They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
For me, multiple exposure photography can have the potential to raise both image and meaning to exponential proportions. Taking two or more photographs and combining them into one image offers the context of both images, plus their combined relevance, multiplied by their contradiction, and raised by the power of the artist’s and viewer’s imagination.
In this article, we will cover the principles of multiple exposure photography and the essential multiple exposure techniques you need to say a lot more with your pictures.
What is Multiple Exposure Photography and How does it work?
Multiple Exposure Photography refers to the overlaying of two or more images into one image frame. This superimposing of images can occur in-camera or during post-production, -i.e. during negative scanning, image development, or digitally through photo editing software such as Photoshop.
In any case, and whether analog or digital, the principle behind multiple exposure photography lies in understanding how images are recorded in your camera. As light bounces off your scene and your subject, this light travels into your camera lens and hits your image plane.
Your image plane is broken up into a kind of grid. The light that travels onto this grid is a record of the luminosity and color at each particular point. Dark areas in your image reflect an absence of light information. As a result, on a film negative, dark areas in a picture appear transparent. Digitally, you can think of it as a pixel waiting to be filled.
Light areas, or areas that are overexposed on a film strip appear very dense. In other words, the large amount of light that hit your image plane at that particular point will block any additional information from being recorded at that spot. In other words, once an area achieves pure white, you can no longer record any information on it.
Essentially a film negative reveals an inversion of the light situation. As you see in this image of negative above, clear areas will appear dark and dark areas will appear light.
Applied to multiple exposure photography, dark areas have the capacity to be rewritten or added to with information, whereas light areas will show concretely and will be less likely to be seen through. It is important to keep this in mind when taking multiple exposure photographs.
Since I tend to use multiple exposure photography techniques considerably in my own fine art photography, I often get asked which techniques I prefer most. Here is a rundown of multiple exposure photography techniques from my personal practice.
How to take Multiple Exposure Photographs?
When planning your multiple exposure image, there are two important factors to keep in mind.
First, try to imagine dark areas in your scene as places where a superimposed image will show most clearly. As we covered earlier, dark areas are more likely to be rewritten with new information. Keep this in mind when planning what to shoot and where to re-expose.
Second, you should adjust your exposure setting for how many exposures you want to take. When making a double exposure, ideally you should halve your exposure setting so that both images together will combine for a well-exposed image without excess under or overexposure.
In photography, a stop is the doubling or halving of light coming onto the image plane. For double exposure photography, you can underexpose your images by one stop each to halve the light and achieve a proper all-around exposure.
I recommend keeping the aperture constant to maintain depth and focus and instead varying your shutter speed. For Instance, if your light meter or manual exposure setting calls for an exposure of shutter speed of 1/125 and an aperture of f/8 you can halve the exposure by speeding up your shutter speed to 1/250.
For more information or resources on mastering your exposure settings click here.
Technique 1: Re-exposing a Single Frame
Many digital cameras have a menu function to allow multiple exposures on a single frame. Likewise, some film cameras will also have a button that allows additional exposures without advancing film.
When taking a multiple exposure image on one image frame, you can decide to either keep your background constant and vary your subject, or take two entirely different exposures of the same scene.
Personally, I like the effect of keeping the background static and sharp because it provides a nice contrast to the half-exposed second image. In this example below, the background is exposed twice using to half exposures. A tripod is used to stabilize the background and ensure that both exposures overlay each other cleanly.
Here, I first photographed the empty street as a baseline exposure one Stop less than metered. I then placed myself in the center of the image and retook the exposure. The only variable in this image was myself placed in the center. Because my clothing was dark and the exposure underexposed, the effect creates a ghostly transparency.
Below is another similar example of a dingy old bed, only here no tripod was used. the two exposures were not perfectly aligned and the result gives a shakey, eery, and uneasy feeling to the subject.
Finally, have a look at this image of two power towers against a blue sky. I metered for the sky, and underexposed by 1 stop. I took the first image of the tower, switched my perspective, and reshot the tower again from another angle.
Technique 2: Rewinding a roll of film and reexposing it
Another way to produce multiple exposure photography is to use roll film to shoot the entire roll either slightly underexposed or shoot subjects with dark areas for overlay and go back and shoot the roll again to fill in those dark areas.
Although if you are very disciplined and potentially a control freak making notes to each original exposure, this technique leaves a lot of room for surprises as it is hard to know for sure what the two rolls will yield. This element of surprise is what draws me to use this process.
But to make sure that your double-exposed images are aligned, it’s important to mark where you initially load your first roll of film by marking the film. When you are finished with the first roll, you can rewind just enough to leave the beginning exposed, and then load it again at the same point as your first exposure.
Have a look at this image I recently posted to Instagram following a trip to Florida.
Some other example I took years ago were these images in a parking house. After exposing a roll of film for atmospheric effect, I went back and reexposed the film in a dark room, using a flashlight to light paint myself on top of the original images.
Although the intent was to superimpose myself in this alienating space, where exactly I appeared in that space was partially randomized. In these light-painted examples, the opacity of my second exposure depended on the exposure time of the light painting, which was also randomized. However, with good notes and experimentation, this process too can be predictable with slight variations for surprise effects.
Technique 3: Masking in front of the Camera
This may be the most popular technique trending in many social media accounts. In this multiple exposure photography technique, a silhouette is taken of a subject, leaving the subject dark and the surrounding areas bright. The shape of the dark subject remains and will be filled with the next exposure. This can be done either directly in the frame or across a whole roll of film, depending on your camera and intention.
Check out this image below taken by Jonas Müller.
The black vertical strip is likely a gap in the framing, revealing that the photographer probably exposed an entire roll of film with silhouettes and went back to shoot landscapes to fill in the silhouette with a texture. The outline of his frame can be seen filled with trees, however, the overexposure of the light behind the trees overwrites some of the detail in the face.
Altogether, however, this image combines several of the techniques we discussed, and at the same time, the technique reveals both the intention of the artist and the element of surprise by the randomness in the film alignment.
Another example from my archive shows a similar concept, but with a slightly different spin.
In this series I also took a roll of film and taped dark paper cut-outs between the lens and the film, essentially blocking out bits of each exposure. I then made an inverse of those cut-outs and reexposed the film filling in those dark gaps with newly exposed bits of architecture. In this example, special attention is drawn to the process of multiple exposure photography itself, rather than simply its effect.
In this article, I have shared with you my go-to approaches in multiple exposure photography. For best results be ready to experiment and take notes on the placement of dark areas and your exposure settings to perfect your method of choice.
The process of achieving this effect with various multiple exposure photography in-camera techniques is very rewarding to me, despite the fact that some of these effects can be reproduced digitally in post-production. For a description of this process it’s best to get it from the horse’s mouth.
Nonetheless, there is a special satisfaction in combining intention and expectation with a little splash of randomness and surprise to give your photos a little more to talk about.