Double exposure photography involves combining two or more images into a single frame. This allows you to work with your shots and add textures to create surreal scenes. Words don’t really do them justice so here are some of my examples:
How do they work?
There are two types of double exposures: in-camera and post-production. In-camera double exposures are when you take two photos on a single frame. It started in film photography where you could rewind the film, then shoot over the same frame again. The end result is the literal sum of the two images.
The digital method involves importing and manipulating the images in Photoshop. This method gives you full control, so the possibilities are endless! Watch the video here for a demonstration.
The trick to double exposures is to understand exactly what an exposure is. The best mental image that I can use to explain double exposures is to imagine each double exposure is like a glass of water. An empty glass is an area of underexposure and the completely full glass is an area of overexposure. Got that in your mind? Great!
If you haven’t read my article on exposures you can check that out here.
In a 2 shot double exposure, we get two pours to fill the glass. If you underexpose an area of the first image (empty glass), more of the second image will be used to fill the glass. Conversely, overexposing an area of the first image will ensure that there is almost no effect of the second image on the overall composition.
“If you fill your glass on the first pour, there’s no room for more!”
Gear for Double Exposure Photography
You need a camera (digital or film) that allows you to take double exposures (in camera). As far as digital cameras go, I am aware that the following have an inbuilt function:
– Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 1D X and 70D;
– most Nikon DSLRs;
– Fujifilm’s X-T1, X-Pro1 and X100s;
– Olympus OM-D E-M5.
Most higher-end digital cameras have a double exposure option so just check your camera or your manual. You know the thing that is still in plastic, in the box.
In the film camera world you can check out the following:
– All of the Nikon FM/FE/FA FM
– Canon AE-1
– Konica T3, T3N and T4
– Contax 139 and 159MM
– Minolta XD, XE-1 and XE-7
There are a lot more but these are some of the more common ones online that you can pick up on eBay rather cheaply.
I can highly recommend the Nikon FM2. If you want to see more information about this camera you can check out my video and review here.
Got a camera and I get the glasses of water, how do I do it?
Portraits are the quintessential double exposure. This is because it is easier to control the exposure of background against the subject. You can fairly easily get a decent result. But, remember that (in camera) double exposures are about embracing the irregular and creating beauty through randomness.
The first image
Take the first of the two photos by aiming the camera directly at your subject. Meter the image from the darkest part of the subject, or put it/them in front of something bright (like the sun). If you are unsure of the metering system then underexpose the image by 1-2 stops. This lessens the probability of you overexposing everything.
You can do this on a film camera by changing the film speed up one stop (from 100 – 200 or 200 – 400). On a digital camera, you can adjust the exposure compensation to -1. This will put the subject in a slightly underexposed position. The background will be heading towards overexposed (if not completely overexposed).
Drawing this back to our glass analogy, we have the pixels (glasses of water) for the subject around 1/3 full, ready for more information. The surrounding pixels (background glasses of water) should be full or near full. This means that they have little/no capacity to absorb more information. That is what we want.
The second image
For the second image, you are looking to find something with a lot of colour and texture. Make sure whatever you are photographing is well lit. This goes a long way to making the final image something that will capture your eye. Think things like autumn foliage, flowers, trees, sunsets, cloud patterns, textured wallpaper etc. If the texture isn’t uniform then you need to think about where in the frame your subject was and ensure that it is distributed across this area.
When I do this I always try to fill the frame with the textures as evenly as possible. Providing you have taken the first image correctly (with the background heading towards overexposed) you should be fine.
Earlier you mentioned photoshop?
Photoshop can be used if you do not have a camera that an inbuilt multiple exposure functions. Or you can use it to create the “perfect” image.
Start with your initial layer as the “subject” photo. Open this image in photoshop. Next, open your texture image as the second layer of the image.
Make sure that both images are highlighted and select “multiply” from the drop-down menu under the layers window. Now alter the exposure of the image until you get the look that you are after.
As far as photoshop is concerned there is really no limit. You can create whatever you can dream of. Just imagine any two images and with enough skill and manipulation, you can combine them. I won’t go too much into this as at some point it becomes composite photography – adding parts of different images together into a single image.
Is that it?
Noooo never! It took me a while to build up this visual analogy of the glass of water in my head. But once you can understand that, you will have a much easier time attempting to blend the images in camera. I find that having some results early in a project like this will spur you on to get more creative. That is why I wrote this tutorial and made this film!
Again, don’t be afraid to throw the glass of water off the table and experiment. Once you have the basics down, you can get crazy. Here are some more ideas to get you inspired:
– Start experimenting with all different types of textures.
– Think about using different subjects from different perspectives.
– Try blending two completely different images to make a single image that portrays a story.
– Take a close-up shot of your subject, then another shot further away, or at another angle.
– Use different coloured flash gels to take multiple exposures of a subject in different colours.
– Put your camera on a tripod and take an image of yourself or a subject, then have them move and take a second exposure.
This is all you need to get you on your way nicely with double exposures.
About the Author
Ben Kepka is an engineer photographer and filmmaker from New Zealand, currently living in London. He is a founder of Cultured Kiwi, a website that showcases the finest content from New Zealand creators at home and abroad.
You can check out more of Ben’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. If you’re up for a double exposure challenge, you can join Ben’s competition on Instagram and win a leather Cultured Kiwi camera strap. You can find more details here. This article was also published here and shared with permission.
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