Years ago, my friend Noele Lusano gave me an idea: shoot your way twice through the same roll of film, forget about recording any details about the frames, and let synchronicity dictate how the exposures mesh together. The original plan was to share the roll, with her shooting one pass through and me shooting the other. Long story short, we ended up living on opposite coasts, so the idea never materialized. But earlier this year, I finally got around to putting her idea into practice on my own.
As it happened, the first pass was shot in Winter, and the second in Spring (both in Cambridge, MA). So in the second go-round I decided to emphasize inter-seasonal contrasts — and the contrasts there are intense — by focusing my attention on the new flower blooms. The results were sometimes serendipitous:
Nothing about the alignment of the snow-laden tree branch with the flower blooms in the above image was planned, by the way — it’s a testament to the kinds of synchronicity that can result from this process.
I thought I’d continue by sharing the rest of the results of this experiment here, interspersed with tips for those interested in trying it out.
Figure and Ground
One thing I‘ve often noticed with this technique is that the layering of the two images can make for a very busy final composition; the exposures vie with each other for attention, rather than blend harmoniously together. I wanted to avoid that, and instead strategize my shots to create balanced figure-ground relationships within the scenes. So for the first exposure cycle I tended to look for relatively featureless patterns to serve as negative space, and for the second go-round, scenes with stronger figures in them for positive space. The subdued, regular patterns I generally captured for backgrounds allowed for the irregular, bold outlines of the blooms and other figures to emerge more clearly.
For best results you‘ll want to underexpose every shot by 1 stop, both times through. Because every stop down in the camera amounts to a halving of the light that falls on the film, two -1 EV shots together add up to a single correctly exposed image.
Transparency and opacity
Another important consideration: images should have some dark values on the first pass. Dark areas in a scene render onto a film negative as more or less unexposed and therefore transparent, and those transparencies allow for the light from your second scene to be recorded on the film.
Aligning the frames (or not)
I thought it important to align the exposures on both passes; you may or may not care to. For me, the worst case scenario would have been to have a dark frame border running down the middle of each shot (another thing you often see as a result of this process, which isn‘t compositionally optimal). So for reference, when loading the film I etched a little mark on it where it aligned with a certain part of the camera’s interior — the point being to load the film the second time around in as close a mimicry of the first time as possible, in hopes of having the exposures fall exactly in line with each other. Looks like I was nevertheless off by about one sprocket hole on these, but I’m okay with how it turned out — what defines a “mistake” with these is pretty subjective.
If the alignment of the two exposures is off at all, as with my experiment, you‘ll find you have more than the usual amount of compositional leeway with the final crop of your images. Where the scene begins and ends is up to you, and you may decide (like I did) to include an interwoven section of an adjacent frame if it suits the image.
Getting the film developed and scanned
If you plan to drop your film off for development, you should know that most commercial film developers will cut your negatives into short strips of 5 or 6 by default. You can and probably should refuse that option. Since, as I said, there tends to be a lot of leeway in compositional decisions with misaligned exposures, you‘re better off not having a camera store employee making those decisions for you arbitrarily, and in the process potentially cutting off a desired portion of your image.
Lastly, for the exact same reasons, I’d recommend scanning the images for yourself, if possible. And on top of the compositional latitude you‘ll have, you‘ll also retain control over the color rendering. This can be important, because the choice of how to color-balance your photos — which will be composites of two scenes that likely have two very different color temperatures — is more art than science, and shouldn‘t be left up to a white-balancing algorithm. But not to dissuade you; if you’re not a control freak like me and don’t care to do your own scans, then the best guess of your local film scanning technicians may still yield good results.
The digital way (and an alternate method for film cameras)
Before wrapping up, it should be noted that similar results can be achieved digitally, via post-processing. But that process removes the chance element and, in my opinion, most of the fun as well. If you want to try it, though, here’s how to do it in Photoshop:
- “Sandwich” two images atop each other in separate layers,
- change the blending mode on the top layer to either “overlay” or “soft light,” and
- adjust the top layer’s opacity to your liking.
Also, some cameras — film and digital — allow for multiple exposures to be made sequentially in-camera, rather than on separate passes. But this again eliminates chance from the equation (and thereby drains all the spirit of Dada from your work), as you’re shooting the exposures back-to-back and will certainly remember what you captured on the previous frame. (Unless you happen to be very, very high.) I don’t have experience with the digital method, but on some film cameras, you’ll find a lever or switch that allows you to snap another exposure without advancing frames, such that two or more shots land in the same place on the film.
If you decide to try this technique, may ever-whimsical Fortune be on your side, and please leave a comment and a link to your resulting images if possible. Also, if you’d like to buy any of these prints (or any others on my site), visit my contact page and send me an email.