How to Shoot Double Exposures on Film
One of my favorite things to do is shoot double exposures on film. Here are some of the basics on how I create them and how you can too.
There are two main techniques for shooting double exposures with a 35mm SLR film camera: 1) shooting one frame right after the next using a film camera with a multiple-exposure function, or 2) to shoot an entire roll, reload it, and then shoot the roll again. First, I will go into the basics of these two methods and then touch on how to expose each shot properly at the end.
This is the method I use most often. I take one photo and then take a second photo directly after it without advancing the film between shots. To do this, I use a camera with a dedicated multiple exposure function built in. There are many 35mm and even some medium format cameras that have this function. The Nikon FE2 and Nikon FM3A are the cameras I typically use. They each have a little lever that you engage between frames to allow you to reset the shutter without advancing the film. For some cameras, like the Canon AE-1, Pentax K1000 or Nikon F2, the trick is to press down the film rewind button on the bottom of the camera while simultaneously advancing the film. With some older finicky cameras, this does not work all the time, meaning the film may shift slightly at times, but for the most part, it does the trick. For some electronic film cameras, like the Canon EOS line or the Nikon F3-F6, there are dedicated buttons for multiple exposures.
This is a fun thing to try if you have multiple scenes in front of you that you want to combine and ultimately gives you a bit more control and the opportunity to pre-visualize things a bit easier. The next few examples were taken this way, one frame right after the other...
The other technique is to shoot an entire roll of film, rewind it, reload it, and shoot it again. This method works for most cameras with a manual rewind system. It results in images that are a bit more random (unless you take notes for each shot) but can be just as fun. Since you are loading the film twice, you just need to follow a few simple steps to make sure the frames align for each round.
First, I open the back of the camera, and with no film in it yet, I take a Sharpie or permanent marker and make two small dots on the camera body indicating where the left and right edges of the shutter window are. I then load a roll like normal and advance the film 2-3 times to get it going. I then make sure to use the rewind knob to release any slack in the spool. This is an important step to ensure that there is no "slip" when you start advancing the first few shots, which can happen with some cameras and cause all your frames to shift and become misaligned. Once that rewind knob is taut and you have released any slack in the spool, I then use the Sharpie to mark the film itself with a couple lines indicating where the left and right edges of the shutter window are, using the two small dots I made on the camera body as a reference. I then repeat this step for Round 2 and I am good to go. This technique also works well for doing a Film Swap with a friend, where you each expose the roll on your own. There is a great Youtube video I found on how to load and mark your film using this method. You can see it here.
Between rounds, just make sure to leave the film leader out when you rewind the film so it can be easily reloaded. This is easy to do with a camera that has a manual rewind knob, as many do. After finishing the first round of shots, just rewind slowly and listen and feel for the film to "pop off" the spool at the end. You can then safely open the back of the camera and the film leader should be out of the canister, allowing you to easily load it again.
For the photo below, I used Method 2 to shoot a roll of street scenes in New York, and then reloaded the film a month later for portraits back home in San Francisco...
Sometimes the film does not align perfectly but it can still yield some interesting results. Like this...
Exposure, Highlights and Shadows:
Regardless of which technique you use, the general rule on exposing is the same. The most important thing to do regarding exposure is to simply under-expose each shot by one stop. Since the film is getting exposed to light twice, you essentially want to underexpose or darken each shot a tad so the final image is not over-exposed or too bright. I simply shoot in Aperture Priority mode, set the exposure compensation to -1, and let the in-camera meter do it's thing. Alternatively, can also just double your ISO setting on the camera and meter normally. If you are shooting 400 speed film, just tell the camera it is 800. This will effectively under-expose each shot by one stop as well.
In a nutshell, the dark parts of the first image (the shadows) will be the areas the second image will "show through". The brighter the highlights, the more washed out those areas will be in the final image. Paying attention to where light is, and just as importantly, where it is not, is the key to understanding how double exposures on film render. Generally, you will get more forgiving results when shooting the darker of the two subjects first (i.e. a silhouette of a person), followed by the second image (i.e. landscape, texture, whatever) but I have seen the reverse work just as well too. But don't get too caught up on all of this. It takes a lot of practice and seeing examples to really understand how double exposures render, how highlights and shadows interact, and there is almost always an element of surprise in the results. That's part of what makes them fun and extra rewarding when you nail it.
I've included many more examples of mine below and if you're interested, here are a few of my favorite artists also creating some beautiful double exposures on film: Louis Dazy, Edie Sunday, and Hodachrome.
In the end, my best tip is to just experiment. Embrace the mistakes, the happy accidents and the surprises. Learn from them and keep creating. The possibilities are endless.
I hope this was helpful! Big thanks to all of those who helped create these with me!
All images here have been developed and scanned by the good folk at Indie Film Lab.