If you live anywhere other than in a remote cave, you’ve probably seen those movie posters where the guy has the trees growing out of the top of his head and, if you’re in the creative community then no doubt you’ve caught the influx of tutorials showing you how you, too, can achieve this effect called Double Exposure.

Despite it’s being the latest technique du jour, double exposure is actually a very old technique, dating from the dawn of photography, occurring both accidently and intentionally, even as a way to fool people into believing their eyes.

The originals were mistakes made by people new to the medium, learning by doing, just two photos combined that usually made no sense.




Then some enterprising individual decided the effect could be used in a way that could look pretty groovy, which led to the ambiguous overuse in 1970’s era senior photos.




And, finally, to supercool movie poster-caliber effects. Before the newest Hollywood incarnation, though, the technique was part of a different fad called Spirit Photography. Many think this phenomenon came about in the 1920’s, after the horror of World War I, with photographer William Hope’s séance photographs, but it actually appeared much earlier in the wake of the American Civil War with the work of William Mumler.




No one can say for sure, of course, but it appears Mumler stumbled upon the effect by accident while he was taking a self-portrait. When exposed, he said in his 1875 autobiography, The Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit-photography, it was his cousin dead the past 12 years. Since the “spirit” visible in his photograph seemed to touch a nerve with everyone who saw it, Mumler decided to make taking the photo’s his career in 1848. America at that time was experiencing a phenomenon of spirituality that took a decidedly odd turn with the abundance of mediums working the country at the time, becoming even more popular during and immediately after the war years with people looking for some sort of closure with the vast amount of war dead.




Most of the images were of the departed loved ones standing benevolently over the sitters shoulder, but some of them were more “dramatic” in the style of the day. There’s much speculation about how the effect was achieved, but it’s clear that some were better at it than others!




There was also a little sub-genre going on with silly “sleight of hand” type tricks, where a sitter could have a portrait of themselves holding their own head. Charming…




By far the most famous example of spirit photography was an image taken by Mumler in 1871. In his autobiography, he states that a heavily veiled woman came into his studio and asked for a sitting, claiming he only recognized her after the negative had been developed, but we have only his word for that. The photograph, of former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, clearly shows the semi-transparent form of her slain husband laying a comforting hand on her shoulder. By all indications, Mrs. Lincoln fell for the ruse hook, line and sinker and was supposedly comforted.




So how do you get the double exposure effect in your modern work? Start with two images that might tell the story you want to convey. Here, I’m taking inspiration from those original spirit photographs so I’ll start with a vintage image.




I’m going to double click on the background to unlock it, and use the crop tool to enlarge the area, so there plenty of room for the otherworldly visitor, and while I’m at it I’ll also crop the frame on this image. It can always be added back if I want, but it will make things easier to work on. Next, mask out the background using your favorite selection tool; I added a background from the same basic time period of the image because let’s face it, what fun is a ghostly presence if you can’t see anything through it?




Prepare the second image by removing its background, if necessary, and getting it as close to the same tones as possible if you’d like. You can do that and further tweaks once they’re together, but I go ahead and desaturate it now.




Now to get tall, pale and creepy into the image with our heroine; there are a number of ways to go about this, though one of the simpler is to grab hold of the image with your finder holding the left button down, keeping it down and moving to the tab of the background image before lifting your finger. If you’d like the image to be centered, hold the shift key down while letting your finger off the mouse button.




Now for the easy part! Once you get all the peripherals together, the masking, the space, the background, matching the colors and any other bits, and putting the two images together, all you have is one more step, and that’s finding the perfect Layer Blend Mode. I’ll admit it, the first one I usually go to is Soft Light because it seems to work so often, and I did use it for this, but don’t get into a rut where you never at least try the other modes; sometimes you’ll get a huge surprise and find another one that gives the very feeling you’re looking for! And here is your appropriately cheesy Victorian style “Spirit-photograph”!




Janine Smith

Janine Smith

Janine Smith, winner of the Photoshop User Award winner in the category of photo restoration, is the owner of her own digital photo restoration and retouching business in Eugene, Oregon. Janine honed her skills in restoring badly damaged photos in the restoration trenches as a volunteer with Operation Photo Rescue. Her work is well-known in the world of genealogical & historical societies, museums, libraries, university archives and non-profit organizations. Janine's articles on history and photo restoration frequently appear in online newspapers and magazines, and, various Photoshop-centric websites. Janine is also an author with Lynda.com online training library.
Janine Smith

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