Double Exposure Workshop – James Allan

This article is derived from the Power point presentation given at our workshop night with the explanations added:


The power of backgrounds: A double exposure of a black handbag on a white background with fern fronds on a black background

Double exposure images in one form or another seem to be as old as photography itself.  The technique that may be described as “trick photography”, but it certainly allows for creative expression and artistic rendering of subjects.  The following image of a horse being ridden was taken by multiple glass plate cameras and assembled as a single image in the dark room. (Not to be confused with the strobe effects used by Gjon Mili)


I have identified several different methodologies to get the double exposure effect :

  • Multiple exposure of film in camera (fail to progress film) – ( May need to underexpose as each successive photo will lighten the image)
  • Slide film – two transparencies in same slide holder ( May need to overexpose as each successive photo will darken the image)
  • Dark room – two separate negatives used to make 1 print
  • Photoshop – merge two digital images on different layers
  • Phone – Snap seed – mimics photoshop
  • Audiovisual – first image fades while second image is revealed – creating composite in the middle.
  • Projection of an image onto the subject which is then photographed.  Like the image displays projected onto the buildings of North Terrace during the festival of arts.

When you combine 2 images, you increase the amount of detail in the image and risk the image becoming cluttered and hard to view.  For instance the sunset landscape seen through wild oats.  Although I really like this image, it is certainly cluttered and has too much detail.


It seems to me that the images you choose to merge are important.  I recommend several different strategies in order to keep it simple.  You have to remember that the resultant image needs to be compelling to the viewer.  The combined image must obey the same rules that we use for composition of a single image.  ie. You create impact by drawing the viewers eye to the subject and avoid clutter and distractions.

So these are the techniques:

  • Add a bland subtle texture or tone to an already adequately composed image.  In other words add colour or texture to the image.  This is a technique used a lot in Grunge style images.
  • Make a new composition or a collage.  This can be a powerful way to tell stories with images.   It is best to use images with a lot of negative space, to allow room to introduce new elements.
  • One image provides a frame to the subject in the second image.  For instance a wheel or archway can frame a face, or a sunflower.
  • Pair a black background image with a white background image.  This technique will maximise the exposure where the objects intersect, and minimise the exposure in other areas leaving the background bland and undistracting.  (see the example of the ferns and handbag above)  This can be used to create new shapes (see image below).

And here are some examples.

Flight of the Pelican

Texture from a piece of wood added to a Pelican flying across a dusky sky.

Southern Cross 2

A collage where a close up of the blades is superimposed over a landscape with a windmill.

Windmill Collage 2

The previous image also demonstrates the possibility of  using the windmill blades to create a frame.  In this reworking of the image I have faded the centre of the blades with a mask to strengthen the frame effect.


Image Source

Using background contrast to emphasize the intersecting components of the two images, in this case creating a new image.  The top of the head of the model is removed by the white sky.  Careful placement allows the face to remain in full detail, but the back of the head is removed.

I can use the same technique to add a floral design to a black dress.

Picture1The key to all of these effects are the merge commands.  These are standard across various photo-editing software programs and are grouped according to the effects they create.  They require the ability to work in layers  and so do not exist in Lightroom.

  • No merging
    • nomal
    • disolve
  • Darken the image (Effect seen in the light areas of the underlying image)
    • Darken
    • Multiply
    • Colour Burn
    • Linear Burn
    • Darker Colour
  • Lighten the image (Effect seen in the dark areas of the underlying image)
    • Lighten
    • Screen
    • Colour Dodge
    • Linear Dodge (add)
    • Lighter Colour
  • Overlay the image (Effect seen in light and dark areas)
    • Overlay
    • Soft Light
    • Hard Light
    • Vivcid Light
    • Linear light
    • Pin Light
    • Hard Mix
  • Negative Image (New image looks like a negative of the underlying image)
    • Diference
    • exclusion
    • Subtract
    • divide
  • –HSL merge (Merging according to the HSL characteristics of the image)
    • Hue
    • Saturation
    • Colour
    • Luminosity

Sometimes the best strategy is to try them all one after the other and see which creates the effect that you are looking for.  Remember that the effect can be adjusted by lightening or darkening the result to correct changes in contrast.

Lastly some tips on being creative in this medium.

Add atmosphere

Create movement in the image – dynamism

Juxtaposition of dissimilar objects makes for creative tension

Tell a bigger story

The end

Hand Traveller