The History of Double Exposures

As soon as photography was invented around 200 years ago, the photographic pioneers of the world diverged in two directions. One set of photographers set out to document the world around them. The other set went the other way: Creating images that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye.

© George Eastman House collection

In experimenting with the art-form, some of the early photographers discovered double exposure photography more or less by accident, and the trend continued: Whereas half of the photographers would spend all their time trying to avoid ghosting and double exposures, the other half started exploring what could be done to create some truly magnificent artworks incorporating the phenomenon into their work creatively.

In doing so, they started a photographic movement that is still developing today.

Victorian Ghost Photography7
Old Victorian ghost photography

To understand how double-exposures came to be, we first have to take a quick look at how regular photographic exposures work. If you’re working on film, the light hitting the film makes the particles on the film darken. Once the film is developed, you can see how the darkest areas of the film are the ones that received the most light. If a particular area of the photo receives too much light, that area will look ‘over-exposed’ – or perfectly black. Once this negative is printed, the colours invert again, and the areas that were black turn white.

Now, if you were to take a photo that has a large area of darkness, it means that there’s potential for more light to be captured on that portion of the film. Adding another exposure on top of the original exposure can result in some astonishing results: The dark portions of one exposure are made lighter by the second exposure.

In portraits taken at the dawn of photography, the subjects will be sitting down or holding on to something. Understanding why is easy; the very first photographic processes were extremely time consuming, with minimum exposure times of between 20 and 40 minutes at the very least. If, during such a long exposure, a photographer moved something in the scene – for example, if the person being photographed moved from one chair to another – you would end up with what essentially is a double exposure: The person would appear in the photograph twice.

From these early accidents, it was a short step to starting to take double-exposed shots on purpose: By pointing the camera at a tree, for example, the photographer could ‘burn in’ the sky surrounding the tree. If they did a portrait next, only the part of the portrait that fell in the area that was ‘covered’ by the tree would show up.

Until quite recently, serious fans of photography would spend an extensive amount of time in the darkroom to develop their film and make their own prints. As darkroom retouching techniques became common, photographers also discovered that there were two different ways of getting a double-exposure. The original way would be to capture a double-exposed photo in the camera, but this would be a gamble, because if you made a mistake on one of the exposures, you’d have wasted two perfectly fine photographs.

Part of the learning process for working in the darkroom started including advanced techniques, and more and more experimental photographers started creating their double exposures in the darkroom instead of in-camera. By using two different negatives, photographers were able to take a lot more control over the process. It was possible, for example, to expose the photographic paper with one negative for nine seconds, and with another for seven seconds, for extremely granular control over the effects they were trying to achieve.

These days, there aren’t many photographers left who still shoot on film. For entry-level photographers, mobile phones and digital compact cameras have taken over. For more advanced cameras, mirror less and SLR cameras rule the roost, and most photographers agree that digital is better in almost every imaginable aspect of photography. Modern digital cameras are much cheaper in use, you can see the results instantaneously, and, in the right hands, digital photo retouching tools are vastly superior to even the most accomplished darkroom wizardry.

As cameras became better and better, most photographers rejoiced – but others discovered that the clinical precision and outrageously high quality the new generation of cameras were able to produce took some of the fun out of photography. One example is double-exposure: To this day, there are only a very small number of digital cameras that are capable of doing in-camera double exposures.

In parallel with the increase in quality of their digital counterparts, a new wave of photographers started looking elsewhere for unique visual experiences, and the trend of Lomography and ‘toy cameras’ was born. In rediscovering photography where instant gratification isn’t part of the process, many photographers discovered that they really enjoyed the mystery of what might be on their rolls of film – and grew to appreciate the excitement of opening a freshly printed pack of photos, to see what had become of their photos.

Back in the world of film photography, photographers started embracing and amplifying the idiosyncrasies of film: Cameras with light leaks, inconsistent shutters, and occasionally failing film advance mechanisms became desirable for the unique, once-in-a-lifetime effects they were able to produce.

One of the characteristics that became especially popular was the ability to run the same film through your camera twice, for delightfully unpredictable results. From here, the next logical step was to turn double-exposure photography into a collaborative effort: One photographer would take a set of photos, pass the film onto another photographer, who would use the same roll of film to take a set of their photos.

Double exposure photography rapidly became extremely popular: On Flickr, for example, there are nearly 1,000 groups related to double exposures, with hundreds of thousands of photographers doubling up on their photographic exposures to create wonderful effects.

It isn’t just professional photographers that are embracing digital photography either. It may be a truism that you will only capture good photos if you carry a camera, but one of the biggest shifts in photography is closely related to the ubiquitous availability of smartphones. The newest generation phones have remarkably high quality cameras on them, with high-quality lenses, great low-light performance, and incredible sharpness. Most of us wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without our always-connected smart-devices, which means that we also carry extremely capable cameras with us everywhere.

It’s telling how manufacturers of compact cameras are facing some serious challenges, and the fact that nearly a billion smartphones were shipped to customers in the past year will have something to do with that. Dedicated compact cameras are still better than most smartphone cameras, but casual photographers are increasingly wondering why they should bother carry an extra device with them. Crucially, social networking has changed why people are taking photos: for holiday snaps, people tend to share their photos with their friends to Facebook, and this is much easier with a smartphone, where the camera, editing and sharing mechanism are in the same device, rather than with a compact camera where you have to download the photos to your computer, edit them separately, and then share them with your friends.

Realising the social- and creative potential of collaborative multi-exposure photography, dubble is set to shake up the concept of multiple exposures, taking it further than anyone had thought possible. Using dubble, photographers can use the camera they always carry with them, their smartphone camera. On hitting ‘lab’, their image is blended with a photo taken by a complete stranger, the created dubble can then be published and shared.