Digital art: multiple exposure abstracts with the Canon EOS R5

Wanting to move beyond the limits of conventional photography, visual artist Valda Bailey developed her own distinctive way of creating expressive nature images using multiple exposures. Here, she talks about her inspiration, kit and techniques.
A dark silhouette of a tree against a white and pale blue sky.

This multiple exposure image, titled This Twisted Form, is from visual artist Valda Bailey's series In Search Of Soulful Undertones, shot in England's beautiful Lake District. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens and Canon Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, using several exposures with different settings. © Valda Bailey

Valda Bailey's nature images range from impressionistic scenes of trees in blossom to carefully composed abstract still-life pictures. Despite appearances, Valda doesn't use paint or canvas to produce her works of art, they're almost entirely created in-camera on the Canon EOS R5 with skilful use of multiple exposures and Intentional Camera Movement (ICM).

Valda, who began her artistic career as a painter, has been taking photographs for 15 years. Initially, she worked in street photography, but in 2012, after seeing a picture made by fellow pro Chris Friel using ICM, she realised there was a whole new way of crafting images that she wanted to explore.

"It was like a lightbulb moment, because the images Chris was making had a flat, painterly quality to them," she remembers. "I used to think of landscape photography as calendar-type images – apricot sunsets and milky seas – and although I admired the skill in those images, they just didn't do it for me. From the moment I saw Chris's images, I knew this was something I needed to pursue, figure out and make work for me. I just dived in with both feet."

Since then, Valda has developed an impressive body of work using multiple exposures and the blend modes on her Canon cameras. Her images have been exhibited in galleries across Europe and in the US, and she has published two books: Fragile (2016) and We May As Well Dance (2021). She also teaches her image-making techniques in regular workshops, in collaboration with fellow photographer Doug Chinnery.

Branches and twigs are shown in brown and gold against a pale jade green background.

"I'm quite influenced by Japanese prints and I've also been looking at Vincent van Gogh's Japanese influences and I suppose the colour palette was in my mind when I was playing with this image," says Valda of this picture titled Sweet Almond. "You can see there's camera movement here – the orange line was light on water, where I was standing, which I've overlaid on the image of a tree." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens. © Valda Bailey

Exploring your subject

Most of Valda's work explores nature and landscapes, even though these subjects are often quite hard to shoot using multiple exposures. "I love being outside, but often, unless the light is spectacular, you're dealing with greens, browns, greys and sludgy blues, which are tonally very similar," she says.

"When I go out, I'm looking at contrasts and tonal values as much as subject matter. It's important to have an open mind – I walk around and see what is out there and what's going to appeal to me."

Around 80-90% of Valda's images are created in-camera. When working in this way, she continually explores the subject and tries a variety of approaches. "I work through as many options as I can when I'm sitting in front of the same object, such as a tree or mountain or lake," she says.

"Generally, I'll sit there for maybe 45 minutes or an hour. To succeed at multiple exposure images, you have to have a mindset where you're happy to experiment and play, because you can have an idea but you can never know for certain how images are going to be rendered when they're combined."

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The surface of a pond with ripples and reflections in the water, and foliage around the edges.

Titled Rhythm Of The Rain, this impressionistic image of the surface of a pond during rainfall was created using several images of the scene, including ones with ICM. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens. © Valda Bailey

Choosing the right kit

For several years, Valda created her work using a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (see final image) and a Canon EOS 5DS R, but she now works with her Canon EOS R5. Her main lens is the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM. "I love this lens because it quickly hones in on what is interesting to me," she says. "I like the way it compresses the subject matter and it stops down to f/45, which is helpful for ICM. A tiny aperture like f/45 lets very little light through. On all but the brightest days, it will enable me to keep the shutter open for a second or more in order that I can create blur. This removes the need for an ND filter – I am very lazy when it comes to carrying gear around and the fewer bits and pieces I have with me, the better."

The Canon RF 70-200mm F4L IS USM is another fantastic option for multiple exposure abstracts.

Valda also uses a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens, which enables her to have greater control over the blur in her images, and a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) when she wants a wider angle of view.

She attaches her lenses to the EOS R5 using the Canon Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, into which she inserts a neutral density filter when carrying one. Again, this enables her to shoot longer exposures without blowing out whites and highlights, and is therefore also useful for ICM.

