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A Guide to Multiple Exposure Photography

by Al Olson


Multiple exposures can be used to create many different in-camera effects. When we speak of multiple exposures, we mean that more than one exposure has been made on a single frame of film. For those of us who have operated cameras that do not have an automatic film advance we are all too familiar with the accidental double exposure. Sometimes accidents have artistic merit, but we will be far more successful if we plan the composition and predetermine the correct exposure values for our subject.

© 2004 a.c.olson -- Aspen Trunks

Perhaps one of the most striking effects is the multiple exposure that emulates the appearance of fine impressionistic paintings. A multiple exposure of a grove of Aspen trees may resemble a painting by Monet; a flowery landscape may look like a Renoir; a bouquet of flowers may resemble a Van Gogh.

There are other multi-exposure techniques that we will briefly address such as the wedding photographer who makes a double exposure of the bride in a wine glass; or the multiple exposure using a strobe light to analyze a golfer’s swing; or a double exposure to create a ghost effect.

From the point of view of fine art photography, however, the emphasis will be will be in the creation of images that have a delicate, painterly quality. One the foremost influences in the art of multiple exposure is Freeman Patterson who presents this technique in the workshops he gives in New Brunswick. As a result, there are many East Coast photographers who have attended his workshops and who are experimenting with this approach to abstract photography.


First of all, you must have a camera that is capable of taking multiple exposures. This may be a feature built into the camera that is selectable by the photographer, or it may simply be a clutch mechanism that manually disengages the film advance when the shutter is cocked. If you are using an older camera that does not have coupling between the film wind and the shutter cocking mechanism, this is also handy for taking multiple exposures.

The camera that provides a multiple exposure setting may be one of two types. One type provides a count of the exposures, but this type usually has a limit of nine or fewer exposures. Seldom is there ever a need to exceed this limit. The other type simply permits the photographer to place it in the multiple exposure mode and continue to shoot as many exposures as desired. The film will not advance, however, until the photographer remembers to take the camera out of the multiple exposure mode.

A word about the cameras that require the photographer to push in a button or set a lever before cocking the shutter to prevent the film from advancing: be sure to press the button until you feel a positive click. If the clutch is not fully disengaged, the film will advance if only partially.

When performing multiple exposure photography, there must be an adjustment to the exposure determination. This can be done manually by changing the settings for the aperture and/or shutter speed; on the automatic exposure cameras it can be accomplished by increasing the exposure index setting, or by adjustment to the exposure compensation setting.

Multiple Exposure Techniques

First determine the number of exposures you wish to make. Selecting numbers like four or eight make it easy to determine the adjustment for correct exposure. To create the abstract appearance of impressionistic paintings, move the camera slightly between each exposure. Choose a scene with average brightness. Select an area of the image in the viewfinder and keep it close to the same position for all exposures. The camera can either be hand-held or mounted on a tripod. The important part of the technique is not to keep photographing the identical position, but to move the camera to cause a slight off-registration. The focus and shutter speed should be set so that each and every exposure is tack sharp.

Move the camera systematically between exposures. Try different camera movements and learn how to create different effects.

© 2004 a.c.olson -- Quaking Aspen

Perhaps one of the easiest is to select a point on the viewfinder to use as an aiming point. I like to use a gridded screen in my viewfinder so I usually select one of the grid nodes. If you don’t have a screen grid, you might select, say, the end of the split in the split-image range finder, or use any other marking in your viewfinder, even a mote of dust if you have one. Take this aim point and walk it along some object, just a few inches at a time. For example, you could walk it up the trunk of a tree in a grove of Aspens, or walk it along the branch of a tree, or a stem of a flower in a flower bed, exposing the film at each step. You can walk the aim point horizontally or diagonally as well.

© 2004 a.c.olson -- Stacked Aspens

Another technique is to rotate the camera about a point. You can move it in a large arc or a small arc. Arcs less than 60° usually work best. This method is best with a lens that has a ring mount so that the camera can be attached to the tripod via the ring mount. This keeps the point of rotation precisely centered. This can also be accomplished with a hand-held camera to create a more random effect. This method can also be applied with a pivot point that is off the center, but this becomes more difficult when the camera is mounted on the tripod.

Another interesting effect is making multiple exposures while changing the zoom setting on your lens. This will create a tunnel effect with the appearance that everything is converging to a point. It is best to compose with the widest-angle setting so that you are certain not to include any extraneous elements that would be distracting and move the zoom through to the longer focal lengths. Bear in mind that this point of convergence will be precisely in the center of the photo, which normally does not present a good composition. Make allowances to crop the image from the 35mm aspect ratio of 2:3 to a more normal 4:5 aspect ratio as shown above. This will move the convergence point over into a power point based on the rule of thirds.

At lower light levels and with slower films you can use slower exposure speeds and attempt to zoom while the shutter is open. This will create a nice blended effect.

© 2004 a.c.olson -- Zooming Aspen

Another technique is to make a double exposure, one tack sharp and the other slightly out of focus. Keep the camera registered precisely on the subject by using a tripod (the results may be difficult if the subject is flowers and they are moving about in a breeze). This procedure creates a halo effect around the edges of the subject and provides a nice aura although the effect will vary from the center of the image to the edge.

