© 2003, Dave Wade, All Rights Reserved
Double exposing is a great
way of restoring a sense of excitement to your photography. It's
the secret search for serendipity, and a small prayer for the suspension
of disbelief. That suspense you used to feel of capturing an image on
film and seeing it for the very first time has been badly eroded today
with the proliferation of integrated chip camera technology, accurate
autoexposure, and autofocus functions that virtually guarantee good
results. Photography's getting about as exciting as shooting fish
in a barrel. The thrill has gone! Or has it?
Have you ever taken a photo on a reloaded film and somehow inadvertently
took a double exposure? It could have been that special moment you wanted
to save, maybe that once-in-a-lifetime visit to an exotic location,
or a picture of a cherished loved one. One day, when you get back your
freshly developed film, suddenly there's a fire engine running
right through the middle of an equatorial jungle, or maybe some colorful
graffiti splashed across grandpa's forehead. You're mad,
feeling violated, as you look upon this rude intervention on reality.
But once you get over it, you realize that there is a certain art to
the unexpected, a kind of magic surrealism. Look, here's something
unexpected that exists nowhere else but on your piece of film! If you
could just perfect this, now wouldn't that be cool?
Well, you can! While double
exposures are fairly unpredictable, sometimes frustrating, and always
fascinating, an intentional double exposure (shooting multiple exposures
on the same frame) is neither magic nor rocket science. It's an
adventure in which the photographer is often rewarded with unexpected
and interesting results. It's like going boldly where none have
The multiple exposure shooting technique is straightforward enough, shooting
two or more images on one frame of film to create a new, combined image.
Rather than capturing a single distinct image (a "decisive moment"
as Cartier-Bresson would say), we get something with double and multiple
exposures more akin to a collage, where disparate and unrelated things
overlap and interact, where time is stretched and warped between events.
It's creating a still shot, but with almost cinematic overtones.
Double exposure is like magic, and therefore, a bit tricky. There are
a few dicey areas, but, as any seasoned magician will tell you, the secret
to success is in good timing. And time (and I like a good time as much
as anyone) remains one of the two main ingredients, along with aperture,
to getting a good exposure. The problem here, with shooting multiple images
on the same film frame, is that the cumulative exposure in overlapping
areas (particularly in the highlights) can result in overexposure and
loss of image detail. That is, unless a proper exposure strategy is employed.
In order to keep the combined
light collected from two exposures from overexposing the film, the photographer
needs to reduce the exposure of both images by either rating the film's
ISO double the normal value (for example, rating a 100 speed film at 200),
or using the exposure compensation controls to underexpose each shot one
stop so that the combined double exposure is consistent with the recommended
film sensitivity ratings. It's not so difficult, as long as you
want each of the two image components to have equal weight.
However, there will be many cases where you want one image to have predominance
over the other, in effect to be the focus of the picture, with the secondary
image acting as a background. In that case, it is better to favor the
main image on which you wish to concentrate by underexposing only 1/2
stop, while giving the background scene 11/2 stops less light. (For example,
to make the picture of the mannequin's face stand out clearly from
the cathedral background in a double exposure, give the face closer to
normal exposure while underrating the cathedral a stop more to keep the
background from bleeding through.)
Choose a good lighting situation where a well-lit subject is framed before
a darker background, and it will stand out well when double exposed with
a flat-lit background image, and it won't need as much exposure
compensation. On the other hand, lots of bright sky will bleach out everything
else it's blended with, no matter how much you compensate. With
a little experimentation (and you can try bracketing combinations to test
this), you will find what works best for you.
Here's where the creative part comes in, and where the familiar
concept of "previsualization" works wonders for you. Before
beginning your combination shot, decide if one image should ride above
the other and then expose it accordingly by giving it more exposure. But
don't forget that the total exposure must still fall within the
normal film speed guidelines for a correctly exposed single exposure!
Once this concept becomes second nature to you, you're ready for
Generally, I'll shoot my foreground image first, and then go looking
for a context shot to complement it. A blend of sharp image and soft texture,
of geometric and organic forms, or stillness and frenzied motion, can
result in some very interesting and exciting visual collages. Of course,
rules are made to be broken, and in photography some of the best and most
striking pictures happen this way. Keep yourself open to the possibilities,
and maybe the accidental masterpiece will reveal itself.
Many of today's cameras incorporate multi-exposure functions allowing
for proper alignment, precluding the need on older cameras to disable
the advance mechanism. (If you're still shooting one of these antiques,
first you need to tighten the film advance lever until it's taut,
then depress the rewind release button on the camera bottom, and cock
the film winder while holding this button down.) As for exposure, you
can, of course, choose to overate your film by one stop for double exposures,
and shoot either in speed or aperture priority, or totally manual. I prefer
the flexibility of shooting in aperture priority mode while using the
exposure compensation dial (like on my Canon EOS 2A and featured on most
recent cameras), and adjusting my exposure ratio according to the lighting/subject
It's entirely up to you, and that's a small miracle in this
day of computerized automation! Don't forget, you are not just limited
to double exposing. With the modern multi-exposure devices you can take
triple and multiple exposures to your heart's content, without worrying
about frame registration. But remember that you must compensate accordingly,
because the density of the image builds with each additional exposure,
and that film's ISO is fixed and unforgiving.
Personally, I have been experimenting with in camera double exposures
for years, not because I couldn't remember to wind the film, but
because it was closer to my "normal" way of seeing things.
Due to an eye muscle problem, I had been plagued since childhood with
double vision. I saw two of everything! As a youth playing baseball, I
remember being beamed too many times trying to catch fly balls, or swinging
at the wrong ball while batting. I was nearly always last to be picked
for a team.
I guess either I'm a slow learner or a masochist, but one day, after
40 odd years, I got brave and finally decided to undergo corrective surgery.
Then suddenly, I realized that if this operation were successful, I was
going to lose my way of seeing. Two weeks before I was to go under the
knife, I rushed out to preserve this endangered double vision while it
was still "native" to me. I went on a mission to New York
City to shoot nothing but double images, as a memorial to my multiplex
visual perception. The Big Apple was the perfect subject, and the resulting
harvest of images became sort of a visual collage to my future past. In
those double images I documented that sense of optical bombardment and
simultaneity of visual stimulation one experiences in "the city
that never sleeps." Afterward, I was given a solo exhibition of
this work at the Kodak Photo Salon in Tokyo. It was titled, "New
Today, when I'm shooting a camera, unlike baseball, I no longer
have to worry about which is the real target and which is the ghost image,
and my double vision days are history now. But I still recall how things
looked in multiplex, and can't help but wonder if that isn't
the way our minds store images, like a visual stew, all mixed together.
And once in a while, when I get tired of another properly exposed and
predictable "perfect" image, I'll go out and bang off
a few double exposures, just for old time's sake.