A Guide to Double Exposure Photography

A Guide to Double Exposure Photography - Mastin Labs

One of the most popular effects in photography — double exposure — started as a mistake. 

If you've ever used a film camera, you’ve probably experienced it at least once. The film gets stuck, or maybe you used a pre-existing roll without thinking, and then you have a photo that looks like a blurry, jumbled mess. 

At first, it might seem like the photos were ruined. But in the art of photography, there’s no such thing as a mistake. Over the years, double exposure has evolved into a deliberate art. 

Nowadays, you can create your own double exposure photographs on both film and digital cameras. It isn’t a hard technique to master, but it’s essential if you want to push your creative limits and add a wow factor to your work. 

Let’s define double exposure photography and learn how to explore this art form yourself. 

What Is Double Exposure?

First, let's lay down the most important bit of background information: Double exposure photography is an aesthetic technique that involves combining two shots into a single frame. 

Overlaying multiple images helps you capture more visually interesting shots, with often unexpected results. Double exposure photos may appear dreamy, otherworldly, abstract, surreal, or some combination of the above. 

You can achieve this unique aesthetic through both film and digital photography, if you know the right techniques. Even if your equipment doesn't have the right settings for in-camera double exposure shots, all it takes is the right know-how to refine your photos in post-production. 

How Do You Create Double Exposure Images?

The world of double exposure pictures is dynamic, abstract, and exciting. It might seem intimidating if you haven’t tried it before, but it doesn't have to be. Multi image photography certainly has a learning curve, but it’s something any photographer can do with the right tricks (and a bit of practice). 

Let’s break down the key steps to creating double exposure images that will push your work to the next level. 

Adjust Digital Cameras for Double Exposure Settings

While the old days of double exposure photography relied on the unpredictability of film, modern technology has made it even easier to experiment with double exposure shots. 

Most DSLRs have built-in double exposure settings that let you shoot a double exposure photo — all in-camera. Essentially, this option lets photographers add a second exposure (or more) on top of a base photo that’s already saved on the memory card. In some cases, your DSLR might allow you to tweak the exposure in the camera itself, so you can customize the way the individual shots are blended together. 

Take the Nikon D850, for example. With this camera, you can tap the menu button on the left side of the screen and then select the camera icon. Scroll down to the third page, where you’ll find a setting marked “Multiple Exposure.” You can choose to turn this setting on for only one photo before returning to normal camera mode, or you can set it to keep photographing double exposure until you manually turn it off.

Then, choose the overlay mode you want to use:

  • Add — Places two photos on top of each other with no alterations
  • Average — Combines two photos while also balancing the exposure
  • Lighten — Uses only the lightest pixels in the two images
  • Darken — Uses only the darkest pixels in the two images

The exact method may be different from model to model, but the general principle is the same. Choose your preferred double exposure settings and then start experimenting. 

Just keep in mind that not all DSLR cameras have the capacity for double exposure. Always consult your camera’s manual to confirm it can handle multiple exposure shots. 

Use Double Exposure Techniques for Film Cameras

Have you ever accidentally taken a photo on a reloaded roll of film? Double exposure with a film camera is just that easy. All you have to do is expose the same frame of film twice. 

Ever since the early days of black and white double exposure portraits like spirit photography in the 19th century, film photography has played a pioneering role in developing double exposure techniques. That’s why many film cameras these days come with a multiple exposure lever that allows you to deliberately shoot overlay images. 

If your camera has this built-in multiple exposure lever, double exposure photography can be as easy as pressing the lever to reset the shutter. Take your first photo, press the lever, and then take the second photo.

If your camera doesn’t have the multiple exposure lever, you’ll have to do it manually. Shoot the entire roll and then reload it into your camera for another pass. To pull off this technique, you need to align your second set of frames with the first. Use a marker to pinpoint the film’s position in the mouth of the cartridge before you shoot.

Just keep in mind that double exposures on film can be unpredictable, and sometimes even frustrating. It can feel like more of an art than a science. But many photographers prefer film because of this unpredictability. Experimenting with double exposure on film can even reward you with the most unexpectedly incredible results — you never know what you could get until you try. 

Edit Two Single Images To Create a Special Effect

The good news is, you don’t need a camera at all to create the double exposure effect. While you still need to produce the original shots, you can always edit the two images together in post-production to create an overlay effect.

The features in a photo editing app like Photoshop allow you to mimic the look of double exposure. Double exposure actions and presets make it even easier to capture the authentic DSLR or film look in post-production.

Here are the basic steps you can take in Photoshop to pull off the double exposure look.

Open your foreground image containing the main subject, like a silhouette of a person or animal. Then, use the Magic Wand tool to select the subject. Select Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection to create your layer mask. Press Alt and then click on the layer mask to highlight your selected area. 

Now, it’s time to add your overlay image. Go to Files and select the image, or just drag one on top of the other. Place it to your liking and then go to the Layers panel. Set the Blend mode to Screen and reduce the opacity settings. 

From here, you can experiment with contrast, opacity, and color to craft your desired double exposure image. 

If you have specific images in mind you want to create, editing photos to achieve a double exposure effect is a great way to bring your inspiration to life. This might take some of the spontaneity out of the double exposure process, but it gives photographers greater influence over the final product. You can find the correct exposure for each photo and blend them perfectly for the artistic effect you’re going for. 

Get Flawless Double Exposure Photographs With Mastin Labs

While it’s not hard to learn the process itself, double exposure photography is still a complex art form. Many photographers spend decades trying to master the depth of both its technical and emotional elements. 

In the modern era of photography, the possibilities for double exposure art are endless. Experience the next level of photo editing with Mastin Labs. Our user-friendly tools and artistic presets are designed to help you elevate your photography — without all the time and effort of traditional techniques. Learn more about what we do and see the stunning results for yourself.