From one-of-a-kind portraits blended with natural textures to multi-layered abstracts that combine sharp and defocused elements, multiple exposure photographs offer a fresh take on familiar subjects. The origins of multiple exposure photography can be traced back to the double-exposures of the 1860s, but as camera technology has evolved, so has the technique's creative potential, and it can be applied to a multitude of subjects in many different ways.
Here, we speak to two photographers who have used the in-camera multiple exposure function on their Canon cameras for very different projects: one in which the end results were planned with precision and built up gradually, and the other which suited a more spontaneous and free-flowing approach, capturing athletes in motion. We also touch on how to achieve multiple exposure photography with Canon cameras.
The Canon EOS 90D, EOS 7D Mark II, EOS 6D Mark II, EOS 5D Mark IV and EOS RP have a dedicated multiple exposure function in their Shooting menu, which enables you to automatically combine between two and nine different exposures in one image, in-camera. The camera can adjust the exposure of each "layer" to give a standard final exposure, or you can control that aspect yourself.
Professional cameras such as the Canon EOS R5, EOS R6 and EOS-1D X Mark III offer additional settings, including the option to save the individual source images as well as the finished multiple exposure. They also offer two extra control or "blending" methods, and the opportunity to prioritise the continuous shooting speed when photographing moving subjects.
Using in-camera blending modes – Additive, Average, Bright or Dark – can help you achieve different creative results, as they affect the final exposure. Additive simply overlays images one over another, combining the brightness of each image, so overlaying one image with another of the same exposure would produce a combined image that’s one-stop brighter. Average blending mode, however, automatically adjusts the exposure in any overlapping areas to avoid overexposure.
Bright mode gives exposure priority to bright areas of images so that they retain their brightness when overlaid, while the brightness in dark areas such as night skies isn't increased. Conversely, Dark mode gives exposure priority to dark areas of an image so that they retain their brightness without increasing the brightness of highlight areas when they overlap.
As you shoot, you can preview the merged result on the Live View display (or the EVF of a mirrorless camera), enabling you to accurately position subsequent shots. You can also "undo" an exposure and shoot an alternative.
Even if your camera doesn't feature multiple exposure shooting, you can still combine images with the Compositing tool in Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software. DPP gives you even more creative options, such as adjusting the visibility and position of each image within the multiple exposure, and selecting from a number of blending modes.
Tasked with shooting a marketing campaign for the Canon EOS R6, commercial photographer Rob Payne and his team used the in-camera multiple exposure function to highlight its incredible low-light capabilities.
The multiple exposure photographs combine ambient exposures of a night-time landscape with separate light-painted exposures created with torches and a drone.
The team cut shapes out of sheets of foam board to create the light-painting stencils. These shapes were painted on location using a red-filtered torch, then placed within a coastal scene using the Canon EOS R6's multiple exposure function.
"We did a lot of planning before it got dark in order to work out where to position the camera so that everything would be at the correct scale," explains Rob. "We positioned the stencil at a distance that would give the shape the right proportions in our finished image.
"The beauty of Canon's multiple exposure mode is that you can choose to see the final image coming to life in real-time on the display, rather than having to guesstimate how the individual exposures will work together. So once we had shot the stencil, we could simply reframe the composition to place it within the landscape.
"The blend of the first and second exposures allowed us to understand where the drone needed to be positioned in order to paint in the red light reflections in the water during the third exposure. Finally, the drone was removed and we did some additional light painting. It was just a case of working methodically through each stage of the multiple exposure, then repeating them in reverse, as we knew everything should be in the right position."
Rob opted to save the source images as well as the final multiple exposure, using the multiple exposure menu on the Canon EOS R6. "That meant we would have the option to select a different stencil from the memory card as the starting image, in case one didn't work, or there was a perfect stencil that we were unable to recreate again," he explains. This method also enables you to edit individual exposures, should you want to tidy anything up in post.
Rob used two tripods to speed up the process, one locked off on the landscape composition and the other set up for the stencil. "We found an area just out of our landscape frame where we could set up the foam board on some light stands. It was then a case of stumbling across the rocks between the tripods, using a quick release plate to detach and rehouse the camera.
"The whole process of moving the camera, refocusing the lens and making the separate exposures meant that creating each multiple exposure took between five and seven minutes. We didn't have the opportunity to shoot hundreds of them because we were restricted by the arrival of twilight. The sensitivity of the sensor on the Canon EOS R6 was incredible. It was picking up things you couldn't see with the naked eye. But that meant that even though we were shooting at 2am, the camera was registering the sky as bright. We had to compensate by reducing the exposure and painting slightly more light onto the landscape."
Award-winning photographer Matt Ben Stone enjoyed freedom to experiment when it came to creating a set of in-camera multiple exposures at the 2019 Wimbledon Championships Girls' Singles final.
Although a commercial sports photographer by profession, Matt was there as a spectator to enjoy the match between Ukraine's Daria Snigur and US player Alexa Noel. But he used it as an opportunity to get creative with the multiple exposure function on his Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III).
"I wanted to convey the movement, and the power and emotion of the players," he explains. "I was looking to create an image that would be both a photographic study of their movement and an artistic image in its own right."
In contrast to Rob's methodical layering approach, Matt needed to capture each frame quickly, so turned to continuous shooting multi-exposure mode. To work out the timings, Matt studied the movements of the players between serves. "I would frame up an area of grass and wait for the player to populate that space. That way I'd know that there wasn't going to be too much conflict between the player's position and the markings on the court."
He used the long end of his Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens to isolate the players, although trying to keep the markings on the court lined up between shots was a challenge. "The slightest movement meant the lines would spread all over the image, but the lens's Image Stabilizer helped to steady the shot," he says.
As you might expect with such a trial-and-error process, the hit rate for the shoot wasn't particularly high. Matt says he ended up with just 13 possible selects from the entire match. "The most successful multiple shots are the ones that clearly display the agility and power of the players' movements – the moments they're either running for the ball or serving and striking the ball up into the air, where you can see the sequence from start to finish."
To record the sequences of shots in quick succession, Matt was typically working with a shutter speed of 1/2,000 sec and had his camera set to Silent Continuous High Drive mode. "Even then I was conscious of the fact that the camera was going to be audible, so I had to take that into account when working out when to take the shots.
"Although I was experimenting with the number of exposures, I found that three or four shots tended to work best – otherwise the final multiple exposure would just be too confusing. Using the Live View option to check how the separate exposures were being combined wasn't possible in this situation, so I shot using the viewfinder."
Matt's advice for those wanting to explore multiple exposure for motion studies in this way – apart from having a lot of patience – is to keep it simple. "I'd recommend trying to strip back the elements within the frame and keep it minimal. Something like football or volleyball, where the ball is in the air and you could get low down and shoot it against a clear blue sky – that would work really well."