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PhotoPro 21: Doubles Without The Trouble

This article was published in DIVE Magazine in October 2010.

In-camera double exposures were all the rage in underwater photography 20 years ago. Alex Mustard debates if we need another 1980s revival.

COMPLETELY NEW types of underwater photographs are a rare treat indeed. One of the most dramatic debuts happened at the BSoUP 'Splash-In' in 1986. In this on-the-day competition, Peter Scoones revealed the world's first underwater double exposure, combining a macro foreground with a wide angle background, totally in camera on the same frame of film. Unsurprisingly, this previously impossible shot won beating the other 76 photographers efforts by a clear margin.

I regularly find that studying the history of underwater photography is a gold mine for ideas. There are many forgotten techniques to update and, frequently, modern cameras allow us to develop methods far beyond the possibilities in their first incarnation.

Following Peter's success, double exposures quickly became hugely popular and in the late 1980s it was almost impossible to win a competition with a straight shot. But like all fashions, the technique rapidly fell from favour. Is it time to bring it back?

The classic double exposure is a vertical frame with a macro foreground and a wide angle background (typically in silhouette) to create an extreme close focus wide angle image with infinite depth of field and a dramatically forced perspective.

The most essential ingredient for successful double exposures is precise lighting and exposure control. Also combining two images shot at separate times needs careful planning and previsualisation of the finished shot. The wide angle subject must be photographed in the upper part of the frame, with an unexposed (black) space below. The macro subject must be photographed in the lower part of the frame with the rest of the frame unexposed (black).

In Scoones's original example, he used a pencil beam snooted strobe to precisely light the macro subject against a black background. Yet another example of how many ideas can be found studying the history of underwater photography. Macro spotlighting with snoots is probably the biggest current fashion for underwater photographers, inspired by the ground-breaking work of Keri Wilk, whose shots using this technique won this year's portfolio category in the BUIF. Snoots are not essential to isolate a macro subject against a black background. Alternatively we can hunt for a subject standing up proud from the seabed, so it can be shot against open water.

One of the challenges of shooting double exposures on film was the need to rewind, mark and reload the film, so that the frames line up correctly. On digital it is much less trouble. As long as both images are on the same memory card they can be combined using a function that is usually called Image Overlay. The LCD screen displays the result immediately, allowing us to re-shoot if required.

Image Overlay produces a completely new RAW file, and the images are overlaid exactly as if exposed on the same piece of film. This means that the unexposed sections of both frames do not affect the detail in the other half of the frame. Photos cannot be rotated, but images shot at different ISOs can be combined. Although, it should be noted that it is not possible to do double exposures with all cameras, as it was with film.

Since we cannot change lenses underwater, double exposures aren't usually completed on the same dive. So they cannot be considered accurate biological records or dive site illustrations. In-camera double exposures have long been banned in wildlife photography competitions, even if a few underwater ones have slipped past terrestrial judges in the past!

Once we consider doubles as artistic, rather than factual images we can free our creative thinking. Another of BSoUP's senior members, Warren Williams, famously left a gap of 6 years between starting and completing a double exposure (during a break from diving), storing the film in the fridge to maintain the image quality. The photo helped Warren win BSoUP's Best Of British portfolio in 1995 and got him 'forcibly ejected' from Gildenburgh Water for solo diving to 3m to take the second part. What a legend!

Intercontinental, in-camera, double exposure. Nikon D700 SLR, Subal housing. Nudibranch in Norway. 105mm lens, f/22 @ 1/250th. Bull kelp in Canada, 15mm fisheye lens, f/14 @ 1/80th. No photoshop, images combined in camera using Image Overlay function. Photo by Alex Mustard

Inspired by Warren, my photo this month is an intercontinental double exposure, combining, in-camera, a nudibranch from Norway with bull kelp from Canada. Both shots were taken just a few months apart with the intention of making location specific double exposures, which never worked out. From a marine biology perspective the image is worthless, misleading even, but I still feel these image still need to keep a degree of realism to be most effective. In both locations it is common to find many nudibranchs beneath the kelp canopy. The casual observer should not immediately spot the photographer’s ruse, but at the same time we should always caption this type of image honestly.

But I did not really need to produce this image in-camera. Unlike the 1980s, we now have Photoshop, which allows us to combine any images we wish, with precision, control and endless flexibility. So is there a need to bring back this 80s fashion? It is certainly a useful technique for On-The-Day or other competitions that do not allow image manipulation in Photoshop. And it is certain fun.

But the most compelling reason for a double exposure revival is the lesson in photographic discipline. Creating a double exposure requires planning a shot and precisely shooting to the plan. A point that Peter Scoones made in Underwater Photography magazine in 1986, when sharing the technique behind his landmark shot: '[a double exposure] makes you think much harder about what you want as an end result and how to go about it, you will find it will have benefits to your underwater photography way beyond the mastering of the technique itself.' Many aspects of photography have changed since the 1980s, but Peter's words remain as true as ever.

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