will be doubly satisfying.

Peter Zunitch
Peter Zunitch
Peter Zunitch is an award-winning video editor in New York with over 20 years of experience.

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