How to use Nikon in-camera multiple exposures
Keywords: photography, in, camera, multiple, slow, long, exposure, nd, filter, variable, neutral, density, circular, polarizer, cp, auto, gain, mirror, lock, up, lenr, noise, reduction, how, to, ericbowles
You are out in the field and want to photograph a beautiful coastal scene that needs the slowest possible exposure to create a soft dreamy effect. You don’t have with you the appropriate Neutral Density filter to accomplish it. What to do? The In-Camera Multiple Exposure function comes to the rescue. Here is how.
Most modern Nikon cameras have a neat but underutilized feature – in-camera multiple exposure. This is a handy feature that has lots of uses, so here’s a quick primer. I’ll cover how the function works and demonstrate a couple of common uses. We’re going to look at two situations. In this article we’ll look at how to use the multiple exposure function to have a longer effective exposure without using ND filters.
One of my favorite techniques for photographing water is to use the multiple exposure function instead of a neutral density (ND) filter. There are several situations where this applies. The most common is you simply did not bring a neutral density filter and need a longer exposure. You might also be in a situation where you want the effect of a longer exposure than can be used – such wanting a 20 second exposure without the curl of breaking waves, but the waves are breaking on a five second cycle. Or you might not have a strong enough ND filter – such as using a Variable ND filter but trying to avoid the unevenness that comes with maximum ND.
Here is an example of a single exposure. The first image below is a five second exposure of a coastal scene at sunset. The image was made with a Nikon D800E and exposure settings of 5 seconds, f/16, and Lo 1.0 ISO. The only way to lengthen the exposure was to raise aperture, and this would introduce a dark band in the image from the curl of the waves. Note that there is a clear texture to the foam in the water.
The second image below is the result of a 9 image in-camera multiple exposure with exactly the same settings for each image – 5 seconds, f/16, and ISO Lo 1.0. This resulted in cumulative exposure of 45 seconds which creates a very soft, gauzy effect for the water and without any breaking waves. In addition to the cumulative effect of the actual exposures, there was also time between exposures because each exposure was manually triggered.
Setting up Multiple Exposures
The process for creating an in camera multiple exposure is very easy, but the first time through it may be confusing. We’ll walk through the steps involved. Keep in mind the camera menus may be a little different, but the ideas are consistent.
It’s better to use a cable release and a tripod for multiple exposures. You can usually use Exposure Delay Mode instead of a cable release, but you may need to account for the time between frames. Mirror Lock Up (MLU) may be useful in some situations.
- Under the Shooting Menu - select Multiple Exposure.
- Select the Multiple Exposure Mode and scroll right to see the menu options.
- Select either a single Multiple Exposure or a series. Note: It’s usually better to select On (single photo) rather than On (series) because invariably you will forget that you had a series selected and will ruin some subsequent images by taking multiple exposures by mistake.
- Select the Number of Shots for your multiple exposure. The number of exposures possible varies by camera model. The number you want to select depends on the desired effect. Depending on the camera the options are usually 1-10 or 1-3.
- Set Auto Gain to On in order to average the exposures. Auto Gain simply averages the exposures together. In the film days, you’d need to manually calculate the exposure times to account for the cumulative impact. Digital cameras now do the math for you, but you could turn off Auto Gain and make your own calculations for the weight of each exposure. With Auto Gain OFF, your final image exposure will be the sum of the cumulative exposures.
- Go to the Tools Menu and turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) (Optional) Long Exposure Noise Reduction adds to the time between images, so in most cases it’s better to turn it off. Some images benefit from the extra time, so if it does not matter, leave LENR turned On.
If you are using multiple exposures instead of a ND filter, you can calculate the equivalent exposure based on the number of stops. Two exposures is double the time or one stop, four exposures is two stops, and eight exposures is three stops. Keep in mind these are rough estimates because in some cases there is an impact on the equivalent exposure from the time between images.
Now you are ready to create your multiple exposure image. Simply trigger the shutter in the usual manner. I usually use Exposure Delay Mode set for one second rather than Mirror Lockup or a Cable Release.
I usually set my camera for Single Images so each individual exposure is triggered with a press of the shutter. It’s usually best to count the number of images that make up the multiple exposure. If you select Continuous High or Continuous Low the camera will fire the entire sequence with a single press of the shutter. That can be convenient, but you give up precise control and may introduce some mirror vibration.
As each individual exposure is completed, you’ll see the green light on the back of the camera which indicates the image is being processed. After the final exposure, you’ll see the green light a second time as the image is written to the memory card.
Compared to ND filters
Multiple Exposures can be used instead of weak ND filters or in addition to a ND filter. If all you need is a few stops, multiple exposures provide a good alternative. But that’s not the only reason.
- To blur fast moving clouds, multiple exposures with minimal time between exposures can simulate the use of a ND filter.
- Some ND filters pick up a color cast at 10 stops or beyond. Multiple exposures can be used for a series of shorter exposures with less color cast.
- Multiple exposures can be used in combination with circular polarizers and other tools with less risk of vignetting.
