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Seeing Double

Photography is about seeing things for what they are...and for what they can be. The hood of a sweatshirt can be the oval picture-frame that isolates a face, sunglasses can be the mirror that reflects the focus of a person's attention, and the branches of a tree can be the silhouette that outlines a human form. With a bit of patience and a touch of skill, you can use a simple old trick, known as a double-exposure, to reimagine the world around you...and you can do it in-camera, without Photoshop, and without any advanced digital editing.

Traditionally, double-exposures were created by exposing a single frame of film two times. Instead of shooting one picture and then advancing to the next frame for the next picture, the photographer would shoot one picture and then shoot a second picture on the same frame. The second image was instantly layered over the first. Since the photographer was working on film, he/she couldn't check the results until that roll of film was developed.

Nowadays, most modern double-exposures are created long after the photos are taken. With a program like Photoshop or Gimp, any two digital images can be layered, shifted, and adjusted with a few simple clicks to creating a great looking double-exposure. It's more flexible, it's easier and it gives more consistent results.

However, I like to do things differently. Call me weird. I like the skill and challenge of having to quickly compose and expose two complimentary images, in succession, on the spot. I like the inconsistent surprise of seeing what I've got after the images have already been combined. I like the fact that the final result is a one-of-a-kind image that can never be recreated. The traditional method gives me all of that challenge and excitement.

Nevertheless, I still like the ease of seeing my results quickly so that I can retake the photo if I'm not happy with it. I also like the flexibility of testing out different settings and seeing the impact of those settings immediately. I'm not a 'purist' who neglects the benefits of technology just so I can brag about doing things the hard way. The modern method gives me that benefit of instant gratification.

So how can I combine the skill, challenge and magic of the old film method with the ease, precision and instant gratification of the modern digital method? Simple. My Nikon D3s has a multiple-exposure feature. Once activated, I can capture a digital image, then I'm given 30 seconds to capture a second digital image, which the camera will instantly layer onto the first. I can actually combine up to ten images, but I usually do two. Unlike Photoshop or the D3s Image Overlay feature (Retouch Menu), which I've used before, this doesn't optimize anything for me, it doesn't align anything for me, it doesn't let me choose the images later on, it doesn't show me the first image while I'm capturing the second image, and it doesn't have an 'undo' button. It just slaps the two images together, and spits out the result. If I didn't expose them properly or I didn't compose them properly, I have to start over. Even though it's a quick digital process, the results are kind of 'analog'  and imperfect. For me, it's the best of both worlds. It's great.

TO CREATE IN-CAMERA DOUBLE-SILHOUETTES, LIKE THE ONES POSTED HERE, THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED TO DO:

(1) SWITCH TO MANUAL EXPOSURE MODE. No matter what I'm shooting, I'm almost always in full manual (M) mode, but even if you're not like me, you'll still want to switch to manual mode for precise control over these two exposures. If you let the camera control your shutter speed, ISO and aperture, who knows what it will come up with.

(2) TURN ON MULTIPLE-EXPOSURE MODE. Most modern DSLRs have this feature, but the exact functionality and method of execution will vary by manufacturer, model and firmware. On my Nikon cameras, it's in the SHOOTING MENU. I set my camera to combine two photos, and I set my GAIN to OFF.

(3) PLAN & VISUALIZE YOUR RESULT. Imagine what aspects of the two images you want to emphasize and how they will compliment each other. You'll want to capture two high-contrast images. Any bright or over-exposed areas that are shared between the two images will almost disappear when the images are combined. Any dark or under-exposed areas that are shared between the two images will pop and stand out when the images are combined. Any mid or properly-exposed areas that are shared between the two images will be faded ghost images.

(4) CAPTURE. Take the first image and be mindful of where your bright, dark and mid areas are. Remember those areas so you can compliment them with your second image. If you don't like the results; adjust and try again. It's very important that you correctly capture the exposure and composition of both images...because you can't adjust the images independently once they're both taken. Your personal artistic judgment is your guide.

(5) EDIT. This part is really simple. You already did most of the work on the front end by using the natural computer that's built into your own head, so there isn't much work left for the artificial computer that's sitting on your desk. If you did everything correctly, all you have to do now is upload the double-exposure to your computer and increase the contrast to emphasize the differences between the light and dark areas of the photos. Again, your personal artistic judgment is your guide.

For this post, I also converted my images into black and white and turned up the brightness a bit because they were captured on a dark cloudy evening, but I didn't want the photos to be dark and moody. I could have easily left them in color and a bit darker, because those changes have nothing to do with the actual effect. However, there's no spot removal, no painting, no layers, no vectors. Of course, if you look closely you can see unwanted artifacts from both images are still bleeding through in the end, but that's the beauty of doing it in-camera: it's not meant to be perfect.

- Breighton