To create a ghost effect, place the subject in front of a background that is of average brightness. Take an exposure. Then move the subject out of the way and expose again, maintaining the registration of the image with that of the first exposure. The will give a ghost-like appearance to the subject because the background is visible through the subject. Note that this method does not work with dark backgrounds because the second exposure will not be bright enough to be seen through the subject and the subject will look very normal.

Other multiple exposure methods will be mentioned but not elaborated on here. First you can set up the camera on a tripod to take exposures of some moving object, say a race car coming around a curve. In each of the exposures, the car will be in a different position, but the remainder of the scene will be static.

The other technique is the use of a multi-flash strobe to photograph a specific movement such as a golfer’s swing. The exposure in controlled via the aperture and the setting of the flash. The shutter is left open and the strobe is triggered at the top of the golf swing. The dedicated strobes with multi-flash capability use a very low power setting for each flash so the parts that are moving should be very light colored to be relevant to the exposure.

Computing the Exposure

For purposes of computing the adjustment to the exposure, first assume an average scene that meters to the famous 18% gray. If the camera movement maintains a lot of overlap in the subject material, determining the adjustment is relatively easy. For example, a double exposure requires that the exposure be cut in half. This is an EV of one, which causes a reduction in aperture of one stop or a similar increase in shutter speed.

Likewise, if you make four exposures, the EV must be reduced by two (this halves the exposure twice, which amounts to one fourth of the metered exposure) either by changing the aperture, the shutter speed, or both. Eight exposures would require a reduction of EV of three (again this amounts to halving the exposure three times to get one eighth of the metered exposure) and again adjust the shutter speed or aperture in a similar manner.

This EV adjustment can also be made by reducing the exposure compensation, if it is available on the camera, or multiplying the number of exposures times the ISO to override the exposure index setting on the camera. E.g., you are using a film with a 200 ISO and wish to make a four-exposure multiple exposure. You want to decrease the exposure by a factor of four, so multiply 4 x 200 to get an exposure index of 800. Use this new exposure index as the override setting for the automatic exposure.

The following table makes it easier to determine the exposure adjustment for some of the other numbers of multiple exposures.

Number of Exposures 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
EV (no. of stops) 1 1.6 2 2.3 2.6 2.8 3 3.2 3.3 3.5 3.6
Exposure Factor .50 .33 .25 .20 .17 .14 .12 .11 .10 .09 .08

The above calculations are for an average scene that meters out to an 18% gray. However, assume that we are taking a photograph of a dime lying on one side of a black velvet background and then moving it over to the other side on the velvet to photograph it again. Neither image of the dime overlaps the other and the black of the velvet adds no additional exposure. In this case, we would not make any adjustments to the metered exposure, but would photograph it twice using the metered value.

Similarly, consider the picture of the bride in the wineglass. The bride will be photographed against a dark background. Similarly for the wineglass, which will also have a dark liquid where the bride’s image will appear. Again, the metered exposure would be correct for both cases with no adjustments necessary. These cases demonstrate that sometimes less adjustment needs be made when there are large dark areas in the image and where the lighter parts will not be overlapping.

As an example of this, suppose we are doing a multiple image of a few stalks of wheat against a dark background. There is some possibility that some of the stalks will overlap or cross over each other. If they intersect in crossing, the intersection point will be a little brighter, but small enough that it will not be distracting. As long as the stalks from each exposure do not overlap to any great extent, the correct exposure will be closer to the metered exposure with very little adjustment needed.

As you can see by these examples, some judgement must be used when determining the exposure. If you are truly in doubt, bracket!

Things to Remember

Subject Matter

There is a wealth of subject matter available for creating multiple image abstracts. We have all seen the portraitist who creates a direct view and a profile view of his subject on a dark background. We have mentioned other effects that rely on the double exposure.

© 2004 a.c.olson -- Multiple Aspens

However, to create the image that emulates impressionistic art it is best to use four or more exposures. Most of my images use only four, but many photographers prefer to use eight or nine, nothing less. The key is using the subject matter to bring out the effect of having the edges of the subject slightly out of registration in each of the exposures. This creates a somewhat blurred impression, but each of the images is actually tack sharp.

A grove of trees makes an excellent subject. You can emphasize the tree trunks and minimize the canopy; you can include the canopy along with the trunks, or you can concentrate on a branch or a bunch of leaves. Flower beds or flowery landscapes also make excellent subjects.

You must take care to exclude objects that do not lend themselves to the multiple exposure. For example, when making an image of a landscape, it probably will not work to include anything above the horizon. Similarly, including a tower or building in a multiple image is not likely to result in a good abstract.

This said, almost anything that has a pattern or repeatable items makes a good subject. Some possibilities are the patterns in sand dunes or snowdrifts. It may simply be a cluster of marbles against a plain carpet. You might want to add objects for each subsequent exposure.

Another possible technique might be to lock the camera down on a tripod and take multiple exposures of flowers or leaves being blown about in the wind. In this case it would feasible to include the horizon since the overall landscape will remain in registration. This technique has also been used to create a multiple image of waves crashing against the seashore. As you can see, the possibilities are endless. Take your imagination and go out and make some multiple exposure abstracts.

Technical Guides

Tripod Guide
Multiple Exposure Guide
Infrared Guide
Existing-Light Guide

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Al Olson
(970) 731-9801

© 2005 a.c.olson