Photos & Projects

Shooting Textured Double-Exposures with the Hasselblad XPAN – By Benoît Felten

March 10, 2020

Ever since I got into photography a little over 10 years ago, I’ve been fascinated with textures and patterns. While they don’t represent anything per se (at least most of the time), there’s something that draws me into these near abstract shots, but I’ve never quite managed to express it in my photography. It remained a peripheral interest of mine as a consequence.

Ever since I got into film seriously, a little over 5 years ago, I’ve been fascinated by double exposures. The idea that you could create a piece of art from the semi-random concatenation of two pictures delighted me, but I had no idea how to go about it. I remember spending quite some time scrutinizing double exposure shots to try and fathom the process.

These days most people fake double exposure in Photoshop. The result is often sleek, but rarely organic. It never satisfied me, and not only because I’m not good enough at Photoshop to do it anyway.

In the old days of analog experimentation, double exposure was done in one of two ways:

– Many cameras allowed you to stop the film from advancing and shoot a second frame over the first. This had the benefit of ensuring that the two frames were aligned, but from a process standpoint it meant that you’d have to shoot two things that weren’t too far apart (or be willing to wait hours with a roll of film in your camera you couldn’t shoot anything with apart from the second exposure you wanted).

– People swapped film for fun, one shooting an entire roll, and another one shooting over that entire roll. The unpredictability of it meant that you sometimes got some really magical juxtapositions, but aligning the frames was hit and miss, resulting in a lot of unusable shots.

From a process point of view I was a lot more attracted by the second approach, especially since I intuited that shooting textures then portraits could really deliver something interesting. But the idea of risking having most of your frames unaligned and wasted was unbearable. I have too much emotional attachment to what I shoot.

As an aside, it may be interesting to explicit how double exposures work. It’s all down to how photographic film (or slide) works: essentially, where there are highlights in your frame, the chemicals react and imprint the highlights. Where there are deep shadows, they react very little or none at all. This means that when you shoot the first picture, areas that are bright will imprint, areas which are dark will not. Which means that when you shoot for a second time on the same frame, those dark areas will function like they would for a normal exposure. Finally, if you blow your highlights entirely, on either exposures, that particular area of the frame will no longer imprint anything from either exposures.

So about about a year ago I had an epiphany. My main film camera for the last few years has been a Fuji TX2, available in Europe under the Hassleblad brand as the better known XPAN2. It’s a rangefinder camera designed to shoot panoramic shots (65×24). In order to let you know how many shots you have left in your roll, the XPAN winds all of the film into the camera before you start shooting and then slowly winds it back into the canister as you shoot. Which means that the starting point for each roll is the same. I realised that this would pretty much guarantee that the frames were aligned.

Fuji TX2 + Ilford Pan F / Model : Daniel

This was the moment where my love of texture and my love of double exposure would come together. I shot a couple of rolls of flora textures in Victoria Park in Hong Kong near where I live, and over the summer I took advantage of a gathering of friends to do a first test shoot. I wanted bare skin so that the textures of clothes would not clash with the flora textures. I was shooting in natural light with a white sheet as a background for separation.

Fuji TX2 + Agfa Scala 200 / Model: Olivier

I learned a few things from this first shoot:

– The choice of film was a key factor in the output. The Agfa Scala 200 roll was dark and did not have much separation with the background (the white came out gray). It could have been because the roll was expired, but also possibly because of the limited dynamic range of the slide. The Ilford Pan F worked much more as I expected it to although some of the textures were blurry due to the low ISO on the film.

– Working with natural light didn’t give me much control of the lighting, and I generally had limited shadows in the shots. That means that texture was generally light on the skin and heavy in the hair and occasional shadow areas.

I dubbed this project Human Nature. For the second session, I asked some Brussels based friends who weren’t shy of nudity to come with me for a marathon studio session. I used Ilford FP4+ to minimise grain but hopefully have all my texture shots sharp. I also shot one roll of Kodak Portra 160 and two rolls of Dubble Jelly 200, in order to experiment with colour film.

Fuji TX2 + Ilford FP4+ / Model: Lara

That second session yielded a lot of great results. For a start, with control over the lighting I was able not only to blow my background, but also to contrast the lit areas of portraits and the shadow areas. This allowed me to bring in a lot more apparent texture than in the first series.

Fuji TX2 + Ilford FP4+ / Model: Jelle

This second session also taught me a few important things about the process:

– While I like (and embrace) the randomness of the process (you never know exactly which texture will show up, some textures clearly don’t work, at least not generically. Very small leaves look like insect swarms which makes for very creepy portraits, like the face is eaten by the texture. Fine if that’s what you’re after but aesthetically iffy. Long leaves are directional (by definition). Sometimes the wrong direction works, sometimes it doesn’t. Large leaves are more hit and miss and would benefit from being shot from further away, although that’s not always possible.