Using the EOS R5 has several advantages. "It's lighter than the EOS 5DS R, has a greater dynamic range and the faster processor means images are combined immediately on the LCD screen," enthuses Valda.

Images of rocks and distant mountains, overlaid with dry grass and leaves and a cutout of umbel flowers across the whole image.

Valda's images are usually made in the same location, but for this piece of work, titled Shadowlands, she combined shots from different locations. "I had the landscape shot, taken on my tilt-shift lens, already on my camera and I overlaid it with some umbels to make the finished image," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens. © Valda Bailey

Working with multiple exposure modes

There are two options available in the Multiple exposure menu on the Canon EOS R5. The Multi-exposure control option (Func/Ctrl), used by Valda, and through which you access the blend modes, enables you to shoot multiple exposures gradually as you check the results. There is also a continuous shooting mode for multiple exposures of moving subjects. It's also worth noting that multiple exposures may not be available with some lenses.

There are four blend modes – Additive, Average, Bright and Dark. Essentially, as you shoot a sequence, the Bright mode prioritises brighter tones when blending with other images, while the Dark mode prioritises darker tones. These modes can produce strong blocks of colour and graphic abstraction. The Average mode doesn't give priority to any specific tonal values and produces a softer, more impressionistic result.

With these three modes, the camera will automatically produce a perfectly exposed final result. However, although Additive mode works in a similar way to Average, in this mode each image is blended into a sequence without the in-camera exposure adjustment, so any adjustments need to be made manually.

While shooting a sequence in Func/Ctrl, each mode offers the opportunity to review the result and delete an image you don't like and shoot it again. You can shoot a maximum of nine images in a sequence, though if you want to combine more images you can save a whole sequence, use it as a base image and put more images on top of it.

"If you use the blend modes correctly you can cut out a lot of extraneous detail and create strong abstraction," she says. "Generally, the more you shoot, the more chaotic and less controllable the final image becomes. For me, the sweet spot is around three to five images for a composite, but it depends on the subject."

Her advice is to keep things simple. "If you start working with something like a shadow on a wall, you get a sense of what the camera is doing as you work through a sequence," she says. "You also have to look at tonal values and see how light is falling on a subject, and spend a good 15-20 minutes looking at the subject and trying different approaches. Try changing the camera angle, white balance and exposure compensation and all will have an impact on the finished image.

"It's not easy and it's not for everybody, but I personally enjoy the challenge of it and I really enjoy the expressionist facility, in that you can convey emotions or feelings just by manipulating colours in a way that perhaps a conventional photographer is not able to do. I'm really thrilled that I've found this technique. It's got so many possibilities and I feel I'm never going to stop learning."

A black and white double exposure of an elderly man in a hat and a cityscape of old stone buildings.

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A tree with pale brown wood and green and gold foliage stands against a navy blue background. The colours are flat and artificial, while dots of moving lights surround the tree.

Valda created this image, titled Blue Moon Rising, using several exposures, including a tree and separate shots of fairy lights. "By moving the camera and making multiple exposures that are underexposed, you can make a trail of lights that gives this sort of dancing effect," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens. © Valda Bailey

Post-production and the final result

Valda shoots a number of different multiple exposure images while working in the field – usually around 30 or 40 – and it's only when she views the results on a computer display that she can identify the ones she likes and decide what post-production work needs doing. She uses both Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom*.

"I'm doing more in Lightroom these days because they've changed the masking tools so you can selectively edit certain tonal values and certain colours," says Valda. "Probably the greatest amount of time, at this point in the process, is spent manipulating colours.

"The thing I most enjoy about this way of shooting is that I get to choose the colours I like – I'm not constrained by what nature has put in front of me. However, I've got to make the colours work for me, and manipulating the colour sliders in Lightroom is where I can get really creative."

For her fine art prints, Valda uses the large-format Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4000 professional photo printer to produce images up to 150x100cm (60x40 inches) in size. She is currently printing images on Hahnemühle FineArt Inkjet Paper 500g for an exhibition and will hand-finish the images with wax and varnish.

"Several galleries sell my work, so there's a very real need to produce prints," she says. "I've found my Canon printer very reliable – the ink nozzles don't clog and even if I haven't used it for a few weeks, I can just start it up and away it goes.

"As a photographer, you spend your life behind a camera or a computer and to have something tactile and tangible at the end of it is vitally important. Printing is always a great thrill. For me, it's the last piece in the jigsaw."

*Adobe, Lightroom and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

David Clark

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