Before Adobe Photoshop made it possible to sandwich content from multiple files into a single composite, photographers accomplished the same result mechanically. Using a film camera, a photographer opened the shutter to take one picture, left the film positioned on that frame and took a second picture. The result incorporated both exposures into one, but until the photographer developed the film, she couldn't see exactly how the image turned out. With Photoshop's onscreen view of the process of digital manipulation, you can recreate this classic technique and control every aspect of the result.
Open the image file that becomes the background of your double exposure. Click on the unlabeled "Set Screen Mode" button at the bottom of the Adobe Photoshop toolbox and choose "Full Screen Mode With Menu Bar" to float the image within a gray pasteboard.
Open the "File" menu and choose "Place" to access a file-open dialog box from which to select the second-exposure image for your composition. Navigate to the location of the file; double-click on its name or click on the "Place" button to add the image to your background file as a Smart Object, which you can transform and alter as many times as necessary and still return it to its undistorted original appearance. If the second exposure measures larger than the height or width of the background file, Adobe Photoshop automatically scales the second image proportionately to fit inside the first.
Press "F7" to open the Layers panel if you haven't already opened it. Click on its unlabeled Mode drop-down menu and set the blending mode of your new layer to "Screen," lightening the background image where the second exposure contains light tones and dropping out dark areas of the second image. Adobe calls this blending mode "Screen" because it simulates the effect of using two slide projectors to superimpose two slides on the same screen.
Press "V" to switch to the Move tool. Click and drag to reposition the second-exposure layer so its image content falls where you want it to appear relative to the layer underneath it.
Tips & Warnings
- The Mode drop-down menu also appears in the Options bar.
- Experiment with blending modes to find the one that creates the best effect in your composite. For example, "Multiply" intensifies the darkness of tones in the background image where the second-exposure image also contains dark tones and drops out light areas in the second image, producing the opposite of the "Screen" blending mode. The optimal choice depends on the content of the two images and where their tones intersect.
- To bring second-exposure image content into the background image file at 100 percent of actual size without scaling a large file to fit into a smaller one, open the second image and position it alongside the first. With the Move tool active, hold down the "Shift" key while you drag from the image area of the second file to the image area of the first file, centering the second file's content on top of the first. This operation does not create a Smart Object out of the layer content it adds to the original file.
- To scale, rotate and reposition the second-exposure layer in one operation, press "Ctrl-T" to enter Free Transform mode. Drag the control points at the middles of the sides of the bounding box that appears around the layer to scale it disproportionately, or use the corners to produce proportionate results. Because the Place operation brings in new layers as Smart Objects, you can scale, rotate and skew them multiple times without these operations discarding image pixels and introducing distortion. Even Smart Objects can't scale beyond 100 percent of actual size without pixelation, however.
- If you use a color-managed workflow, you'll see a "Paste Profile Mismatch" dialog box when you attempt to drag and drop from one open image file to another that uses a different color profile. You won't see this warning if you use the Place command to add layer content.
- Information in this article applies to Adobe Photoshop CC and Adobe Photoshop CS6. It may differ slightly or significantly with other versions or products.
- Adobe Systems: Adobe Photoshop Help and Tutorials [Creative Cloud]
- Adobe Systems: Adobe Photoshop Help and Tutorials [CS 6]
- Photoshop Tutorials: Quick-Tip: How to Create Double Exposure Photographs in Photoshop
- Light Stalking: 9 Simple Steps to Make a Double Exposure Photograph in Photoshop
- PetaPixel: How to Create a Surreal Double Exposure Portrait Using Photoshop
- Photo Credit Alexa-Mitiner/iStock/Getty Images
- Adobe Photoshop CC Classroom in a Book; Adobe Creative Team
- Adobe Photoshop CS6 Classroom in a Book; Adobe Creative Team
- The Photoshop CS3/CS4 WOW! Book; Linnea Dayton and Cristen Gillespie
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