– With control of the light the prevalence of the texture in the shadows is very strong, and while I avoided backlit shots, sometimes you lose too much detail. With back shots especially, I like the idea of still being able to distinguish muscles and other features of the body.

– The colour shots are hit and miss. I’d focused on colourful textures (flowers, mostly), and when they came through they were quite stunning, but most of the colour shots weren’t so good. The Portra worked a lot more consistently than the Dubble, probably because Dubble is already double exposed, causing some image and colour degradation in the process. Incidentally, both rolls of Dubble also had misaligned frames. Not by much, but still. I suspect it’s down to the sturdiness of the film material itself.

Fuji TX2 + Kodak Portra 160 / Model: Ollie

This is a work in progress. I hope it will attract interest at some point maybe to exhibit or do a book or both, but in the meantime I’m starting to plan the next wave of studio sessions. Here are some of the things I intend to try:

– I want to be more consistent in shooting similar types of textures so that while I still won’t know exactly how the double exposure plays out, I will be able to anticipate obvious mismatches that simply will not work. My process for both sessions was to shoot 1/3 or half a roll with the same model and then move on to the next model. Next time I want to have the models rotating much faster so that I do a series of contrasted round leaves, then a series of long leaves, then a series of barks, etc.

– I want to start experimenting with different textures. A couple spring to mind: for colour, I’d like to see how street art and skin work together. For black and white, while I love the organic textures of nature I also want to look into concrete and scrapers for something maybe a bit darker in tone. You can see an example of that here that shows some promise.

– Longer term, I’m seriously considering doing these as large format photography. I’ve never done large format, so there’d be a learning curve for sure, but at least the frame superimposition issue would be solved anyway.

Fuji TX2 + Rollei RPX 100 / Model: Lilly

Double exposure on film is nothing new, but digging into the history of it I’ve struggled to find consistent bodies of work. Harry Callahan has done some really interesting stuff using branches and treescapes rather than leaves. Similarly, Finnish artist Christoffer Relander did a landmark series of landscapes in a jar that was film double exposure (he also does digital double exposures with flora textures, although the final result looks very different to my eyes). I plan to do more digging into the history of the process to understand how it may have been used previously.

So anyway, expect to see more in this field from me in the coming months!

If you’re interested in my photography, please follow me on Instagram: @benfelten

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Terry B
    March 10, 2020 at 10:34 am

    A truly wonderful application, technique, and great images. A lot of image manipulation, be it film or digital, by way of double exposure, doesn’t do much for me, as I often find the resultant images lack any true thought as to the outcome. They shout “look, I’m a double exposure!” And my response is most often “so what”. But I find all your images, bar one (sorry) are fascinating, and your comment about why you find some succeed and others don’t, adds context.
    The one image that doesn’t “gel” for me is the final one. Whereas there is a synergy with the subjects and overlays of the others, for me there is an incongruity with the starkness of the building structures on the woman’s face. Each to his own, though.

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 10, 2020 at 10:57 am

      Thanks Terry. I have the same frustration you have with double exposure although now that I know what to look for I have found some work conceptually similar to mine on Instagram.

      And as for the picture you don’t like, I mostly agree with you. This is a new area of investigation, it was the very first attempt, and it’s not there yet. That shot tells me it’s worth exploring and investigating further, but that’s really it.

  • Reply
    Khurt Williams
    March 10, 2020 at 10:54 am

    Did you try this technique with black skin?

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 10, 2020 at 11:12 am

      Hey Khurt, thanks for the interest. The model on the very first shot is black but with relatively light skin. I would love to find a darker skinned model to look at how different the outcome is, but I haven’t had a chance yet.

  • Reply
    Louis Sousa
    March 10, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    Brilliant.

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 10, 2020 at 2:26 pm

      Thanks Louis !

  • Reply
    Rock
    March 10, 2020 at 1:05 pm

    Really like these, very creative. My favourite of this lot is Lara with coleus leaves. Keep at it please! Will definitely follow on Instagram and look forward to any future posts to 35mmc you may do.

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 10, 2020 at 2:27 pm

      Thanks Rock! Plenty more on my website http://www.benoitfelten.com (click on double exposures on the right) or on instagram. I have to confess that these particular leaves are one of my favourite textures.

  • Reply
    Daniel Sigg
    March 10, 2020 at 1:51 pm

    Benoit, very nicely done and explained. I have seen some of your double-exposure work on Instagram, so it’s nice to see your post here. I find in particular the shot with Lara very compelling, maybe because of the “blown” background. Thanks for sharing your process and inspiring work. Cheers, Daniel

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 10, 2020 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks Daniel. I have just shot two more sessions (7 rolls) these last few days. I’m experimenting with new approaches on dark background, will see how they come out.

