Double Exposure – How To & Inspiration

In photography, a double exposure is the superimposition of two photos to create one single image. During the era of film cameras, this technique was achieved in the dark room, along with much trial and error. With the help of Photoshop, you can create the same effect. Photoshop speeds up the process and allows for much more freedom and versatility with the photos. Also, a lot of modern DSLR cameras (Canon / Nikon / Sony) have some sort of multiple exposure mode that allows you to create similar effects in-camera!

What we are replicating

Below are two double exposures (done in Photoshop) that I’ve created recently and loved how they turned out. Here’s a brief breakdown of my process.


Portrait photo prep

We start the process by choosing a portrait that you want to use as the general outline of the effect. Any portrait will do, whether it’s one of your own, paid stock, or free stock photos (Pixabay / StockVault / etc). In my case, I used a photo of my lovely wife.


After reviewing a few double exposure tutorials, it seems there are a few different ways and techniques people use to achieve this effect. Mine starts off with making sure the portrait is on a white background. Sometimes this is already the case, but this image I am using has a gray background (the more pure white the background, the better).

Cutting out the subject

We will be using the Refine Mask tool to cut out the gray background. First we need to do a selection of the subject. Using the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L), make a rough selection slightly inside of the edges of the subject (no need to go to the edges and be precise, Refine Mask takes care of finding the edges for us).



Refine Mask

With the subject roughly selected, go to Select -> Refine Mask. This brings up the “Refine Edge” window. Under the View Mode, select Overlay (V), so you can see where you will be “painting”.


Painting the mask

Now you will use the brush tool (which should be selected already, it’s the icon next to Edge Detection in the Refine Edge window) to paint in the areas that you want the tool to select. With our original rough selection, we didn’t select up to the edges because this tool will now find the edges (even in the tiny stray hairs). Paint up to the edge of the subject, as well as a bit into the background. Photoshop will then do its magic algorithm and determine what it believes you want the edge to be. You can then play around with the Adjust Edge settings and see how they effect the selection.


Wrapping up Refining

Once you think you have the selection pretty solid, you can change the View Mode to On White (W) to see how the image will look on a white background. If everything is to your liking, make sure the Output To (under Output) is New Layer with Layer Mask, then click OK.


For a more in-depth tutorial on how the Refine Edge tool works, check out this article on Photography Tuts+.


Now make a new layer underneath the subject (Layer 2 in the screenshot), and fill it with white (Press D to make the foreground/background colors the default black/white, then press Command Delete to fill the layer with the background color).


We can then merge the layers by selecting them all, right clicking, and select Merge Layers. We now have a white background behind the subject.

Nature photos

Now its time to insert the leaves image. Here are a few examples of good to use, but in my case, I just went out for a walk in the woods, pointed my camera up into the canopy of the trees, and snapped away.

Place your leaves/nature/skyline/etc image as a new layer. Move this layer below the portrait layer, and set the Blending Mode of the portrait layer to Screen. You will now see the magic of the double exposure start to take shape. Screen is similar to Multiply in that it is multiplying each channel’s color information, but Screen inverts these colors before multiplying them together. Sounds fancy, but in the case of a double exposure effect, Screen is exactly what we want.

You can then add a Layer Mask to the image of the leaves and apply a gradient (of black to white) to that layer mask, so the top of the leaves is masked out.

Continue adding more nature images (below the portrait layer) and adding Layer Mask‘s to them to mask out parts that you want to hide. It takes a bit of trial and error, as well as rotating the images until you like the result. The white of the nature images should generally match up with the white area of the portrait, to create the effect that the leaves are growing out of the subject.

Here the second image of leaves was rotated and masked out so that the bottom of the image doesn’t show. Because of the Screen effect applied to the portrait, the top of the image masks out the subject’s hair, creating the effect that the leaves are growing out of her head.

A third image is placed below the portrait layer. This image needs to be masked out quite a bit.

With the mask applied, more leaves spread off and out of the subject’s head, but they are currently hidden because of the portrait layer.

To remedy this, the portrait layer needs to have a Layer Mask as well. With this layer mask, you will be painting IN areas that you want the leaves to show through, instead of masking out.

This is the brush strokes of the Layer Mask applied to the portrait layer – effectively painting in the branches and edges of the leaves.


Now that the masking is all done, we can add a Photo Filter layer, and apply a brown color, which will give the entire image an earthy-tone.

Finally, you can then leave the image as it is, or apply a gradient/pattern behind it. To do this, you merge all of the layers together, setting the merged layer’s Blending Mode to Multiply. You can then add a layer underneath this layer and fill it with a gradient, pattern, etc. Happy Editing!



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Were you inspired by the tutorial or photos? Share your creations (or links to other great double exposures / artists) in the comments! Thanks for visiting.