There are a number of different ways you can use the in-camera Multiple Exposure. For the sake of time, we’re just covering one technique here. My most frequently used technique is to use multiple exposures with a Circular Polarizer (CP) and Lo 1.0 ISO for photographing streams. The CP provides an additional 1-2 stops to slow the exposure as well as cutting bright reflections on foliage or water. Another technique is to use it for close up flower photography by having one frame correctly exposed, then a second frame underexposed by one stop and defocused to create a soft blur behind the sharp flower. For wildlife photographers, a multiple exposure burst of 1/30 sec. images while Continuous High can provide an interesting abstract of a bird taking off or flying.
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Originally written on February 1, 2016
Last updated on December 20, 2020
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samya hindal (samya) on April 9, 2018
Thanks Eric. you give a new idea of using multiple exposures
Carl Crosby (wile e coyote) on May 26, 2017
Interesting and useful article! But; my question is...Is there any way to do multiple exposures like I could do with my film cameras? For instance...Moon over Lighthouse, or other similar cliches...take an exposure of the moon/lighthouse, REMEMBER where the image is located on the negative/slide, wait or change locations/lenses for the second shot, then wait again to see if the processed image"got it!" I like to do my major stuff en camera, because my computer skills are rudimentary, and after failing miserably with Microsoft, Corel, and Photoshop Elements, the only program I have found I can even begin to use is Picasa 3! If I read my manuals...D 50 and D 90 right, (all three of 'em for the D 90) they don't address whether you can change lenses between exposures, and iirc, turning off the camera or waiting beyond an unreasonably(to me)short time will negate the effort. Any suggestions...hold the Snark... will be greatly appreciated!
User on May 7, 2016
Great step by step instructions. Thanks. I was wondering if there is a way to instruct a D810 to take 10 consecutive shots of multi exposure but with the first shot delayed by say 5 seconds should you also forget to take the cable release?
Celeste Brunell (cbrunell) on April 2, 2016
Thanks so much, Eric. I just bought a new lens and realized my ND10 wouldn't fit. Since I shoot a lot of moving water, this will save me some $$$. (which of course will go toward the next gadget on my wish list...)
David Robert Jackson (Wingnuts) on March 27, 2016
Searching for more info on Multiple Exposure I subsequently came upon this masterpiece which gave me a great & clear explanation of how to generally use my D810 menu for Multiple Exposure - thanks Eric.
Steve McTeer (NRVVA) on February 28, 2016
Excellent article about a function to which I never gave any thought. Sounds like a neat way to try different things. Thanks!
Richard Luse (DaddySS) on February 27, 2016
Thanks Eric. I hadn't thought of using multiple exposures for this type of result.
Paul F Austin (paustin) on February 10, 2016
I've used multiple exposures of fountains at night to "smooth" the water. A similar effect comes from using a five image bracket combined as an HDR. The water smooths out as part of the HDR processing (Nik HDR Pro).
Mike Muyal (Mik) on February 9, 2016
Awesome. I wish I had learned this a few weeks ago when I found myself in Victoria Falls with my tripod, yet on a super sunny bright day and left my ND filters in the hotel!
Fred Laberge (labtrout) on February 5, 2016
This was both useful and illuminating, since the effect you write about is one I've been interested in trying. Thanks for the step-by-step instructions.
David Hatton (dthatton) on February 4, 2016
Great Post, Eric. I typically use a 10 stop ND and am always stuggling to not change the focus when screwing it on. I look forward to trying this out, in particular when I need the longer exposure and don't have the filter.
Bob Kovach (bobjoek) on February 3, 2016
Great article, Erik! I have tried this with my D7100 and even with its limitation of 3 shots in multi exposure, have had good results.
User on February 3, 2016
Greetings Erik I have followed many of your helpful comments in various forums and have always found sound advice and help. In this article I immediately grabbed the Df on the desk and set about following your directions re the setting for multiple exposure. I have made some notes for future shots and will certainly try using multiple exposure when I shoot some flowers. Again, a great article - many thanks. Warren (Canberra Australia)
Dean Andersen (DeanAZ) on February 3, 2016
Thanks Eric. Too bad my D7100 only permits a max of three exposures. I imagine I could try and find a use for the limited capabilities.
User on February 3, 2016
Great article. Good usable info...Thanks
RICHARD MESSNER (5683RAM) on February 3, 2016
Thank you - especially the bird in flight idea.
James Gaston (gaston) on February 2, 2016
Great job. I've test the multiple exposure functionality on my d800e so I knew _how_ to use it but I had not thought of a good reason why to use it. Your examples are great. Thanks!
Willard C Kennedy (Bill Kennedy) on February 2, 2016
Think I messed up the vote--definitely 5 stars. I did not even remember this feature and the example images demonstrate the technique clearly. Nice article!
Min Chai Liu (mcliu19) on February 2, 2016
Thanks for sharing such an excellent idea... for long I was wonder how to use this "multi exposure " thing.. Liu
User on February 1, 2016
Excellent and very useful article Eric. Thanks for putting in the time to explore and share this technique. It appears as if it's the digital equivalent of the analog process of sandwiching negatives many years ago. It also eliminates putting another piece of glass in front of the lens. ~ Greg