Multiple Exposures Capture Tokyo’s Frenetic Energy

Our Tokyo workshop is a favourite of mine, not just because I get to work with my good friend and inspiring photographer Soichi Hayashi, but it brings me back to Tokyo– a city that I love to photograph because it loves the photographer back with endless visual potential.

But, that said, sometimes a place as frenetic as this can make image-making a bit frustrating. There is so much going on that capturing the action in a way that comes close to matching your experience can be difficult.

One of our students Jim Tomcik made an image from multiple exposures that sparked my interest. So with Jim’s inspiration, I took my Nikon D5 and experimented with the serendipity of multiple exposures overlayed over each other on one frame.

Though my journalistic background has always steered me away from techniques that I felt to be gimmicky, I thought I would give it a try since the results might communicate my feelings of this constantly fast-moving city–why not?

Multiple exposures on my Nikon is easy technically. Many Nikons have the multiple exposure feature in the Shooting Menu and let you take 2-10 images on one frame. They also give you the option of shooting one multiple exposure or a series (with “series” there’s a danger of forgetting it’s set there, so you could end up shooting all day onto one frame).

Shot at Shinagawa Station, Tokyo.
Shot at Shinagawa Station, Tokyo.

Older bodies have “Auto Gain” which does the math for you so you end up with a proper exposure automatically regardless of the number of multiple exposures. Auto Gain has been renamed “Average” on the D5 & D500 and they’ve added options: Add, Lighten and Darken.

Add will not compensate for the number of exposures, so might work best with black backgrounds to prevent overexposure. Lighten compares pixels in each exposure and chooses just the brightest pixels. Darken does the opposite, chooses the darkest pixels only for subjects with strong contrast with the background.

I played around but ended up using the Auto Gain or Average option which worked great.

With technical taken care of it was fun to play around. Like so much of my work on the street…most frames miss the mark but occasionally I get images I like. What I loved about this multiple exposure experiment was the serendipity of the technique. Each image is different and with practice, somewhat predictable– but there’s always an element of surprise in the images that work best similar to my best street shots. By nature of the abstractness of the work, editing is very personal and I chose the final ones posted here by gut instinct.

Because I do a lot of critiquing in the workshops and on my show, I would love to turn the tables and hear what you have to say pro or con. The more critical the better.

All the images were shot with D5 & 24-70mm f2.8 VR.









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  1. says: Natalie Weber

    I find these fascinating! I am always seeing different images in them, faces I didn’t see the first time around, shadows, colors….I really love the abstract. I would love to try this . You said you took most with 10 frames at f/2.8? Or was that the lens you used and the aperture was smaller like f/8? Anyway, technicalities aside, you should continue this in other large cities!

    1. says: Steve Simon

      Hi Natalie, thanks…I did do 10 frames, sometimes moving at fast shutter speeds other times with more depth of field…just experimenting and having fun. It wouldn’t take you long to figure out what works best for you.

      1. says: Natalie Weber

        I have a Sony a6500- it has a strange set up with multiple exposure. I don’t think it’s like the Nikon where you can burst 10 photos off. It takes a long time to write to the card in the “multiple exposure mode” (which is an App in the Sony). Anyway, looking forward to see more!

  2. I think you VR is broken, Steve. These look really shaky. 😉
    But seriously, really inspired. These all really work and like others have said, have a painterly feel to them.

  3. says: Jim Tomcik

    I enjoyed seeing these, Steve! Especially like the vibrant colors – and the images of people crossing the street in Shibuya. I’ll have to take a look at some of mine in color too – I’m still seeing things in B&W! I continued to use this technique a little more in Kyoto – but their rush hour isn’t anything like that in Tokyo!

  4. says: Wolf Huber

    Those overlaying masses of exposures looks for me too abstract for giving me kind of clear meaning what You want to say with that to the viewer, without
    a written text beyond, telling about it. I would prefer a composition with by far not so much exposures, so seeing at least some sharp clear details of persons still visible in the overlaying mass of japanese people on it, how it looks now for the viewer, possibly only after knowing, what You have written about it.

  5. says: Andrea Star Reese

    Trust your fascination to take you where you should go, and to find when it is appropiate. But the very beginning is the joy of experimentation. The photos are beautiful

  6. says: Douglas Palmer

    They are all effective, but I prefer the ones which retain a sense of the original place. The images with Tsutaya’s graphic sign still visible (particularly where it appears on the middle left of the image) give the clearest sense of Tokyo’s Shibuya scramble and pays homage to Tokyo’s ubiquitous commercial signage. The top image, from Shinagawa station, is my favorite for it’s abstract universal theme.

    1. says: Steve Simon

      Hi Christian, they were all shot closer to 10 frame overlay at different speeds, sometimes physically moving but not zooming. SS

  7. says: Barb McLean

    I especially love the shot that appears to be in a building or subway with the contrast of the white with blue signs and yellow line. Very interesting technique and photos, Steve. All of the photos certainly convey the message of speed within all these large crowds. Well done!

  8. says: Michael Chernaik

    I like the effect very much. It does convey the frenetic atmosphere. How long a space is in between each image? Do you jiggle the camera during the exposure, or just hand hold? I’m thinking that if it was on a tripod then something would stay sharp and only the moving parts would show the multiple images. That might be a cool effect. Have you attempted that?

    1. says: Steve Simon

      Michael, I moved and jiggled and tried different things…it was the serendipity of the results I liked most. Fun. Did not try a tripod, could also be very interesting…

  9. says: Viviane

    These photos definitely capture the energy and vibrant life of the city. They feel very cinematic, but also feel Impressionistic. There is a lot to think about here!