M-M-M-Multi Exposures

by ralph

If you think photography begins and ends with the single click of the camera shutter you may be missing some great picture possibilities. Furthermore if you've just plain run out of ideas or inspiration here's a way to perk up your photographic love life. We're talking multi exposures here, either several exposures while the shutter is open, or resetting the shutter to click on different subjects -- all on the same frame of film.

Not all cameras make multiple exposures easy, so lets start by considering what we can do with a simple "shutter open" situation. In nearly all cameras that means using "B", and since you don't want to be confined to holding your finger on the button, make sure you get one of those locking cable releases, an absolute must which can cost as little as $4. (Really old cameras and modern view cameras also have a "T" setting which means the first click opens the shutter and the second closes it so the lock up on the cable release isn't needed.) A word of caution about "B". Many cameras made in the last 20 years have a spring loaded second curtain which is held open by an electromagnet -- the speed you set tells it when to "let go". That means if the shutter is open for a long time it keeps drawing current and just a few long exposures might kill the battery. The cameras manual probably wont own up to this situation so be sure to keep a spare handy. And of course use of a tripod is mandatory for most of these shots.

So here's an easy one. Ever do a night shot where you get those neat streaks of light from passing traffic. How about lengthening the exposure by using a small aperture (stop) and waving your hand up and down in front of the lens to interrupt the exposure. That turns those streaks into a string of short dashes -- a neat special effect. Also when doing night shots, sometimes you would like to put an interesting foreground like a fountain or sculpture, in a city shot but alas, it's in the dark. The solution is to again lengthen the exposure and pop a flash at the foreground. You can either connect it to the camera with the usual PC cord or, if the exposure is long enough you can open the shutter, pop the flash manually, then close the shutter. That way you are free to move in closer or to the side for better effect. While you're at it, if the flash is inadequate to cover the distance you can fire two pops -- that gives the light a 40% greater range. Better still, when popping a flash on the foreground there's no reason you can't put a colored gel on the flash to add a color or two

. Open multi flash is a simple and powerful technique. When I recently arrived in Chattanooga I found that the "Chattanooga Choo Choo" was the signature shot. Alas the shiny, brightly colored and plated locomotive stood in a dark corner of a railyard forever shaded from the sun. The solution was to wait till deep twilight and then use flash. The size was intimidating, maybe 40 or 50 feet long, rather a lot to light with a portable Sunpak 555. I used a wide angle lens (28mm) at about f5.6 and figured I might get enough light if I made multiple pops walking along the great engine at an average distance of 20 ft. Bracketing heavily I gave the subject from 3 to 14 pops on successive frames, overlapping more with the greater number of pops. I expected dismal underexposures but the result was amazing -- mostly too light and blown away to be used but the one with a mere three pops was perfect. It looked like it was taken in bright sunshine. Even the twilight sky gathered enough exposure to look like midday.

Many more possibilities open up if you can reset (recock) the shutter for multi-exposures, without moving the film in the frame. Many newer cameras have a button or lever (see your manual) that enables this for either a fixed or unlimited number of exposures. You'll probably have to hit the button before the first exposure or the winder will just whi
the frame away before your project is done. One of the simplest tricks is one of the oldest. If you were to firmly screw down your camera on a tripod and shoot a static scene (interior or whatever) and then reshoot the same frame in the same position with a friend in the scene, the friend will appear transparent and ghostlike since the first exposure will appear to be shining through them. The rest of the scene will seem "normal" since the two exposures should register seamlessly (as long as your big feet didn't hit the tripod.)

In the late 1800's there was a fad for "ghost" pictures when photographers caught on to the idea before the public got wise. The naïve assumption that "The camera doesn't lie" really took a beating that time. You can vary the transparency of the "ghost" just by juggling the mix of the two exposures, and create otherworldly effects with harsh, uneven light on the ghost. Always remember that if the first exposure were a full, normal exposure any more would create an overexposure so you have to give each image a fractional exposure. A rule of thumb for automatic cameras is to multiply the ISO speed by the projected number of exposures and use that in the camera ( i.e. set an ISO 100 film at 400 for a four shot multi).

A fun application of multi-exposure that breaks loose from a fixed position is to walk around a city at night to create a "light impression" by shooting neon signs and various lights spread around the frame in a wild pattern. The exposures don't have to be reduced because most images will fall on previously unexposed parts of the film. It's best to attempt to impose some order or composition by copying the approximate position of each sign in a sketch of the growing image.

Quite often I've taken a nightview of a city by starting right around sunset. The sky might be gorgeous but the city lights are still invisible. After a while the lights become "brighter" (as the exposure is increased) but the glory of the sunset fades away. Can you have it all?? Sure, just take your best guess exposure of the sunset (read directly at the sky when the sun is gone), reset the shutter without disturbing the frame, wait till the sky is almost dead black (in about 35 minutes) then give a much longer exposure to register all the city lights. Typically the exposures (for 100 ISO film) are about F5.6 at 1/15 or 1/8 for the sunset and F5.6 at 4 to 8 sec in full night. Of course it's a bit chancy since you only have one bite at the picture per evening but if you get it right the results can be quite spectacular.

Once I had to shoot a very large interior, lit with several flash units, and have the light come close to matching a sunlit exterior, visible through very large windows. The lens was slow (about f 8) and the numbers couldn't quite make it. I couldn't get the interior bright enough when the outside looked right. The solution was to switch to the next higher shutter speed, tighten down everything on the camera to prevent movement and shoot twice. Two exposures at the higher speed still added up to a correct exposure for the exterior, but since the short flash is unaffected by the shutter speed the flash illumination was effectively doubled. (This only works up to the maximum flash speed.)

Some 35mm cameras from the 70s and 80s don't seem to provide a way to make multiple exposures, but still many can be tricked into it. First take your No.1 exposure with whatever exposure compensation you may need. Don't wind the film just yet. You're going to hold the bottom rewind button in first so that the driving sprocket doesn't move the frame out as you also wind the shutter. Unfortunatly, in many cameras the takeup spool still turns by friction drive and may still drag the exposed film out of place. So, to hold the film in place, the first thing you want to do after making the exposure is to turn the rewind knob until the film is too tight to be pulled by the friction driven takeup. Got That ? One finger pus
hes th
e rewind button, another holds the rewind knob tight and a third slowly flips the wind knob. Try it out on your camera before committing to a major shot. Oh yes, you have to do that after each exposure.

Many of the above effects can also be done in the darkroom, such as creating a pattern of neon lights by exposing one at a time onto a copy film, and then there are those neat B&W montages that Jerry Uelsman makes from several enlargers, but ---- that's another story.