This summer during our travels, I decided to try a few new techniques with my camera that I’d been itching to learn. The exciting thing about photography is that there is an incredible range of techniques, settings and functions to play with. I find it awe-inspiring that this one instrument — the camera — can do so many things. I often feel that the only limit with photography is one’s imagination.
Double exposure captured my attention a few years ago for obvious reasons. Seeing other artists create unique and unusual composites sparked my interest and I knew it was just a matter of time before I tried it for myself. As many of you know, the concept began with film cameras. The same frame of film could be exposed more than once. Many digital cameras have settings that allow you to do essentially the same thing. To get started, I did some internet sleuthing and found a few tutorials specific to my cameras (the Canon 6D and the 5d Mark iii). I won’t go into the specific camera settings I used, but I will share a few techniques that are universally helpful and could be applied to any digital camera that has an in-camera double exposure feature. Check with your camera manual or on the internet to see if your camera model has the in-camera double exposure feature available.
You begin by taking a silhouette of your subject, with a clean background such as a sky with the highlights blown or a white backdrop. I made a point of stockpiling lots of silhouette portraits of my boys on my memory card, with a variety of poses and compositions. Once you have those images sitting on your memory card you can return to them again and again. That’s the cool part of doing this digitally. Many cameras allow you to reuse the same base image multiple times and will save both the original photo and the final double exposure. Such a cool feature.
Once I had a silhouette portrait saved on my memory card, I went into my camera settings and enabled double exposure. I selected one of the silhouette portraits as my base image and then I wandered around looking for background texture and color to make the composite. The camera will overlay the second image only on the subject, leaving the white background relatively clear. There is still a need to do some clean-up in post-processing and I’ll talk about that in a bit.
Once I got to this stage there was lots of trial and error. I had hits and misses. Here is an example of a composite that failed because I had over-exposed my subject in the base image. I learned through trial and error that I needed the base image to have a clean white background (somewhat blown-out) but with proper exposure on the subject in order for the composite to work. Flare also spoiled this base image. There was simply too much light for the second image to overlay properly and no amount of post processing will fix that.
But, when I got it right it felt like winning the lottery.
My camera allows me to use live view when selecting the background texture. This is incredibly helpful. I am able to see my portrait AND see where the plants are placed in relation to the subject. In the portrait above, I wanted the vines to trail off to the right. With live mode I was able to move my camera around until the vines were right where I wanted them in relation to my base image. In the portrait below, I wanted the tangle of leaves in focus on his head and the softer greenery lower in the frame.
I’m tempted to make a series of these with the title “They Grow So Fast”. 🙂
Although the camera does an excellent job of overlaying the second image only on the subject, it’s not a perfect system. With each of these examples I found I had to make improvements in post-processing. Here is what one of my composites looked like straight out of camera.
And here it is after I made my adjustments in Lightroom.
I found that the more successful I was at taking a strong base image — a portrait with nice detail on the subject and a clean white background — the less work I had to do in post processing. It’s a learning thing and I’m getting the hang of it.
As you can see, I was rather fond of using a profile portrait with greenery as texture, but I’d like to try new combinations in the future. The portrait below is an early attempt at leaving more of the subject visible and selecting a certain spot (his eyes) to overlay beautiful flowers.
After having some success with using a rather traditional approach to double exposure I decided to get a bit more experimental. I had lots of underwater images on my camera and I played around with selecting those as my base image. The resulting composites are weird and lovely and feel uniquely mine which makes me so grateful I tried my hand at something new.
There is no question that my early experimentation here is just the beginning. I am excited to improve and push things further. If you are new to double exposure and are curious to try it, I would encourage you to search online for tutorials specific to your camera. Once you get the basic techniques down it’s just a matter of experimentation and play. I’d love to see your images or hear about your successes. Also, if you are an old hat at double exposure and have pointers you want to share please do. I’d be delighted to hear from you.