How to Shoot a Double Exposure on Film


There is something so dreamy and tactile about a double exposure captured in camera that a digital image can never really recreate.

A double exposure is just like it sounds: two separate images captured on the same frame of film. Though impressive (and let's be honest, sometimes intimidating) these overlain dreamboats aren't all that difficult. In fact, everyone should give them a try.

Today, we're demystifying the process with film photographer Brian D. Smith, who captured Belle Lumière's Summer 2019 Emerging Film Photographer with this beautiful image below. Read on to learn how Brian created this showstopper: 

A double exposure of a woman against a floral backdrop by Brian D Smith film photographer.
Brian D. Smith | Kodak Portra160 | Each shot of the double exposure was rated at 320 ISO (e.g. -1 stop under). Processed normal. | Nikon FM3A | Frontier SP3000 | With @hayleemichalski_ @kodakprofessional. | Winner of Belle Lumière's Summer 2019 Emerging Film Photographer.

Underexpose Each Shot by -1 Stop

"I almost always rate my film at box speed, but when doing double exposures, I take two separate images rated -1 stop underexposed each. So, when shooting Kodak Portra160 like I did here, I rated each shot at 320 ISO."

Seek out Contrast

"It is important to have a difference in exposure or contrast between the two images you’re overlaying, without having too extreme of a difference in texture, so the subject doesn't get completely lost.

"Here, I positioned the model in front of the backdrop, where there was about -1 stop less light hitting the backdrop. This, combined with her brighter, more reflective skin, created an even greater separation and ensured she wouldn't get lost in the resulting image.

Shoot the portrait first at -1 stop underexposed.

Be Mindful of Composition

"I always shoot the portrait first, mostly to help with framing.

"I usually take a Rule of Thirds approach, so I have a way to visualize the alignment between each frame and remember where the model is. Here, I aligned her eyes with the upper third of my focusing screen and captured the first image. 

Use the Rule of Thirds to help you compose the portrait (and help you compose your second image effectively).

Don't Advance Your Film

You may need to consult your camera manual to figure out how to stay on the same frame and not advance your film.

Which parts of the first image do you want to make sure show through in the final image? Here, Brian D. Smith aligned the model's face with an empty patch of blue on the floral background.

Find an Empty Spot (to Preserve Important Details in Your First Frame)

"Next, without advancing my film, and keeping my exposure at -1 stop under, I exposed the second of just the floral backdrop.

"I looked for an area with lots of color that still had an empty, dark blue spot where the model’s face had been in my first frame. I did this to ensure I could still see her face clearly in the final image. I aligned the empty, dark blue spot of the backdrop with the same upper third I used to align the model’s eyes and captured the second image. Then, I advanced my film. 

By using the Rule of Thirds, Brian D. Smith could easily remember where he had placed his model's face in the frame, helping him compose an effective double exposure.

Why does this image work so well?

"By capturing the first exposure against the same backdrop I used for the second exposure [though at a much closer distance], I ensured there was beautiful, overlapping texture that wasn’t too busy and confusing to the eye.

Let's Explore Another Example

Brian D. Smith | Kodak Portra160 | Each shot of the double exposure was rated at 320 ISO (e.g. -1 stop under). Processed normal. | Contax645 | Frontier SP3000 | With @hayleemichalski_ @kodakprofessional.

“This double exposure was photographed using the same process I described above, but this time on a Contax645. I still used Portra160 and still rated each image at 320 ISO (-1 stop underexposed).

"I took the portrait first in front of the same floral backdrop as above, but this time with a tighter crop on the face.

"After I snapped the portrait, I didn’t advance the film, and took the second exposure of the letter. Because the letter was an even and bright surface, I knew that it would create a matte effect over the entirety of the image, while the writing (the darker tones of the letter) would stand out against the midtones in the model's skin." 

Have you tried a double exposure? What's your favorite technique?

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