CanonCanon Digital Learning Center
Rudy Winston
Rudy Winston

Rudy Winston has over 14 years experience with Canon USA's Pro Products team, and has been responsible during that time for training Canon's staff on new products, creating presentations for customers and dealers, numerous writing projects, and providing technical assistance to professional and amateur photographers.

Multiple-exposure shooting with the EOS 5D Mark III and EOS-1D X

March 08, 2012

"The multi-exposure feature opens some impressive creative doors, really leveraging the power and potential of digital imaging"

Creative digital photographers for years have experimented with combining two or more images, using image-editing programs such as Adobe Photoshop™ and similar software. Just as 35mm film shooters have known for decades, the ability to take multiple separate images, and creatively combine them into a single finished image, has incredible potential.

Until now, though, Canon EOS shooters had no real way to perform this task in-camera. However, Canon’s engineers have not only listened to the requests of many serious enthusiasts, but gone far beyond what most would have expected. Canon’s new EOS 5D Mark III and EOS-1D X are the first EOS models to introduce in-camera multiple exposures, and in this Digital Learning Center article, you’ll be introduced to a capability which dwarfs that which was possible on earlier film cameras.

What's new and different?

Up to now, with the vast majority of SLR cameras (film or digital) offering multiple exposures, operation was pretty simple: the user could select the number of separate frames he or she wanted to shoot, calculate exposure for them (perhaps under-exposing if they expected the same part of a scene to overlap on two or more images), and then combine the results into one finished image. Film cameras, for example, gave absolutely no options for "compositing" – that is, how the separate images were combined in-camera. And many digital SLRs offering in-camera multiple exposure control up to this point have offered little more.

But think of how an image-editing program such as Adobe Photoshop™ offers what Adobe calls "blend modes". When two or more elements are combined, users have a tremendous range of ways to make the two separate elements interact, from a simple overlay to extremely creative options that can show only highlight areas, suppress color, and more.

Canon certainly isn’t saying that the in-camera possibilities of the EOS 5D Mark III or EOS-1D X’s new multiple-exposure system rival what a professional image-editing software program can offer. But if you understand the concept of Photoshop's "blend modes", you are on your way to understanding some of the options the EOS-1D X's stunning new multi-exposure feature offers the creative photographer.

The basics of multiple-exposures with the EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III

Multiple-exposure shooting is activated in the red Shooting Menu (screen 1 with EOS-1D X, screen 3 on the EOS 5D Mark III). By default, of course, it's set to disable. By selecting this menu setting and pressing the SET button, users get the following initial choices:

  • ON: function/control
    Separate exposures can be taken, and each checked on the LCD monitor after it's taken. Fewer images can be taken, and continuous burst speed will be sharply reduced – generally, not a problem for creative shooters who are composing carefully. Features like reviewing images on the LCD screen after each is shot remain fully available, and exposures can be individually adjusted by the photographer for each image as they're taken. Live View is especially helpful, because you can compose each subsequent image with previous elements visible on-screen.
  • ON: continuous shooting
    This setting is intended for rapid-fire multi-exposures, such as shooting an athlete's throwing motion or a golfer's swing. Up to nine exposures are possible. Several functions, including Live View, image review on the LCD monitor after each shot is taken, and Menu operation are not possible while this multi-exposure setting is in effect (they return after the pre-set number of multi-exposure frames have been taken).

Multiple exposures are possible in most Image Quality settings, with the exception of M-RAW and S-RAW (the two reduced-resolution RAW options). If these happen to be active when a user begins multi-exposure shooting with either camera, the camera will process the finished multiple-exposure image into a full-resolution RAW file. RAW + JPEG shooting is possible, too.

Once the images are taken: putting them together

As we mention above, until now, most SLR cameras simply “added” the cumulative images together. With digital images, this meant that (for example) if bright areas fell on top of one another, they simply got progressively brighter in the finished image. But Canon has broken some important new ground with the EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III, and that’s with the compositing options. Once Multiple Exposure has been activated in the first Shooting Menu, a new screen comes up.

Multi-exposure Control

This is the menu option that opens the door to so much potential creativity with the EOS 5D Mark III and EOS-1D X. In the same way that the afore-mentioned "blend modes" in software like Adobe Photoshop™ can influence how separate elements come together, the cameras brings tremendous capability to the shooter looking to perform in-camera multi-exposures.

  • Additive
    This mode overlays image information from each separate picture taken, without regard for the brightness or darkness within each. Images are simply composited, one on top of the next. If any bright areas overlap, they'll reproduce brighter in the finished, combined image (for example, if two separate original images, overlapping bright areas will appear 2x brighter).

    The Additive setting will be familiar to anyone who has done multi-exposures with a film camera. It's often necessary to deliberately under-expose initial images, unless one or more are made up of mostly dark subject matter (such as the moon in a dark night sky). In Additive mode, each multi-exposure can be independently adjusted for exposure level as it's taken.

