This is a guide covering everything you need to know about double exposure in photography.
What is Double Exposure in Photography?
Double exposure is defined as the technique of taking a photograph where two images (technically, two exposures) are superimposed, or merged, into each other to create a single photo.
That’s the double exposure definition. The word “superimpose” means to place one thing over another, so that both things are still visible.
Back in the days before DSLRs were a thing, photographers would use film cameras to achieve the double exposure effect.
It was quite simple— take a photo, roll back the film, and expose the same film to another image.
The result is a singular film frame exposed twice (thus, the double exposure meaning).
Nowadays, with the advent of digital cameras, it may take a few more steps to achieve this double exposure look.
It’s important to note that not all digital cameras are capable of taking multiple exposures.
If you aren’t sure whether your camera is able to do this, check your camera manual.
Who Invented Double Exposure?
There is no single consensus on who invented double exposure.
Generally speaking, though, it seems like double exposure started somewhere in the 1860s.
Albanian photographer Gjon Milli is generally attributed as the first inspiring photographer worldwide to create multiple exposures.
Technically, he did not use multiple exposures— instead, he used specially timed external light in order to perfectly photograph motion.
This is called stroboscopic photography. After his work, many photographers used multiple exposures to achieve this look.
Why Would Someone Want Double Exposure?
Let’s go back to what double exposure is— the merging of two photos together.
When photographers use the double exposure effect, they can get interesting results like “ghost images” or “mirror images”.
Double exposure images have a dreamy and surrealistic effect, which allows the photographer to tell unique stories that a single photo cannot achieve.
For example, merging a photo of a person’s portrait with an image of outer space can tell the story that the person is “spacing out” and disconnected from reality, or maybe that they are connected with the universe, or perhaps that the human imagination is as vast as the nebulas.
Photography, like other forms of art, can have many interpretations.
Double exposure is a distinct method that can “trigger” unique interpretations.
Double exposure images typically would feature a silhouette.
It’s also good to note that double-exposure pictures don’t have to be serious all the time— in fact, they can be humorous too!
You can achieve this double exposure effect using different techniques, from using a DSLR camera, to using photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop to superimpose existing images.
It’s not very hard to create these images, but you do need some practice to perfect the double exposure technique.
The more experience you have with double exposure, the more effective your storytelling would be. If you are interested in learning how to achieve the double exposure definition, keep reading the sections below to get you started.
How to Do Double Exposure Photography?
1. Compose a Theme
Before you grab your camera to create double-exposure images, it may be useful to first think of a theme.
When you already have a theme or an overall idea of how you want your final image to be, it will be easier to have a rough idea on how you can start composing your shots.
Because what is double exposure if not for conveying meaning?
A useful way to start off is by first figuring out what message you want your picture to send.
For example, if you want to have a message about man’s connection to nature, then taking photos of natural scenes such as the forest or the ocean is an effective way to send this message.
Or, if you want to send a message about the struggles of living in a city, you can superimpose a picture of a man looking sad with a picture of black-and-white buildings.
The possibilities are vast with double exposure.
If you are unsure about what kind of double-exposure image you want to create, you can even seek inspiration on
Google the keyword “double exposure photography ideas”.
You can try recreating some of the images found on Google to practice. In the wise words of Austin Kleon, steal like an artist.
2. Capturing a Base and Layer Picture for Double Exposure
Once you have an idea of the double-exposure image you want, you can go ahead and capture a base photo.
This base photo, or the first layer of the double exposure, can be anything from a portrait to a good scenic spot.
As long as the main subject of this base photo is well-lit and has a somewhat neutral background, it will work.
Keep in mind, though, that your base photo is the main subject of the final outcome.
When taking a base photo for double exposure, make sure that your photo isn’t too noisy and that the outline of the main subject is clear.
For example, if your base photo is a photo of an apple, it is not ideal to have parts of the apple cropped out from the frame.
The color scheme of this photo doesn’t really matter, since you’re most likely going to have to edit the photo afterward (or, alternatively, if your end result is a black-and-white double exposure).
Like the base photo, your layer photo can be anything, from the skyline of a busy city to a serene forest scene.
It may be a good idea to take a photograph of something with more intricate details (or if you want to go full avant-garde, go ahead and shoot something abstract!) to produce a more artistic end result.
When taking photos of the base and layer photo, it’s good to take multiple “safety shots”. This means extra photos of the same object or scene from different angles, perspectives, or lighting.
Having a variety of photos for your double exposure will come in handy later when you’re editing— you can experiment with different photos to see which one comes out best.
Another thing to keep in mind is that when you are taking these shots, make sure that you capture all of the subjects’ details sharply with even exposure.