  • Reply
    Mike Hannon
    March 10, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    Very nice examples of double exposure and thanks for explaining your technique. Could you say a little more about how you meter for exposures 1 and 2?

    Incidentally, AFAIK Canon EOS cameras (and probably also many of their point and shoots, I guess) electronically align the frames in the same position every time. Some have custom functions to leave the film leader out after rewind (or you can use a film retriever) so it should be easy to do this technique on 35mm.

    Btw, I like the urban pic 🙂

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 10, 2020 at 2:29 pm

      The usual approach is to shoot the texture at -1 IL and the portrait at nominal. I haven’t varied too much from that (apart from mistakes when the damn XPAN stays on manual ISO and I didn’t notice 😉 )

      If what you say on the EOS cameras is correct I need to try that too. I have an EOS 5 (A2) !!!

  • Reply
    Matthias
    March 10, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    Stunning…the two frames with the standing female models for me are some of the most beautiful double-exposures I’ve ever seen.

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 10, 2020 at 3:15 pm

      Thanks Matthias, that means a lot to me. I don’t know how to blush online, but I’m blushing. And FWIW the second standing shot is a man 😉 But very beautiful nonetheless. You’re not the first to have been confused !

  • Reply
    vicvl
    March 10, 2020 at 3:49 pm

    Fantastic! The last 3 photos are my favorites, excellent work!

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 11, 2020 at 1:58 am

      Thanks Vic!

  • Reply
    Graham Orbell
    March 10, 2020 at 6:58 pm

    Nice work Sammael. I particularly like the 2 model shots with Lara and Jelle. I never tried double exposures when I owned an X-Pan but I had experimented in the past with other cameras. My Rolleicord Vb has a switch on the front to simply enable double exposure. With old Minolta and Asahi Pentax cameras (and many others) It is possible to take the first exposure then gently take up slack film in the cassette using the rewind crank before pressing the rewind button while winding on. This cocks the shutter keeping the film in the same place. When I was 10, I had fun with my Brownie Model E, putting black tape over slightly more than half the lens opening and taking 2 different portraits of the same person on 1 frame. The second one by placing the tape on the other side of the lens and moving the subject to the other side of the viewfinder without moving the camera. That worked surprisingly well.
    With my Rolleicord or my Linhof 4X5 I experimented with night lights using a tripod to take one exposure before it was completely dark and the second exposure on the same frame without moving the camera once the city lights were on.
    I look forward to seeing more of your work.

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 11, 2020 at 1:59 am

      Thanks Graham. I’ve dabbled with “one shot then the next” concepts as well, but with limited success so far, and there’s still so much to explore in this vein that I decided to focus on what works for me. That said I’m seriously considering approaching this with large format. That’s one of the next steps 😉

  • Reply
    Marc Wick
    March 10, 2020 at 10:26 pm

    What a great idea Benoît!! Really beautiful, dreamy and funny photos! Very inspiring!

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 11, 2020 at 2:00 am

      Thanks Marc!

  • Reply
    Aivaras
    March 11, 2020 at 7:12 am

    Really really impressive!

  • Reply
    Julian Higgs
    March 11, 2020 at 8:57 am

    Beautiful work Benoît. I particularly like the header image and the next portrait of the model with his arms above. Just lovely. I’ve played with double exposure digitally and had a few happy mistakes in the past but this is quite inspiring me to try again with film as well. Perhaps using a vintage medium format for ease of doing double exposure? The idea of using a white background to isolate is a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 12, 2020 at 12:12 am

      “Lightbulb moment” indeed 😉 This could work great with MF if you find a way to ensure the frame alignments.

  • Reply
    Alex
    March 11, 2020 at 9:52 am

    Beautiful images full of emotions. They are telling me beautiful stories.
    Happy shooting!

  • Reply
    Alex
    March 12, 2020 at 3:39 am

    These are some of the best shots I’ve ever seen, film or digital. I’ve been playing around with doubles myself and have been experimenting with textures and people as well. Your results are a hell of a lot more impressive, bravo! Do you underexpose the texture and then overexpose the person? Are they backlit for these shots?

    • Reply
      Sammael99
      March 12, 2020 at 5:46 am

      Thanks Alex! As I mentioned above in the comments, I usually underexpose the texture by 1 stop and shoot the portrait at nominal. There is no backlighting per se, but I try and blow the white background which can create some spill light.

  • Reply
    Chris Pattison
    March 17, 2020 at 2:19 pm

    Brilliant work!

  • Reply
    About the value of my (and your?) photography - By Benoît Felten - 35mmc
    July 21, 2020 at 10:18 am

    […] really great and I knew I was on a path that was if not unique, at least not well trodden. I wrote a couple of articles here about this, and I think this ticks all three boxes of feeling universal (we can all relate to […]

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