    For technical reasons, card writing time when Additive is active will be longer than with the other multi-exposure control settings. So don't be alarmed if the read card-busy light seems to stay on longer when using the Additive method.
  • Average
    This setting is particularly useful if the same scene will be photographed multiple times, and combined into a finished image with little or no camera movement between shots. Exposure is automatically reduced, proportional to the number of shots taken, to avoid over-exposing common areas or overlapping bright areas. Where overlapping areas do occur, the final brightness level will be the same as the would have been in a single, properly-exposed shot. And, any non-overlapping areas will be darkened.

    Unlike Additive, the Average setting takes the same exposure level for each separate original image you shoot (although each can be independently adjusted). Average is ideally suited for a scene like a tripod-mounted camera overlooking a broad area, where you want multiple shots to record the movement of an object like a runner, car or airplane moving through the scene.
  • Bright (comparative)
    This setting is ideal for uniformly dark scenes (think of night scenes), where you want to emphasize superimposed bright subjects. The classic example is a wide-angle night scene of a city, with a superimposed tele shot of a full moon. Only bright objects in each original picture are composited together, avoiding problems of the night sky becoming too light. If bright objects do overlap, their brightness doesn't increase, as it would in the Additive setting.
  • Dark (comparative)
    This option can be especially useful for eliminating bright highlights and reflections that may be unwanted in a scene. Darker parts of each scene are combined together, and bright parts are suppressed or ignored. If bright areas overlap, their brightness does not increase. In effect, it acts as the opposite of the "Bright" Multi-Exposure Control setting.

One important note: if colors in any overlapping areas are different when using the "Bright" or "Dark" settings, unnatural colors may result.

Using an existing image as the first multi-exposure element

A full-resolution RAW image file, taken with the one of these cameras, can be independently selected and used as the starting point for subsequent multi-exposure shooting. It can have been taken at a totally different place and time. But — it must have been taken with the same camera model as the one you’re now using to create a new multi-exposure. Save or copy the original .CR2 RAW file to a CF card, and insert that card into the camera.

Highlight "Select image for multi-exposure" within the Multi-exposure Menu. Then, scroll to and select the original RAW image you want to use.

Now, you are free to take additional images – the number of exposures set in the Multiple Exposure menu dictates how many will be added to the existing one you've selected on the installed CF card. The existing image counts as the first, so (for instance) if you have chosen three images, you'll get to shoot two more to form a finished multi-exposure file.

Again, any such original, existing image must have been taken with the same camera model as you’re now using (in other words, you can’t take an image shot on an EOS-1D X and insert a card with that image into an EOS 5D Mark III to create a new multi-exposure), and must be an original .CR2 RAW file. JPEG files, or reduced-resolution M-RAW or S-RAW images can’t be used. It cannot be modified in any way, and likewise, a final multi-exposure image that’s been previously created in-camera cannot be used as a starting point for another multi-exposure sequence. It is possible to shoot subsequent images for a multiple-exposure as JPEGs, but in order to select an existing shot as the first image, it must be a full-res RAW file.

Saving images taken in multi-exposure mode

The cameras have specific menu commands, giving the user two options:

  • Save source images > All images
    All images you took in multi-exposure mode will be saved, including (of course!) the final, completed image
  • Save source images > Result only
    Only the completed, finished multi-exposure image is saved

Images will be saved in the Image Quality setting they were taken in. In other words, if the camera was set to RAW when you began shooting images, the finished image will also be RAW; if you used a JPEG setting, that same setting is used for the completed multi-exposure image as well.

Looking for just one finished multi-exposure, or more?

Finally, there's a menu setting within the Multi-exposure menu marked, "Continue Multi-exp:"

  • 1 shot only
    Canon’s multi-exposure system lets the user set-up anywhere from 2 to 9 separate shots to produce one finished multi-exposure image. Once that image is completed, Multi-exposure mode returns to "DISABLE", and normal shooting returns.
  • Continuously
    Whatever settings used for a first finished multi-exposure image remain in effect, and the camera remains in Multi-exposure mode, ready to produce more finished multi-exposure images. The user must go into the Multi-exposure menu and manually set it to "DISABLE" to return to normal shooting.

Some users have complained that Canon was a bit behind competitors by not offering in-camera multi-exposure capability until now. But Canon's engineers have really come through with an innovative feature that's sure to appeal to creative enthusiasts and professionals. Since this feature has numerous different options, we really suggest to users who are intrigued by it to experiment with it, using the different multi-exposure control modes (Additive, Average, Bright and Dark), to get a working understanding of how they differ, and when each may be the best choice for you. Similarly, the camera offers differences during shooting, with its "On: function control" and "On: continuous shooting" choices, each of which will have its merits in different situations.

Multi-exposures open up some tremendous possibilities for nearly any photographer, however... from the architectural shooter who can now combine two interior images from a tripod-mounted camera to properly expose bright windows and the rest of the indoor area, to the creative sports shooter who's illustrating a feature on a major league baseball pitcher and wants to shoot a multi-exposure sequence of his pitching motion. The possibilities are almost endless.

The multi-exposure feature in the EOS 5D Mark III and EOS-1D X opens some impressive creative doors, really leveraging the power and potential of digital imaging. Canon has equipped the cameras with arguably the industry’s most advanced in-camera multi-exposure system (as of spring, 2012), giving creative shooters even more reason to seriously consider this camera as a worthwhile investment.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.