Though you can always edit the photos later using Photoshop, having a good initial photo will make your job easier.
Make sure that the lighting for your images is not too dark or too bright.
3. Know Your Camera Settings
You can do double exposure with your camera automatically if your camera allows you to do so.
Once you are sure that your camera is able to take double-exposure photos, follow this step to begin your shooting adventures.
Remember that this is a rough guideline, as all cameras are different.
- Look for the option of “multiple exposures” in your camera. In a Canon 5D Mark III camera, you can find this option by pressing a small button at the back of the camera with the paintbrush and rectangle icon.
- Select “On: Func/Ctrl”
- On the multiple exposure control, select “additive”
- Find “save source images”, and then choose the option of “all images”
- Find “save source images”, and then choose the option of “all images”
- Your camera will start shooting double exposure if you choose “continuously”. If you want to go back to the normal setting, select the option for “1 shot only”.
What if your camera can’t take double-exposure photos?
Does that mean you can’t achieve this effect at all?
No! The section after this will discuss how you can achieve double exposure using Photoshop.
How to Use Photoshop For Double Exposure
This is the part where you can finally merge your beautiful photos together to create a double exposure.
Before you start, move all your images to your computer and select your two best photos.
When selecting the final photos, pick the ones with the best lighting and sharp details.
If need be, you can retouch these photos first using programs such as Adobe Lightroom or other programs you’re comfortable with.
Once you are happy with the final two images, open both of them in Photoshop.
Check out this video tutorial for a visual explanation and also read the tips below:
1. Prep the Base Photo
Since the base photo is the main subject of your double exposure art, you can take the time to edit out some imperfections such as dust or blemishes.
You can edit out the imperfections using the Healing Brush tool in Photoshop.
Depending on your desired final composition, move the image to the center or off-center.
Adjust the brightness and the contrast of the photo so that it will appear better once you start blending.
- Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels
- Alternatively, you can access the Levels menu by pressing Ctrl-L
- Play around with the sliders to adjust the levels of your photo. The white slider is for the brightness of the photo, while the black slider will adjust the contrast.
- If you have some specific “formula” for your photo levels, you can also adjust the photo by setting numerical values.
- Click “OK” once you are happy with the image.
2. Get Rid of the Background
A few sections earlier, we suggested that you take photos of your subjects with neutral backgrounds. This is because, in this step, you will have to pretty much eliminate all of them.
The “cleaner” your background is, the easier this step will be.
- Using the Quick Selection or Magic Wand Tool, select the background area or any other parts of the photo that you want to eliminate.
- Press on Select > Inverse in order to invert the selected areas.
- Use Refine Edge Tool
- Select the Smart Radius box and set the value of Radius in the Edge Detection to draw more attention to smaller details.
- Go to Output, and opt for New Layer
- Select the Output To option to create a duplicate of the photo without permanently changing the picture
- Lastly, select “Add a Mask” and “Create a New Layer”. Adjust this layer to be under the cut-out, and then use the Paint Bucket Tool filled with white or other neutral colours.
3. Adding the Layer Image
Once you are done preparing the first image, it’s time to add the layer image to it.
- Using your cursor, drag the layer image to overlay the base image
- Select the layer image, and then Ctrl > Layer Clipping Mask of the base image beneath.
- You should be able to see the moving outline of the base image’s silhouette on the second layer.
- Unlink the mask, and play around with the layer photo until the “good” part is confined within the base image’s silhouette.
4. Blending The Two Images Together
There are a lot of layer blending modes available on Photoshop that you can experiment with to get the best final outcome.
Usually, the Screen layer effect is used to achieve the double exposure look, but feel free to experiment.
What you’re looking for is increased transparency of the layer image, so that the base photo underneath can come through and be visible.
5. Adding the Last Top Layer
This step may not be needed if you are able to achieve a good double exposure look from the previous step.
But, if you think that the double exposure can do with a little more work, feel free to do this step.
- Duplicate the base photo and drag it to the layer photo.
- Use “Lighten” for the blending mode of the base photo
- Make your final touches if necessary, like gently erasing parts of the base photo to reveal a more detailed second layer.
There are a lot of video tutorials on YouTube that can teach you how to achieve these steps more visually if you find it difficult to follow worded instructions.
If at any point you feel lost, simply search up “Double exposure Photoshop Tutorial” to see where you can go from there.
Jon has been a passionate photographer for 10+ years. Fun fact is that he has a collection of around 300-400 cameras that his family has collected over the years. Outside of photography, he has a Masters Degree in Engineering and has 13 years experience working in the industry across the globe.