#39 in a series of background briefs

The changing role of
Combined-exposure photos

On the reversal over the past two decades in the acceptance of “combined exposure” photographs

A. It’s a natural question:

Why does TCQ allow for combining exposures when respected international news agencies have not traditionally allowed it?

The answer is that TCQ allows it because millions of non-deceptive photos are now made every day by combining multiple exposures for a variety of reasons—

— including to increase sharpness, to increase dynamic range, to increase resolution, and to increase depth of field.

(These are not your grandfather’s “double exposures”!)


B. Before the year 2000 it was fairly unusual to deliberately combine two or more exposures in one photograph.

• When exposures were combined back in the film era, the result was usually immediately apparent as with a “double exposure” done for artistic reasons.

• In news reportage, “combining exposures” was basically unheard of before 2000.


C. But in the 21st century it is very common to combine two or more exposures in one photograph.

• It happens many millions of times a day on smartphones, usually without the photographer telling their phone to do so.

• “Combining exposures” is no longer synonymous with “depicting multiple arrangements of the scene” the way it usually was in the film era.


D. Most news organizations never formally announced that they would begin publishing combined-exposure photographs.

The implementation of instant/automatic exposure combining in smartphones did not happen overnight, and the public perception is still that combining exposures is typically done to make the scene appear differently in the photo than it would have appeared to someone at the scene.


E. But as increasing numbers of citizens’ smartphone photos are used for spot-news reportage—

— and now that most combined-exposure images on smartphones often look the same as the scene would have appeared to someone at the scene—

— news organizations for the first time have to identify which “combined-exposure” photos are trustworthy.

Setting out clear parameters for making such photographs is part of TCQ’s role (see link at the bottom of of “F,” below).


F. One thing hasn’t changed:

Combining photographs has always provided numerous additional ways to make images less trustworthy.

That’s why in exchange for allowing combined images, the Trust Checklist imposes strict limits on how exposures may be combined in a TCQ photograph.

Those limits are all gathered into one list here