Last Updated: May 1, 2014
Double exposures have been around a long time, they gained a lot of traction and popularity in the golden age of film-based photography, but started to fall from grace when the digital era began in earnest.
However, in recent years double exposures have made a comeback, they are seemingly everywhere now, and most-recently seen on the opening title sequence of the superb True Detective HBO series.
Creating a double exposure with a film-based camera is pretty easy, simply capture a single exposure, take the film back, then take another image over the top to create the double exposure.
In this tutorial we are going to look at how we can create a double exposure in Photoshop, it’s a pretty simple layer technique, with the main consideration being the use of suitable and effective images to work with.
Some digital cameras offer the facility to capture double exposures ‘in-camera’, but the vast majority don’t have this functionality, but if you have Photoshop, then you don’t really need anything else.
Selecting the shots
You can create double exposures with any type of image, but this technique is particularly effective when used with a portrait photograph. Either a full-face portrait or side/profile can work equally well. You can of course combine more than two images if you want, but two is usually enough.
In this first example I’ve used a colour profile portrait photograph in combination with a black and white cityscape of New York. You can see them both below.
Note that it can be helpful to have the portrait with a white background, this can save having to remove areas of the top image at a later point.
Moving to Photoshop
Combining the images in Photoshop is simple, basically you want the portrait shot to be the lower layer, with the shot you want to superimpose over it on the above layer. Obviously you’ll need to make sure that both images are roughly the same size before doing so.
Then the trick is to change to layer blending mode on the top layer, for double exposures I tend to stick to two types of blending modes, overlay and lighten. You can experiment with other modes of course but these are the two that often give the best results.
Once the layers are in place and the blending mode applied you can move the top layer around a little until you get the look that you want, there is no right or wrong way of doing this, the ultimate aim is to achieve a slightly surreal image, so adjust to your own taste.
In this first example I’ve used the overlay layer blending mode, it can also help to play with the contrast and opacity of each layer to create a different look.
You can see the results of the blend above, note that it can also be very effective to combine two colour images, or two monochrome images, but in this case I liked the blend of colour and black and white. Experimentation is the key, as is often the case with Photoshop.
Changing the blend
This time I’ve used the same portrait, but converted it to black and white. I’ve used a woodland image as the top layer, and changed the blending mode to lighten, this has far more impact on the darker areas of the layer below, the hair in this instance.
Note that I have manually erased parts of the top layer in this example, just in areas where I didn’t want the images to blend, the eyes of the portrait for example.
Taking things further
In the final example below I’ve again used another black and portrait as the base image, then used a variety of images over the top, these included a main abstract photograph, I then added a few vector elements into the mix. I also tweaked the colour in the hair area with a vibrant gradient to create maximum contrast with the monochrome face.
You can create double exposures in Photoshop with ease, sometimes just changing the blending mode of the top layer is enough to create a striking image, other times it may be pay to be a little more creative with your layer adjustments in order to achieve the look that you want.