One of the things digital photography has largely eliminated from the photographer’s repertoire of techniques is the double exposure. Now, obviously, any images can be superimposed on each other later in post processing but that’s not the same thing as a real double exposure on a roll of film. In Photoshop (or whatever tool) you are able to see the two images before you blend them, choose exactly which images to blend, and you can position them exactly and fine tune the appearance of the blended image in any number of ways. This is all perfectly acceptable and I’m not knocking it in anyway, but it’s essentially editing, not photography.
With film on the other hand, you have no idea what either image looks like individually, and the superimposition can only be judged by your mental record of the first image. Of course most double exposures are unintentional – caused by camera malfunctions, or user error – and most camera manufacturers tried hard to prevent them. Almost every 35mm camera I’ve ever used cocks the shutter only after the film has advanced a frame to prevent absent minded shooters continually ruining shots by multiple exposure.
There are often ways around it though, and my Canon A-1 for example has a small lever under the film advance that allows you to cock the shutter without winding on the film so that you can take as many exposures as you like on a single frame. Mostly I’ve only ever used it accidentally, when fumbling with cold fingers and the results are sometimes interesting, but usually not as interesting as the individual frames would have been had they come out separately.
My biggest double exposure accident occurred when I loaded a film that it turned out I’d already shot, ten years previously. I had apparently left the leader hanging out of the cassette to make it easier to load into a developing tank, but never gotten around to the development. As a result I had a whole roll of double exposures, some of which contained interesting superimpositions. I put the best up in a set on flickr.
More recently I’ve been thinking about visualisation in the sense Ansel Adams used, and ways to practise and enhance my use of that sort of technique, and it occurred to me while wandering around a familiar location that using double exposures may provide an opportunity. If you visualise a final image that can only be created by a double exposure, then you need to have a good recall of the first image and how it will fit with the second even as you’re framing the second in the viewfinder. Maybe I’m over-thinking here, but it seems like a good exercise to me, and also provides a way to try something new with familiar subjects.
With all that in mind I tried it on the Hursley Cemetery angel. I had the idea of the shot in my mind – a ghostly angel figure appearing out of the surrounding foliage – a bit of a cliche, perhaps, but a good exercise. The end result is okay – I feel I got the framing about right, and the way the feet and pedestal of the statue have faded out works well. However I think it might have worked more effectively in summer when the sky areas, particularly behind the statue, are filled in with leaves. This is something I missed when thinking about the shot at the time, so worth remembering for next time. Consider which areas are going to overlap carefully; if the contrast between overlapping areas is too high then the bright tones will obviously dominate the shadow areas, so where is that acceptable and where isn’t it?