Want to Try Double Exposures? Forget Everything Else You’ve Read

Want to Try Double Exposures? Forget Everything Else You’ve Read

Double exposures, when they’re done well, are incredibly impressive. The literature on how to do them is fairly limited, but here, I'll explain how they work and how they're done.

How to Make a Double Exposure

If you’re doing this on digital, there are two ways that I’m familiar with. The first requires your camera to be capable of doing in-camera double exposures. If possible, there is typically a setting or an in-camera application to assist with this. The second way is really simple and done in Photoshop. If you're going the Photoshop route, take two images of equal size (or at least make them equal size) and open up them up as two layers in the same document. Set the blending mode to "Screen," and you’ve got yourself a double exposure. 

Shooting film is a different story. If you happen to have a camera that has a built-in function for doing a double exposure, you’re fortunate. Most film cameras do not have this function, but some do. Of my personal camera collection, my Nikon F100 and Mamiya 645 Pro TL have this capability. My Nikon F2 and Mamiya RB67 do not have a built-in function for this, but are still just as capable of it. For the latter example, it is easy enough. The Mamiya RB67 has two different levers, one for cocking the shutter and another for advancing the film. For it and any other camera like it, after taking a picture, you simply cock the shutter and don’t advance the film. 

If you have a film camera with a mechanical advance that cocks the shutter and winds the film simultaneously (i.e., you have to advance the film yourself with a lever), you may or may not be able to take a double exposure. For many film cameras (my Nikon F2 included), there is a button on the bottom of the camera that you have to press in order to rewind the film. For those cameras, you should take your photo, and while pressing the winder release (button on the bottom of the camera), you “advance” the film and cock the shutter.

If your camera automatically advances your film and does not have a built-in function for double exposures, I doubt double exposures are possible without entirely shooting through the same roll twice. Such is the case with certain Pentax 67s and my Fuji GA645. While on the topic of shooting through the same roll twice, it is a fairly common method and can be fun if you’re the kind of person that is pretty carefree about their photographs. If that is what you decide to do, I would suggest attempting to find a way to have the exact same starting place on the film both times you intend to shoot through the roll. Otherwise, the likelihood of not having any of your exposures lining up is pretty high. 

What Is a Double Exposure?

To preface this section, the initial explanation of how a double exposure works is not technically correct. Why on earth would I provide an explanation that isn't totally correct? Great question! The answer is because the technical answer is a great deal more complicated. So, while I hate to start off with a hand-waving explanation, it's what I'm going to do. Following the (arguably over-) simplistic explanation, I'll provide a brief dive into a more complex but more accurate explanation and will perhaps at some point do a much deeper dive into how this works. 

The easiest way to mentally process a double exposure is to think of it in terms of black and white photography. If you consider an image to be a very dense grid with values from black (completely unexposed) to white (completely exposed), a double exposure is the process of placing two images on top of one another and then, in combination, taking the lighter value (more exposed) from each cell. To illustrate this concept, I’ve come up a two simple example that are not attractive (at all) but it gets the point across.

Image 1

Image 2

The "Double Exposure"

Images 1 and 2 are simple screenshots of Excel file grids with a heat map applied to them. The resulting "double exposure" is the combination of the two heat maps. For each cell of the two exposures, the larger value (i.e., the more “exposed”) is kept. While it may be difficult to see, this concept is illustrated with the numbers in the cells. As can be understood from this, the order in which the photos are taken doesn’t matter. This can also be seen in Photoshop by simply switching the order of the photos. Indeed, a double exposure is just one specific case of the more general concept of multiple exposures, and the same holds true regardless of the number of exposures.

If you've read up to this point, you've probably wondered one of two things. If you're wondering how this explanation is overly simplistic and not technically correct, you're in the same place I was in when I first started doing multiple exposures and had no one to help me think through the specifics. If instead, you're wondering how the above could possibly be correct — that, in fact, why am I not actually doubling the values rather than keeping the higher value? The answer is that while technically you actually sum the light intensity (input), you do not always double the response to light (output). The response to light intensity differs between digital and film.

Response curve of Digital and Film

The response curve to light for a digital camera is linear (i.e., double light input = double response). As such, for the above example using Excel, you would simply add the numbers in each cell to determine the final image lightness in the sensor's response. Film, however, does not respond to light this way. The difference lies in the response curve. Film's response to light is logarithmic: this is why film can handle such a large degree of overexposure and why reciprocity failure exists. As such, doubling exposure (input) will not translate to doubling the image's response. Further, while a digital camera responds to multiple exposures is additive, film is more likely to adopt the light intensity from the brighter of two images. 

For those that are interested, I will try and put together a more thorough explanation of how both digital and film respond to multiple exposures. For this initial article, however, I hope you find the above examples satisfactory. If you're a film photographer and have stayed on this long, hopefully, the next section will shed a bit more light on this topic. 

Biggest Misconception in Film Double Exposures

The largest misconception I come across as it pertains to making double exposures on film is that you simply shoot two exposures that are both underexposed by one stop. Admittedly, in theory, this makes sense. Shooting 1 stop underexposed equates to half of the light hitting the negative for two exposures. In other words, you’re taking two exposures, each with half of the light needed for a neutral exposure. This results in one solid neutral exposure. As much as this particular technique has validity at face value, I’ve tried it over and over and have rarely liked the outcome. In theory, it works well, but I don’t think it works particularly well in practice. If you already shoot film, you’re probably well versed in how much overexposure it can take (sans slide film). As such, why aim for a neutral exposure when you can easily shoot 1-2 stops overexposed without much, if any, adverse results?

