Svetlana Foote / Alamy Stock Photo

Get an ethereal look with double exposures

Explore a selection of double exposure photos

Double exposures involve a technique where you overlay two images on top of each other to create a composite image. This can be done straight from certain cameras or it can be edited in Photoshop. It doesn’t have to be just two exposures; you can overlay multiple images to add more depth and complexity to the final image.

We’re going to show you a few examples of double exposures, why you might want to use such an image and how you can do it yourself.

Double exposures come in a variety of formats

There are quite a few different ways to create a double exposure and each have their own look and feel. The most common is by overlaying a natural landscape over a silhouette of a person or animal. This was really popular a few years ago as it gives a really ethereal feel to the image that’s difficult to achieve with a single exposure.

These double exposures evoke a sense of tranquillity and introspection. It’s almost as if the viewer is being given an insight into the subject’s thoughts. The example below takes it further by making it monochrome and adding a filmic texture to convey timelessness.

EyeEm / Alamy Stock Photo

You could also overlay two very similar images to create a look where the subject is almost having an out-of-body experience. This adds movement to the image because it gives a sense of how the head has gone from one position to the next.

Compared to the first example, this way of creating double exposures can have a slightly more maniacal feel to it. But that can change depending on the edit and all the other aspects of the image such as the composition. It could also be viewed as contemplative too, with multiple thoughts spinning around the subject’s heads.

EyeEm / Alamy Stock Photo

It doesn’t have to be photographs either. You could overlay a photo with a digital illustration, and that would certainly give you more creative freedom to convey a message that may not be possible with just photos.

The beauty of double exposures or multiple exposures is that you can unify multiple images to create a stronger, more emotive message.

Perhaps a standard cityscape image just isn’t doing it for you, and you want it to capture the excitement of the city with its dazzling, bright lights. See how this has been done with this double exposure of Hong Kong; the edit has achieved a sense of mysticism.

SUET TING CHEUNG / Alamy Stock Photo

Despite the trend having been around for a while now, it’s still being picked up by certain photographers every now and then. And because of the flexibility, the style hasn’t run its course yet; there’s still time and scope for someone to approach it from a new angle.

Some wedding photographers have been experimenting with it as the dreamy look of double exposures reflects the whimsical nature of weddings. It’s a cohesive way of capturing extra emotion within a single image.

How to create a simple double exposure composite

There are a few different ways of doing it, as there often is in Photoshop. And the technique will change slightly depending on the type of double exposure you want to make.

The easiest way would be to simply overlay two images with one of the layers having some opacity applied to it. We’ll use this technique to add a bit more texture and energy to a cityscape image.

Step 1: Find your images

We’re going to use this cityscape image of New York and this image of bokeh. And we’re simply going to place the bokeh image on top of your cityscape image as shown below.

Make sure to play around with the opacity of your top layer until it looks right.

Step 2: Adjust the opacity of the top layer

At first, you may not see the cityscape image at all. That’s because the bokeh image is covering it as it’s the top layer. But note the opacity levels I use for the top layer on the right-hand side. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for how opaque the top layer should be; just play around until it feels right.

Step 3: Adjust the brightness

At this point, it won’t look quite right yet. In my example, the image is now too dark because we’ve overlaid another image over our cityscape. So we’re just going to simply add an adjustment layer to brighten the whole image up.

Adjust the brightness of your image to compensate for the fact that you've overlaid two images.

Again, there isn’t a set rule for this. Use your eye to judge what looks good. When adjusting the brightness, keep an eye on the highlights (the brightest parts of the image) as those will be the bits that get pushed too far first.

That’s it. Nice and easy.

How to create a more complicated double exposure composite

In this example, we’re going to create the trendy look of a landscape layered over an animal. We’ll use this grizzly bear and this alpine landscape. Generally, you want your top layer to have a lot of texture for it to look good hence why I’ve use something with a lot of forest texture. Don’t be afraid to try a different combination of images if it isn’t working. A big part of creative work is being brave enough to cut your losses and try again.

Step 1: Set blend mode to ‘screen’

Similarly to the other technique, you’re going to place your textured landscape on top of your main image, in this case, the bear. But we’re going to take an additional step. You need to go into your blend options for your landscape layer and set that to ‘screen’. You can access your blend options by right clicking the layer and accessing it at the top of the menu there.

Step 2: Use layer masks to adjust where the two images blend

At this point, the composite is far from finished. You can see parts of the top layer outside the shape of the bear and the overall look is just very unrefined. Well, it’s time to refine it with the use of layer masks.

Select the top layer and add a layer mask (bottom-right). Then make sure you have the layer mask selected. The white square around the layer mask below tells me I have it selected.

Then you’re simply going to use the brush tool to paint what you want to show and what you don’t want to show. As always with layer masks: white reveals and black conceals. As we’re painting to conceal parts of the top layer, we want black.

There’s no right or wrong way of doing this. But I definitely want to get rid of remnants of the top layer around my bear. I also want my bear to be more engaging, so I’ll let the face show more. Then I’ve concealed the parts around its leg as it wasn’t working well with the image.

As ever with this kind of thing, play around, trust your eye and don’t be afraid to experiment.

That’s it! You could play around with gradient layers to create a new colour scheme for a different mood or even add another layer for more texture. Just remember, when it comes to editing, lots of small changes tend to work better than making big changes. So don’t go too wild with colours and gradients unless you intend to create something that looks a bit unrealistic.

We hope you find this useful and maybe it’ll add a new flair to the imagery you use. Double exposures are always interesting and engaging to look at and surprisingly easy to make. So if you don’t find one that fits your needs, now you can make it yourself and create the perfect picture for your project.

If you’re looking for more guidance on what makes an image look stellar, we explain the psychology behind great imagery.

Matt started off as a live music photographer covering up-and-coming bands in Brighton, and since then has become enamoured by the power of pictures. With a penchant for storytelling, he's on a mission to uncover unique images from the Alamy library and tell the story behind them.