The first time I experienced double exposures, it was my grandmother showing me some of her old 6×6 photos in her retro photobooks. Following that, I found myself going through IG and would be particularly attracted to these photos. Accordingly, I hit Google and searched for ‘How to take a double exposure’. There are some resources out there, most of which is for PS and not film. Having experimented with it enough now and discussing the physics of it with a friend over a beer, I have a much deeper understanding for what’s happening and that has translated to better images. So here we are… I hope I can help you take double exposures you love.
For those looking for a simple how-to: If your camera has a multiple exposure switch, engage the switch and take photos to your heart’s content (I would start with a double exposure before going for something with 3 or more). For those that don’t, no fear – you can do it just as easily. Take your first exposure and engage the release on the bottom of the camera (the button on the bottom of the camera you press-in when you’re rewinding the film) and “advance the film” like you normally would (make sure you’re holding the button down all the way through the process). This action will cock the shutter and set you up for your next exposure while leaving the film unmoved. When you’re done, just continue on as you normally would.
For those looking for more detail and my thoughts on multiple exposures, please read on.
For those that have never tried it before, the rush of a double exposure turning out well is so much more exhilarating than any single exposure can give. Keep in mind though, a lot of that rush stems from it being less reliable (aka, much more likely to not go your way). There is something about them that attracts not just my attention but attention for a lot of people. I feel like half the time someone sends me a message on Instagram or looks at my IG and asks me a question in person, it’s about one of my double exposures. I am by no means a professional photographer nor a professional at shooting double exposures. I am, on the other hand, proficient at it and love taking them.
First and foremost, light is everything. Isn’t it always with photography? Yes? But with double exposures, it gets a bit more interesting. When you take a photograph, the objective – the primary objective – is to limit the amount of light entering the camera so as to have enough to expose the subject without having so much that the frame comes out completely exposed. So the trick here is to properly expose your shot… twice… It can be harder than it sounds.
When you take your first exposure, the value of every “cell” in the negative is exposed somewhere between 0-100% of its total value (I tend to think of photographs as a grid of cells (like Excel) with a different exposure value in each cell such that it composes a photograph). Then, when you take your second shot, you are replacing the cell’s value if the new exposure has a brighter value than the first. In the most extreme scenario, a double exposure can be thought of as a single exposure if the first exposure was totally underexposed. That is, every cell was exposed with a 0% value and could be completely exposed over. In a less extreme scenario, the first exposure is a standard shot and every cell is exposed between 0-100%. Let’s say one cell is exposed at 40% on the first exposure and 60% on the second, the cell will be written over to be 60% exposed. Conversely, if the cell is exposed at 60% on the first exposure and 40% on the second, nothing changes. In this example, I’m referring strictly to B&W film – color film is acts a lot differently because you start blending colors together.
All in all, it’s pretty rare for a shot to unintentionally be completely exposed in one part of the frame and unexposed an another – almost always it’s in the middle of the exposure continuum. And since there’s no difference as to which is first, there has to be some strategy for underexposing some frames and overexposing others to ensure you keep the parts you want and replace the parts you don’t.
Framing and Composure
Now that I’ve talked through the technical aspects of a double exposure, more practically you have to consider the framing as it will make or break your shot. As far as exposure is concerned, it takes practice and a lot of forethought but with the right film, there’s a lot of forgiving. Framing, on the other hand, is just as important if not more so and there isn’t a film stock in existence that can correct for botched framing. Almost all of my double exposures that didn’t turn out were ruined from framing that wasn’t exactly where I needed it to.
To get started with DEs, I would suggest starting with a silhouette for a first exposure and a shot of something with texture as the second. It’s tough to go wrong with those… If you wanted to go for something more involved, it helps to use a split-image circle and/or microprism circle in the center of most focusing screens to act as a reference. Some cameras have interchangeable focusing screens – some of which have lines on them to act as references for landscapes or architectural photos but work quite well as reference lines in multiple exposures.
Since every DE is completely different, the way you approach them is different. Thus, it is pretty difficult to provide any additional, sound advice that can be directly applied to various specific contexts. Instead, I would suggest that you make a goal to take a whole roll of DEs or half or some significant portion of a roll. It’s not easy to get into it until you dive in. Once you begin to push yourself, you’ll start to see where things are working for you and where they aren’t. You’ll hopefully also start to get some ideas.
As a last note before I show some examples, I’ve found that the more flexible films are, the easier it is to get a double exposure turn out alright. I’ve taken some shots with more rigid films and it’s much easier to get blown out. On the other hand, one of the most flexible films I use (Tri-X) can be difficult to get it to behave entirely because it’s exposure latitude is so wide.