Low Hanging Fruit

In general, I’ve found that one neutral exposure of a mid-to-low contrast scene mixed with a high contrast scene make for the easiest successes. For example, the most common types of double exposures I see involve the silhouette of someone or something with a second image there as texture. Secondly, the mixture of a portrait with a high contrast scene (think strong light source or a landscape at dawn or dusk) make for great shots when they’re done well. What makes them “done well” you ask? It’s all about proper framing. High contrast landscapes can make for nice images too. This brings me to the double exposures that I generally find most interesting and most difficult: shooting two portraits together. I would suggest having one shot be a silhouette and the other a neutral exposure. Either way, it's fun to play around with them regardless of the subject. 

Are you a fan of multiple exposures? If so, please share some of your work below. 

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Dominick Scavone's picture

Cannon 70d in camera double exposure.

Dominick Scavone's picture

Canon 70D in camera.

James Madison's picture

This is solid. Well done!

Deleted Account's picture

Multiple exposures are very fun to play with. I've yet to attempt it on film because It's so hard to visualize the end result but would love to one day create a negative with two exposures.

On digital it's pretty simple since any software that has layer blend modes will work. This image was captured and edited all on an old iPhone.

James Madison's picture

This is good DE! You should really give it a go on film. They don't always turn out as planned but sometimes that's for the better.

Deleted Account's picture

Just need more confidence

Tom HM's picture

I just logged in to say that this pic is fantastic. Well done mate.

James Madison's picture

Talk about a compliment!

Deleted Account's picture

Thank you sir! I think the fact that it was capture and edited on a phone shows that you don't always need professional level gear to make something that's technical.

James Madison's picture

I hear that. What phone app did you use? I find that I don't use the camera on my phone often enough.

Deleted Account's picture

I think I used an app called Enlight. This was many years ago so I'm not sure if it's still the same, but at the time it had blend modes with multiple layers. I would take two photos and set both of their blend modes to "lighten".

Adriano Brigante's picture

What I like to do is shoot the same subject twice and holding the camera upside down for the second exposure. It makes for interesting abstract shapes.
Here's an example shot on medium format film:

James Madison's picture

Lovely DE! I've tried DEs like these a few times that way but have yet to get them to turn out as well as your shot. Well done!

Adriano Brigante's picture

Thanks, James! When you do it on film, there's a lot of luck involved, to be honest. Here for example, the way the top parts of the window frames (the round parts) perfectly combine to form one continuous line that goes up and down is pure luck. Also, I find it very hard to visualize what the shape will be when you take the shot, but I guess that's part of the fun! Sometimes you get a nice surprise when you develop the negative. :)

James Madison's picture

I have found that to be the case in mine as well. In one image that was about as close as I ever got to liking one of my double exposures that was this style, I had the upside down portion just barely off balance. You'd have to look at it pretty closely to tell but it's all I can think of when I see it.

I 100% agree that the surprise is part of the fun. Sometimes they're duds but when they work out, it's amazing.

Andres Entuna's picture

OMG, this is ingenius! This double exposure invert idea works well with my silouhette shots! Thanks for this idea man :D

Manuel Velasco's picture

Pentax K3 double exposure in camera.

James Madison's picture

Man, this is wild! Well done!

Eder Abogabir's picture

Just last night I took these ones guys. During the day I found it more difficult to create this, but I will sure try more once it gets warmer here lol.

James Madison's picture

These are awesome! I'm partial to the third one but all three are great. Well done!

Eder Abogabir's picture

Thank you James. these were fun to shoot also challenging, the made thing a bit. hehe have a great weekend.

Dominick Scavone's picture

In camera DE

Jim Morton's picture

I enjoy doing DEs during worship services at church. This is in camera, can’t recall off hand if it was the EOS R or RP.

James Madison's picture

This DE is spot on! Well done. I love the colors and framing of the two shots together.

Ben Dauré's picture

I almost exclusively shoot double and multi exposures to get effects like this and much more. This one is using coffee grains and glitter. It's an incredibly enjoyable way to shoot. great to see an article about it.
If you like this check out loads more at www.bendaurephotography.com.

Deleted Account's picture

Thats awesome! Could be cool to see that same affect coming out of the saxophone.

James Madison's picture

This multiple exposure is great! Is it a triple exposure or were the coffee grounds and glitter taken in the same shot?

Just checked out your website - your work is great! The Underground series is great.

Ben Dauré's picture

Cheers for the kind words James im glad you like my work, all of the coffee grains and glitter shots are double exposures, one of the subject on a half white half black background and one of coffee grains/glitter sprinkled on backlit on paper with different types of coloured flash for different effects.

Really chuffed you like the underground series as that's the one im most proud of. All of that stuff is multi exposure, anywhere from 3 to 7 exposures depending on what I was overlaying, those used a multitude of different techniques to get the weird lighting effects.

James Madison's picture

That's awesome! That's for sharing your work.

Rod Kestel's picture

That is very very funky. I tried for yonks to get this effect by editting in PS, dismal failure.
I shall now give multi a red hot go.

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