A digital camera can take millions of photographs on the same sensor. Film cameras rely on mechanics to pull out the next piece of film to expose the next shot. Sometimes, when the film isn’t wound to the next shot, the camera exposes the same piece of film twice. This is known as a double exposure.
You don’t have to dig out an old film camera to create that double exposure look. With software and a digital camera, you can recreate it on a digital platform.
This article will show you how to create a double exposure using Adobe Photoshop.
What You Need
In many cases, you don’t actually need Photoshop to create a double exposure, even with a digital camera. Many camera brands, including Canon and Nikon, allow for in-camera double exposures. Using the built-in option is useful, but using Photoshop offers you more control over just how the images overlap.
To create a double exposure in Photoshop, you’ll need:
- A camera and lens
- Two different scenes, people or objects to photograph
- And, of course, Photoshop
Step-By-Step Guide to Taking a Double Exposure
Photograph a Silhouette
Even if you’re creating a double exposure in Photoshop, the process starts well before sitting down at the computer. In a traditional double exposure on film, one photo appears clearest on the darkest areas of the other image. That’s an essential concept so keep that in mind.
Because the dark areas bring out the other photograph, a double exposure is best done with one of those images as a silhouette. You can choose any subject, from people and animals to architecture, but you will get the best results if the subject is very dark.
For the most flexibility in the editing process later, change your file type to RAW, for both this step and the next.
The easiest way to photograph a silhouette is to use backlighting, where the light is coming from behind the subject. If you don’t have lighting gear, you can create backlighting simply by shooting in an open doorway or window. Ideally, the sun should be behind your subject.
In both of the sample shots, I took the silhouette images by photographing underneath a traffic bridge. The shadow of the bridge allowed me to get a black profile while the sunlight from behind created the lighter background.
Another option is to shoot when the sun is low in the sky, either shortly before sunset or shortly after sunrise. Place the subject directly in front of the sun. If the subject is immobile, move your position until the sun is behind the subject.
Next, you need to adjust the exposure so that the subject is dark, rather than exposing for the subject. Use manual mode to intentionally underexpose the subject, or use a semi-manual mode such as aperture priority and a negative exposure compensation value to darken the subject.
Ideally, your subject should appear black and the background very light. Don’t worry about blowing out the sky — with a double exposure, getting a white sky is actually good. Check the LCD screen to make sure the subject is dark enough and lower the exposure as needed.
One more thing to watch for — post-processing will go much faster without any distracting objects in the background, so look for a plain background. Ideally, just the sky, and overexposing it actually works fine here.
In one of my sample shots, I couldn’t quite stand in the right spot to avoid getting a tree in the background, so I had to remove the distractions in Photoshop. Avoiding distractions in the first place often takes less time than removing them with software later.
Photograph a Pattern or Landscape
With the silhouette done, you need to find a second image to overlay with the first. The guidelines for this shot are a bit looser. The subjects that will work well with the first are nearly endless.
Patterns are one of the best options, but “pattern” works in many different ways. A jagged city skyline, a line of trees, a flock of birds or the repeating branches on a bush are just some examples.
The pattern doesn’t need to be an exact geometrical pattern. Any bunch of repeating elements will work. Another popular option is to use a landscape image in the double exposure.
You don’t need to limit yourself to just patterns and landscapes, but these two types of shots tend to work well. Before you choose the exposure settings, however, determine what final type of double exposure you would like to create.
You can create a double exposure where the silhouette simply darkens that area of the image. Or, you can create a double exposure that appears to be on a blank background, with the second image only appearing with the first. Like these:
If you choose the first option, you’re open to shooting the second photograph at whatever exposure settings best suit the scene.
To get that blank background instead, you’re going to want to overexpose the sky until the sky is white. That’s (partially) where the white background comes from.
You want the white area in the second image to overlap the very light background from the first silhouette. That means you want to base the composition on the second photo roughly on the composition of the first to align the lighter areas of both images together.
You can adjust the alignment in Photoshop, but you’ll get the best results if you start with the alignment in mind.
Open Both Images in Photoshop
With both images shot, now you’re ready for the editing magic. Start by opening each file. Since you shot in RAW, the images will open in Adobe Camera RAW or ACR. Inside ACR, make any additional adjustments to the exposure.
In the silhouette photo, bring down the shadows and blacks to make sure that silhouette is black. For the second image, adjust for proper exposure. In the second photo, you can also adjust colour and contrast based on your final vision.
For double exposure that appears on a white background instead, turn your silhouette to a black and white image. I don’t mean a monochrome image, but one that only has black and white. To do that, pull down the blacks and shadows, then pull up the whites and highlights to get a completely white background.
For any remaining color, select the the targeted adjustment brush at the top of the toolbar. Paint over the areas that should be white and then pull up the exposure in that tool. Repeat for anything that should be black, only this time, lower the exposure.
For the second image, if your goal is that white background, pull up the whites and highlights to blow out the sky, which should create that white sky. You can correct any areas that aren’t white using the targeted adjustment brush.
Next, make any minor adjustments to the individual photos. If your silhouette has distractions in the background, remove them. I used the healing brush tool and paint tools to eliminate flyways in my model’s hair.
Select the entire silhouette image by using the marquee tool. Copy and paste the image over top of the second image. You should now have two layers, with the silhouette on top.
In the layers panel, change the blend mode by clicking the drop down option next to “Normal.” Select the screen mode. Now you should have a rough double exposure, with the second image showing up darker inside that silhouette.
Next, refine the double exposure by perfecting how the images lighten up. With the second image (the pattern or landscape) selected inside the layers panel, go to Edit > Transform. Choose from options to resize or rotate.
Exactly what steps you use will depend on your photos, but use these tools to align the elements in the second image with the silhouette of the first.
Now, you have a double exposure. That doesn’t mean you can’t make it better. Here’s where I suggest playing around with Photoshop’s tools to finalize your vision.
For example, in the image with the pine trees, I wanted a pop of unnatural yet playful colour. To do that, I played with colour balance until I found that perfect shade.
I learned Photoshop partially by experimentation. Don’t be afraid to have some fun exploring adjustments. Make sure you have the non-silhouette layer selected first.
Then you can play with colour, or adjust contrast for a bold or matte look. Try using a black and white image instead. One of the perks to creating a double exposure in Photoshop, rather than in-camera, is the possibilities. Explore Photoshop tools to finish your vision.
For more creative double exposure ideas, check out our article here. The stunning pictures will definitely get you playing with this fun photography type!
Once you are happy with your double exposure, save and share. Saving as PSD or Photoshop file is a good idea. If you want to go back and make tweaks, you can without starting all over.
You can also use a PSD file to occasionally save your image as you work so you don’t lose that work to a computer freeze. To share on the web or make prints, save a JPEG version as well.
Double exposures are inspired from film, but have endless creative possibilities with Photoshop. Because the best double exposures align two pre-planned images, the process starts with the photo shoot, not in Photoshop.
With those two plain images and a bit of Photoshop trickery, you can turn two plain shots into a colourful blend that pays homage to traditional film photography.