Double Exposure: Understanding and Using Double Exposure

Photographers first learned the power of double exposure long ago, when film was not only the medium of choice, but a new invention. Using this technique, photographers could fake ghostly images or other surreal images. We no longer use film cameras, but the same principles apply. Of course, modern photographers don't need to rely on camera tricks to get the same striking effects they once did. In this post, we'll talk about what double exposure is and how you can use it for your own photographs.

What is double exposure in photography?

Cameras, whether they are powered by film or digital sensors, work by briefly exposing their imaging surface to light. For most normal operations, the exposure happens just once. Otherwise, you'll have two images on the same photo. Sometimes, though, that is the desired effect. The ghostly photos mentioned earlier can be achieved by taking a photo of an empty room and double exposing the same shot with a person in it. When the two exposures combine, the person appears see-through.

Many interesting photos can be achieved with this method. For example, imagine a photo of a solitary large tree double exposed with the shot of a crowded forest. This image can be made even more striking by taking it into photo editing software and cutting out the silhouette of the tree, leaving an image of a tree-shaped forest. Of course, the two images can also be photographed separately and overlaid on top of one another in the software, creating the same effect with less guesswork.

How to make a double exposure photo

So far, we've discussed two different ways to create a double-exposure photo: the traditional way with a camera, and the modern way with photo editing software. Since both of these methods can scratch different creative itches, we'll outline how to do both of them below. The method you choose can depend both on personal preference and whatever creative urge strikes you in the moment. We suggest you try both to see how each fits into your particular creative vision.

Using a camera

Double exposure was easy in the days of film cameras, especially the manually operated ones. The photographer would simply take the first shot, and then take the second shot without advancing the film. Digital cameras don't have film that can be advanced or rolled back. Instead, they automatically take a new picture with each shot.

However, many higher-end digital cameras do have a multiple exposure mode. Exactly how you enable this feature will depend on your camera. Once it's enabled, though, the process is similar to a film camera. You only need to take the shots you want exposed together back to back and the camera will take care of the rest. Some cameras will even let you add a double exposure onto an existing shot, for even less set up.

Using photo editing tools

Software like Corel PHOTO-PAINT comes with a powerful set of tools for image editing. But you'll be able to accomplish the double exposure trick using simple layers. Any good photo editor will allow you to have multiple layers in the same image. By putting the base shot on a bottom layer, and the second shot on a layer above it, you have the setup for a good double exposure effect.

With your layers setup the way you'd like them, simply change the blending mode of the top layer. The great thing about using software for the double exposure effect is that you can choose the blending mode that suits it best.  Blending modes such as Screen and Overlay will provide something most similar to the in-camera effect. You should feel free to experiment with all the modes and see which one works best for your goals. Alternatively, you can simply lower the opacity of the top layer.


Whether you choose to do it in-camera at the time of the shoot, or to make it a part of your post-processing procedure, double exposure is a fun and creative way to bring new life into your photography. The utility and expressiveness allowed by the technique have made it one of the longest lasting camera tricks in the history of the medium. Give it a try today and see what inspiration it can bring you.

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