Double Exposures

Jake Saxman Insights, Landscapes, Portraits

Yeah I'm still here. Kinda forgot about this whole blog thing. I've mostly been working on client projects so haven't had a ton of time to work on the stuff I that I love doing.

So, for my triumphant return I've decided to show y'all how to do "double exposures". Why the quotations you ask? Because these aren't real double exposures. The original form came about not too long after the camera was invented. It consisted of taking an exposure on film and then taking a separate exposure on top of that one. Obviously not a lot of thought went into coining the term and that's the end of my history lesson. 

I'm gonna show you how I do it.


I came across an image on tumblr many years back that blew my hair back which I've included above (I did some minor searching to find the photographer but to no avail, sorry!). I instantly knew I wanted to rip this person off and try my hand at recreating the image. To give myself some credit, I did manage to figure how to achieve the effect on my own. So here's my masterful, perfect method. Listen very carefully.

You need four things to make your very own double exposure in the digital age.

  1. A Camera
  2. A Model
  3. Another Photo
  4. Photoshop (or your software of choice)

Let's start off with the initial photograph. 

So this image is the most important part of the process. For my attempts at creating a double exposure I begin with a model. It can be a simple headshot or a full body image. I generally go with waist up and prefer nude or at least bare shoulders as this gives you a minimal subject and uniform tone to work with. Obviously this isn't a requirement but from my experience makes for a more interesting image (sex sells?). So find yourself someone willing to pose for you or just take a self portrait! For my example I'm going to use the lovely Roarie Yum, who was absolutely perfect for this project. I'll tell ya why she's perfect in a bit.

So the goal of this image is contrast. You want the background to be completely separate from the subject. When I first started doing these I just used the white wall of my room with a light behind the model pointed at the wall to blow it out. I've since upgraded to a backdrop with studio lights, but it's very doable with the basics. 

Basically, you want the subject to be shown in silhouette. Here's my straight from camera image of Roarie. 


Not very exciting on its own huh? Just kidding, it's Roarie and she's always exciting. So why was she perfect for these double exposures? The obvious reason is she's an extremely experienced model and I'm yet to see her run out of poses. The less obvious reason is she has, wait for it... short hair! This isn't something I was shopping around for, but I definitely realized in editing that it's perfect for double exposures. Why? Because it has it's own form separate from the rest of the body. When you shoot a model with longer hair and turn the image into a silhouette it tends to blend right in with their body or create odd shapes outside of it. I've compensated for this by having models put their hair up or catch them flipping it in the air in order to create some separation from their body. You'll realize this is actually quite obvious if you just google "double exposure". Almost all of the images (at least the good ones) have models with short hair or wearing it up. Anyways, that's why Roarie is perfect for these. 

So once you've found your own perfect model and perfect image, get that jam on your computer and crank those dials. I begin in Lightroom (Photoshop works too) and immediately switch the photo to black and white. From here I play with all the sliders to get the subject as black as can be and the background as close to absolute white as possible. I'm going to assume you're somewhat familiar with photo editing and not go into detail about how to achieve this. So if you're new to it, I'm sorry. Play with some sliders for an hour and you'll figure it out. 

Once you're content with the image here you can get started on the fun part! Below is Roarie's silhouette all ready to get double exposed. 


My next part of the process is loadin' up Photoshop to make the magic happen. I'll often clean the image up some more here as it's easier to do these adjustments in Photoshop than Lightroom. I start with the dodge brush and completely blow out all the highlights around the model to make sure the background is not existent. Sometimes I'll clean up the skin and make some exposure adjustments on the model if I want some features to stand out. The example I'm using is almost a complete silhouette so I don't have any further clean up to do. 

Now that my photo is almost absolute black and white with a minimal amount of midtones to deal with I'm ready to get that second image involved.

This part was pretty easy for me as landscape photography is my bread and butter. You can get creative here and use any damn photo of anything you want. I solely use my own travel and landscape photos but feel free to get crazy with it on your own. 

I started off only using black and white images as that's what I'd seen before. One day I randomly decided to try color and lo and behold that also looks good. So it's totally your choice here. For this example I used a black and white image I took in Colorado a few years back as seen below.


This next part is a lot of trial and error. I'll often go through at least ten landscape photos before I find one that I find pleasing on the particular model. Feel free to get into some deep stuff here and use something that might even pertain to that person. So once I've chosen which lovely image to impose on my subject I click File > Place Embedded... and select that picture. This places it in a new layer on top of the model's photo. From here you simply head over to the blending options above the layer panel and select screen. Now I spend about ten hours or so transforming the landscape image to figure out what size and position looks the most aesthetically pleasing. This part is very subjective, so just play around until you get something you like. Here's what I settled with.


I can't offer a ton of advice from this point, as it's all personal taste. But I'll try my best!

You've probably noticed that the shadow parts of the landscape image allow the detail of the model to come through and vice versa for the highlights. It's this dynamic that makes or breaks the final product. In most cases the sky in a landscape is brighter than the actual landscape. Because of this, the upper portion of the model image will lose all of its details while the bottom keeps them. In the example I used I chose to do the opposite, making the sky dark and the foreground light. That choice allows Roarie's head to keep it's features and her body to present the landscape. 

You can, and probably will, play around with this part for an absurd length of time. Feel free to adjust the levels on both images while repositioning the upper layer to achieve the look you desire. If that's not enough, fool around with the dodge and burn brushes on both layers. Eventually (hopefully) you'll get something you like. From there it's simply a matter of cropping, which I like to save for last.

Congrats! You got yourself a "double exposure". Post it on the internet and reap the likes. 


That all could have been explained in about seven sentences. Even with all that text, I realized I kept things a little too simple and might have missed a few parts. So if you have any questions about the process feel free to ask! 

See y'all in a couple months or years.

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