Updated: Jan 18
The wonders of double exposure
Double exposure by Michael Lewis
Before there was Photoshop and its transparency and layers tools, photographers had to double expose the film to put an image on top of another one. In a nutshell, for a double exposure the first pictures taken are intentionally a bit underexposed, meaning less light has been allowed to touch the film, by manipulating aperture and/or exposure time. Then, when the film is exposed for a second time, the underexposed film allows for the second image to show through. This process results in two, or more, superimposed images. This technique is often used to achieve a surreal aesthetic, and for documenting movement.
“Dorothy True,” Alfred Stieglitz, 1919 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267441
35mm film of choice
An analog camera
Previously, on 5 Camera-less low cost techniques, we shared a brief tutorial on double exposures as an alternative to make the most out of a roll of precious film. However, there’s a world of possibilities. Shooting a Double Exposure: Manual vs. Automatic
Some analog cameras have a double exposure setting specially designed for this purpose. If that is not the case, cameras with manual loading are recommended instead of automatic loading cameras, since manual cameras allow handling the film and also to adjust the shutter speed and aperture settings.
Double exposure on Kodak Gold 200 by vivid_opia
Technicalities: Math and Light
Before getting started it is important to consider the optics behind making a double exposure. Most double-exposure enthusiasts recommend to cut by half the exposure time. It is important to remember that both shutter speed and aperture values represent fractions: fraction of a second, and the focal ratio, respectively. Meaning that a higher number in shutter speed is a faster exposure (1⁄500 of a second will let half as much light in as 1⁄250), and the smaller the number the wider the aperture.
If you are feeling lazy about calculating shutter speed and aperture, another useful technique shared by David Hancock, is to adjust the ASA setting to twice the ISO, (so instead of setting the ISO to 400, for example, it will have to be set to 800) in order to trick the light meter and make it do the math for you.
It is helpful to think about silhouettes and textures when shooting double exposures. The less exposed areas on the film (the shadows) of the first exposure are the areas where the second exposure will be visible. “Anything that is white/bright will destroy information and anything black/dark will maintain information for the next exposure.” So, consider superimposing dense and lighter compositions, dark and bright images. For example, shooting a person’s portrait and then a close-up of flowers, or a blank wall over a landscape. Double exposure by Alberto Peláez
Loading the film:
Depending on your needs, whether you are shooting both exposures back to back, or you are planning on doing the entire roll to then shoot the second exposure. Each has their pros and cons.
For shooting back to back:
Load film as usual. Shoot using a lower exposure time/aperture since the film will be exposed twice.
After shooting a frame, press the rewind button, and while holding the rewind knob, pull the lever. This will allow for the frame to stay in place.
Shoot once again, and move onto your next frame.
Once the roll is finished, process as usual.
Double exposure by Paige Gabert
For shooting the entire roll, then once again:
As previously shared on 5 Camera-less low cost techniques:
When loading the film into the camera, mark with a sharpie the start of the first frame.
Shoot as usual but using a lower exposure time/aperture since the film will be exposed twice. Once the film has been exposed, rewind it completely and unload it.
To retrieve the film to load it again, lick a piece of discarded film, and push it into the opening of the canister. Next, wind the roll of film until the piece of discarded film goes in. Gently, pull the discarded film. If done correctly, the start of the film should come out of the canister as well.
Load the film for a second time, making sure to align the sharpie line with the so that the frames match as much as possible. Shoot and process as usual.
In case you need a visual aid, this tutorial shows this technique:
As depicted in this video, this second technique is popular for film swaps, a collaborative project where one photographer shoots the roll and then gives the roll to another photographer to finish the double exposure.
But there is more than film. It is actually possible to double expose materials, not just on 35mm.
Double exposure on cyanotype by Christine So
We hope that next time you only have one roll of film left, you feel inspired to shoot it twice! Interested in creating statement darkroom prints? Introducing, Alternative Processes Academy™
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Author: Ana Sofía Camarga
Images courtesy of the artists