I shoot 3 different sorts of double exposures on film — the silhouette, the two photos in one double exposure, and the overlapping frames double exposure. I have had so many people asking me how to do it, that I decided to write this simple how to do a double exposure on film tutorial for everyone.
Its very similar to shooting them on digital cameras, same principles, but with film, you have to do it on the same frame and you cannot see what you are doing. I think that makes it more fun and sort of a surprise every time. But even with the anticipation of a happy surprise, there are techniques you can use to help you achieve the result you want.
The goal here is to make an outline with your first frame, and then fill it with your second frame.
The First Frame
You need to shoot against a white background — it can be sky (which I usually use) or a white wall. The reason is that in the second exposure, whatever you shoot, will only show up on the frame where there are darker areas of the image. The white parts are fully exposed and will record no more light upon those areas, so nothing will show.
For the first image, you are thinking about shape or outline. Put your subject against the white sky or wall, and then expose in a way that will keep the white background and you can choose how much of their face to show. If you want none or only a little of their face or body details to show (only outline) and you want mostly the second image to show, you are going to expose for their face to be a dark or black silhouette. Its easiest to do this shooting against the sun.
The darker your subject is, the more detail from your second frame will show on them. I tend to like a bit of their face to show so I don’t make a classic silhouette, but just them framed against the white.
Remember you are going to expose twice on this one frame, so you don’t want to overexpose or there will be too much light on the frame. I play with the exposure, but tend to stop down one stop from where I normally want to be (because I know I’m shooting again on the frame). For example, if I’m shooting Kodak Portra 160 and its a sunny day, I’ll pose my model against wide open sky backlit. Not with the sun directly behind her (because I don’t want it in the frame) but slightly to the side. That way I can get the sky to go whitish and have a bit of light on her face. Normally, I might shoot a set up like this at f/2.8 1/250. For the double, I choose to shoot it at f/2.8 1/500. I don’t want to stop down too much as I might lose the whitish part of the sky (it will go bluer) and lose my outline. If I want I’ll expose as if I want a completely black silhouette which will then fill completely.
Its harder with film to blow out the highlights of the sky than with digital so my outlines are not also so clean. But I like that aspect of shooting with film as well.
The Second Frame
Now to find something to fill in her outline with. What works best is something with lots of color and texture. I love flowers so that is one of my favorite things to do and if its a wedding, I can shoot the bride’s bouquet. But other options are palm trees, ocean or sand (which because its lighter doesn’t show up as well, except as a texture really), trees, branches, fabric, mountain scenery, prints, really anything you can think of. The trick with film is that it has to be something right there with you. You aren’t going to wait to later to fill the image — unless you aren’t using your camera again for a while — so be prepared and look around you. There is always something interesting. I love color so I look for lots of color.
For this second frame, I shoot closer and fill my frame with the second object (flowers, trees, whatever it is) and I again stop down on my exposure from where I normally would be by one stop. I tend to not backlit this second frame but shoot it in the shade (if its controllable, like a bouquet).
And I try to never do just one, Ill do this technique a couple of times and change the second frame or the exposure to give myself more options when the film comes back.
One of the best resources out there on shooting the silhouette double exposure (especially if you are shooting digital) is Sara Byrnes tutorial.
2. Two Photos in One
Making a silhouette is not the only way to use double exposure. One of the funnest to me, is just combining two photos onto one frame. And it can be anything. What works well, are a near/far combo or a portrait/scene or detail combo. But it can be anything and its fun to be creative and fool around with this.
The two things you need to keep in mind here are 1) exposure and 2) placement.
For exposure, again you are shooting twice on the same frame, so you want to stop 1 or 2 down from your normal settings so that you don’t totally overexpose your film.
For placement, you are have to sort of imagine what you are creating as you make it. If you place two people far away as the subject in your first frame, remember where they were, and then place your second subject in a different part of the frame so it doesn’t land right on top. Its cleanest to do this technique against a clean background (wall, sky, ocean, grass etc.) so there aren’t a lot of competing items in the frame.
3. Overlapping Frames
This trick is camera specific. I use a lomo-wide. Its my favorite little everyday camera. The lomo wide lets you shoot either square frame or half frame. The overlapping square thing happens when you confuse the camera and open the lens wide for shooting square frame but choose half frame on the lever on the bottom of the camera. Then it lets me put 2 half frame shots on one frame with an overlap. This is by no means an exact science but its fun to play around with for a few frames. I learned how to do this by doing it by mistake first.
Because its only double exposed where it overlaps and not in the majority of the frame, I just expose normally for this type of image.
4. Cheating with Photoshop
I am all for doing everything in camera. Its why I shoot film and why I love the process. It forces me to be more creative. Its authentic.
BUT… sometimes I cheat. This one time I had this brillant idea (ok maybe just brillant to me) but I was obsessed with capturing the NYC skyline and filling it with colorful graffiti. The problem was that the graffiti was nowhere near where I could shoot the skyline and wasn’t even possible for me on the same day (I was stuck on a school tour with my daughter). So I shot a film shot of the NYC skyline against a white sky just as if I was going to do a double. But I exposed it correctly. And then on the other day on a different roll of film I shot my filler image — a frame filled with rainbow colored graffiti off a building near Chinatown in NYC.
And after the film was scanned and I got my images back, I cheated with photoshop. I opened the skyline image in photoshop. Then I add another layer to it. Then I opened my graffiti image and copied it. Then I pasted that into the second layer. Then I choose to view both layers and pick “lighten” from the dropdown menu under the layers window. Then play with exposure until I get the look I want.
I don’t do this often.. only when I have a concept in my head that I just really want and couldn’t get in camera. I don’t recommend this as your method for double exposure.
I shot the majority of my double exposures with my Contax 645 and my Canon 1v.
With the Contax, on the left side of the camera, down near the bottom is a little lever. That is what you flip to make a double exposure. Push the button and flip it down and it stops the film from moving forward. So you flip it, shoot once, flip it up, and shoot your second frame. Its really easy to forget to flip it up and keep shooting on the same frame.
With the Canon 1V, I have to open the side compartment on the right side of the camera for custom functions and use the button under M.Fn. You hit the button and then use the dial on your camera to change the 1 to 2 on the window. That shows how many exposures you can make on that frame. You can do 2 or experiment with making more. (Remember if you make more that you will want to underexpose accordingly.) Once you shoot your 2, it automatically goes back to regular 1 image per frame mode so you don’t have to switch anything again.
You just don’t pull the film and shoot again. Pretty simple.
Most cameras have options for double exposures. Read your manual to find out how to do it on your film camera.
and most of all HAVE FUN and EXPERIMENT. Don’t be scared to try new things.
I welcome your comments below and Ill answer any questions you have. Thanks so much for reading this and have a great day.