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Get amazing double exposures with these easy tips and tricks

The effect of overlapping several photos appears intricate, but is easier to achieve than it looks(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

As a technique, double exposure photography is nothing new. It has existed since the early days of film when, traditionally, the same slide was exposed twice to produce a superimposed image. In the digital age, the effect can be reproduced using one of the best professional cameras (opens in new tab) with a dedicated Multiple Exposure mode. However, if your camera doesn’t have a dedicated mode, or you want more creative control over the final image, you can also mimic the effect in Adobe Photoshop (opens in new tab) – which is what we'll do here. 

In this tutorial, discover how to shoot the best initial portrait image for this technique, as well as how to edit the two images in Photoshop for a striking and abstract result. One of the great things here is you don’t have to shoot your portrait and overlay images at the same time. If you have the perfect fill-in image within your archive, it’s easy to have a go – provided you have a camera with manual shooting modes and a willing subject.

Read more: what's the best photo editing software? (opens in new tab)

Follow this step-by-step tutorial, as we go through both the shooting and editing steps you need to merge two photographs together, with the help of some simple Photoshop blending modes.

Double exposure shooting steps

1. Set up camera

Switch your camera to Aperture Priority using the top dial. Select centre-weighted or spot metering – an easy way to expose the shot correctly for the subject. Make sure you’re using a suitable lens, a 50mm prime works well for this type of portrait shot.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

2. Dial in settings

Set the ISO to the lowest value possible. You’ll be shooting against a bright background, so shouldn’t need to raise it any higher. Next, select an aperture of around f5, ensuring that your model’s whole face is in focus. If the exposure is too bright and the shutter too fast, narrow the aperture.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

3. Arrange your subject

Position your subject against a bright background, such as the sky on an overcast or clear sunny day. They should ideally be side-on to you – a profile shot is more successful than a front-on face, as their features will be more identifiable in silhouette. Move yourself to avoid any messy background scenery, such as trees.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

4. Set the focus

Lenses can sometimes struggle to focus properly when they are pointed at a bright light source, such as a white sky. If you find this is the case, switch to manual focus on the lens barrel and use the focus ring to ensure your subject’s face is sharp.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

5. Frame and shoot

You can use the viewfinder or Live View to compose, but take a few test shots once you’ve set up. Whether you shoot portrait or landscape, check for distracting elements in the frame. Dial in positive exposure compensation if necessary, ensuring the camera overexposes the sky.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

6. Shoot fill image

You can choose anything for the second photo but natural subjects, such as leaves and flowers, work best. Shoot a scene with interesting shapes or textures to effectively fill your silhouette image. Alternatively, select a pre-existing image you can use to overlay your portrait shot.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

Double exposure editing steps

1. Get started

You can edit your portrait in the usual way in Camera RAW, but we opened it up from Adobe Bridge straight into Photoshop. Right Click on the layer and hit Layer From Background. Then go to Image>Adjustments>Levels to increase the brightness and contrast of the portrait.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

2. Import second image

Open your fill image, go to Select>All and then Copy. Open your portrait shot and paste one image on top of the other. Go to Edit>Transform to Rotate, Scale and Flip your image (if needed) so that it covers your portrait. Use the Clone tool to remove distractions from either layer.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

3. Blend and adjust

Select the top layer and change the Blend Mode to Screen – a great Blending Mode for brightening images. Once you have your basic double exposure, you can use the Move tool to reposition and resize the fill layer over the portrait, paying attention to what’s covering the features.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

4. Bring out details

Create a Levels or Curves adjustment layer from the Layers palette to bring out detail in the mid-tones, or alternatively, use the Burn tool to darken the edges of your portrait and create a bolder outline to the face. Desaturating the entire face layer will produce a more subtle result.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

5. Experiment

Once you have got to grips with the simple processing steps, try out new fill images – nature scenes such as this landscape are effective. Move the ‘fill’ image around to fill your portrait, and tweak the contrast so that you start to see more and less detail in the sky portion of your portrait.

Merging two shots together is a great way to add intrigue and interest. The blending process is straightforward, especially if you shoot portraits against a clean background (Image credit: Future)

Easy in-camera technique

Modern cameras often have a myriad of extra functions buried in their menus; many of the high-end Nikon and Canon cameras enable you to perform the double-exposure technique in-camera. On a Canon, Navigate to the Shooting Menu, scroll down to find Multiple Exposures and press OK (Enable or Disable on a Canon system). From there, you can decide how many frames you want to shoot, and how you want the camera to expose your shots. On the Nikon D800 we were using, the feature is called Image Overlay. This enables you to pick two RAW images from the card, and the camera will convert them into one image for you instantly.

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

Read more

Use blending modes in Photoshop CC (opens in new tab)
Best cameras for beginners (opens in new tab)
Create a double exposure effect in Affinity Photo (opens in new tab)

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Lauren is the Managing Editor of Digital Camera World, having previously served as Editor of Digital Photographer (opens in new tab) magazine, a practical-focused publication that inspires hobbyists and seasoned pros alike to take truly phenomenal shots and get the best results from their kit. 

An experienced photography journalist who has been covering the industry for over eight years, she has also served as technique editor for both PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and DCW's sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)

In addition to techniques and tutorials that enable you to achieve great results from your cameras, lenses, tripods and other photography equipment, Lauren can regularly be found interviewing some of the biggest names in the industry, sharing tips and guides on subjects like landscape and wildlife photography, and raising awareness for subjects such as mental health and women in photography.