As film shooters, we all know the rules are meant to be broken.
One of my favorite rules to break is creating double (or triple or quadruple) exposures. Creating double exposures is an iconic technique that film is known for. Those reflective images that are just blurry enough to feel like a bunch of memories rolled into one make my artistic heart oh-so happy.
If you haven’t tried doing blind double exposures (also called twice exposed), it is a really fun and easy creative technique to try.
Blind doubles in film photography is the process of shooting an entire roll of film, and then loading that same roll of film back into the camera to shoot it again. This creates a roll of double exposures, but you don’t know what two images will be paired together on each frame.
Equipment Needed for Blind Doubles
I recommend having a dedicated 35mm film camera just for double exposures. This allows you to take your time exposing the roll and carefully selecting the subject matter over a long period of time.
This also keeps you from needing to use this camera for other work and won’t cause you to rush through a roll.
The easiest cameras to use are ones that you can advance manually and have the ability to do double exposures (obviously). Check the user manual if you don’t know if your camera has that capability.
Most camera user manuals can be found online after a quick Google search. I suggest a Canon AE-1, Nikon FG, or a camera similar to those.
Now close the film back as you normally would and advance to the first frame.
TIP: set the camera ISO and/or your light meter’s ISO to twice the film’s stock speed. For example, with Kodak Portra 400, you rate it at an exposure index of ISO 800.
This is because you will be exposing the roll twice. Exposing twice at an ISO of 800 is the same equivalent exposure as exposing once at an ISO of 400. This is not necessary though. You can keep the ISO at box speed if you want. That is what I always do.
Tips for Shooting the First Time Around
Now that we are past the technical, let’s get to the fun part!
Shoot your secondary subject first. The secondary subject is not the primary focus of your image. Items that have a lot of texture, like flowers or plants, make great secondary subjects.
There is no right or wrong way to do this. Let your creativity be your guide. You can be very calculated about your exposure and subject matter or completely careless and spontaneous. I love shooting the roll full of the same secondary subject like flowers, plants, clouds, or architecture.
I like to shoot once over to give texture and positive/negative space to the subject, and then the second time over I shoot people, usually myself.
Don’t forget the rules of double exposures here. Remember, if an image has a lot of negative space (like a really light sky) the first image will not show up there at all. But if the negative space is dark (like a dark wall) then the first image will show up really well there.
Clear as mud? Great. Here are some examples to help you visualize the process.
Rewinding the Film. This is Important, My Friend.
Rewind the film slowly. Most 35mm film cameras have a tendency to rewind the film all the way into the canister when you rewind the film after completion.
You’ll feel resistance as you are rewinding and then all of a sudden there will be less resistance and you’ll hear a ‘slap.’ This is the sound of the film leader slapping the inside of the camera backplate.
As soon as you hear this, STOP REWINDING. This will ensure the film lead is still visible that way you can load it up again!
Don’t panic if you screw this up. You can use a piece of unneeded negative and double-stick tape to pull the leader out of the canister, or a film leader retriever.
The Second Exposure
Let’s do the whole thing again.
Now it’s time to pick your primary subject for the second go around. I have been mainly using this technique with self-portraiture, so my primary subject is typically me, lol. I like to stockpile rolls of labeled 35mm film once exposed and decide what to do with it later.
1. Load the Film
Time to load the film again. Insert the film as you did the first time.
The goal is to get the sharpie marking on the lead to match up with the edge of the canister as before. It’s not the end of the world if it isn’t perfect, and you can see what happens when it’s not in the troubleshooting section.
The best way to do it is to pull a little extra out of the canister, get the advance lever set, and then rewind in the extra.
If you can’t get it to match up close, pull the lead out of the advance real and try again. Keep trying with the takeup spool rotated to different positions until you get it close.
2. Tighten the Film
Crank in the excess until the film is taught and the marking matches up with the felt edge of the canister. If it doesn’t, try again!
3. Close the Film Back
Now, close the back of the camera and advance to the first frame, and you are ready to go!
Again, set the camera ISO to 800 (or twice the film stock ISO rating) and/or the same with your external light meter.
Tips for Exposing the Roll the Second Time
Remember to be intentional with the background when shooting the roll the second time. If the background is dark, then the first image will show up a lot. If the background is really light, less or nothing will show up.
Here are some examples of wanting the first image to really show up. I used a black backdrop and floor when shooting the roll the second time. I wore white against that black background so that most of me would show up in the image.
If you would like things to be more soft and even, I suggest a grey background.
Nothing says you have to do primary subject second, but this is just the way I like to do things. I find it more freeing. Either way works equally well.
If you only have a self-advancing camera (like a Canon AE-1 or Nikon F100) the same loading techniques apply.
I primarily use my Nikon F100 for self-portrait blind double exposures. The leader can’t be programmed to be left out after rewinding, so I have to fish it out each and every damn time. But it’s worth it!
What Does a Misaligned 35mm Double Exposure Roll Look Like?
Don’t worry if you can’t perfectly align your Sharpie mark the second go around. The process will still work. You will just end up with a small black bar, where the scanned negative area was only exposed once because the first and second go-around frames didn’t perfectly overlap.
This sometimes can be a happy accident or an intentional artistic call.
If you can align the image perfectly, you’ll get an even overlap of both the primary and secondary images, and you won’t have the black bar across your negatives or scans.
Either way, your images will look so cool.
I hope this tutorial helps you dive into blind double exposures. It is a really freeing technique to push your creativity and create some really cool images.
Thank you so much, Alison! You can learn more about Alison and her work on her website and Instagram.
Leave your questions about how to shoot film photography blind doubles below in the comments!