I love light leaks so much that they’ve become a regular part of my work, both for personal work and for paid clients.
Similar to grain, light leaks add depth, dimension, and layers to the film. The emotion of an image is ramped up every time light leaks are added.
If you want to add light leaks to your film work but have no idea where to start, I’m here to help!
For 35mm, I will cover how to do light leaks after you’ve shot your roll and which cameras allow you to do it easily while shooting a roll. I’ll also cover how to leak your 120 film.
Adding Light Leaks to 35mm Film After the Roll Has Been Shot
The vast majority of film I shoot is 35mm, so I feel most comfortable talking about light leaking that format.
The most common way I light leak my 35mm film is to run it through my camera again after I’ve shot the entire roll.
So I extract the film leader from the canister of the finished roll of film and load it back into the camera as normal (more details on extracting the film leader below!).
As I shoot through the roll, I avoid double exposure by either putting a body cap on the camera or if I have a lens on the camera, I am sure to put a cap on the lens.
I prefer to light leak the roll in a dimly lit room so as not to blow out entire frame, just add some sweeping light to the images.
About every 3-5 shots, I turn off the camera (so it won’t reset to Empty after I open it), open up the back, and quickly lift the back open a fraction of an inch, shut the back again, and turn the camera back on.
Note: manual cameras like my Nikon FE will always reset to “E” after opening up the back. My Nikon F100 will not reset if I turn off the camera before opening up the back.
I repeat this process until I get to the end of the roll. Depending on how much light was available in the room and how wide I open up the back, each leak will often affect only a couple frames, so feel free to open up the back more often if you want more frames affected.
I tend to play it a little more conservative with client work and open up wider/more often with personal.
To light leak 35mm film after you’ve shot the roll, you’ll need to extract the film leader from the canister so you can run it through your camera a second time.
And the most frequent question I get is “how do I get the film leader OUT of my canister?”
I have personally tried the contraption you can buy to extract your film and found it lacking. Not only was it hit or miss, but it broke after about a dozen uses. Womp womp.
That’s when I decided to find a DIY way to get those pesky leaders back out of the containers.
The way I use is to take an extra strip of film and wet the emulsion side (I usually lick my finger and smear it all over the film.)
I then stick the filmstrip into the canister, wind the top to tighten the inner roll, and after the extra strip catches I wind a little further.
Next, I grab the part of the extra strip of film and quickly rip it out of the canister, often taking with it the inner film’s leader.
It’s not uncommon to have to do this more than once to get the inner film out, BUT if it just doesn’t seem to work there is a trick I have used that is no-fail.
No-Fail (but annoying) Way to Extract Film
To get those impossibly tricky leaders out, I take a piece of double-sided tape and stick it on the emulsion side of the extra strip of film and then work the above steps as normal.
The problem is that it’s much harder to get the extra strip into the canister and when ripping it out I’ve had the inner roll come out so far that it’s ruined the first few frames.
So although it’s no-fail, it’s not my preferred method, and I only use it on really difficult rolls.
Light Leaking Your Film While Shooting
I don’t often think of leaking the roll while I’m shooting, especially during a client session where I’m focused on the moments in front of me. But if you’re inclined to leak while you shoot because you want more control over which particular frames get leaked, feel free to light leak as you shoot.
In this case you don’t have to worry about extracting your film from the canister, but I do recommend having a camera that is electronic and won’t indicate “Empty” after you open up the back.
Also, make sure you turn off your camera before opening up the back or else your camera will act as if it’s taking up a new roll of film and a few frames will be wasted.
As I said, I don’t shoot a lot of 120 film and I’ve only light leaked it once, but it totally worked!
After I shot the roll of film and took it out of the camera, I loosened the roll a little and sort of squished it around so that light would enter in through the sides. I didn’t tape it up until after I was done “squishing” it.
The amount of leaking will vary depend on how wide you open the back and how much light is available.
But even if you do your leaking the same way every time, the leaks will turn out totally different. That’s the fun of them!
So get out there and experiment. And as always, drop any questions below.