Carbondale’s Duff sees the light with pinhole photography

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Mark Duff displays his way old school pinhole camera in contrast with his smart phone.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |


What: Pinhole photography exhibit

Where: Saxy’s Cafe in Basalt

When: Through Aug. 6

Who: Mark Duff of Carbondale

Mark Duff didn’t get swept up in the digital photography revolution.

In fact, as cameras become more advanced in smartphones, he becomes more content with the time commitment demanded by his pinhole camera.

“This is about as far away as you can get from digital,” he said. “It’s about 1850s photography.”

Duff, a Carbondale resident and popular science teacher at Basalt High School, first became interested in pinhole photography about 18 years ago when he read about the simple contraption in Smithsonian Magazine. He credits a student’s curiosity for pushing him to dabble with camera obscura, sans lense.

The student in an independent chemistry course aimed to make his own film. While overseeing that project, Duff decided to make his own camera.

To his delight, that led to many hours of experimenting with pinhole photography and its biggest challenge — dialing in the exposure.

The pinhole camera relies on just that — a small hole on one side of a lightproof box. The box is about the size of a square tissue box. A piece of black duct tape covers the hole. Film holders are attached on the side opposite the hole.

When Duff sees something he wants to shoot, he will hold up a light meter to measure conditions, than determine the exposure time needed for his pinhole camera.

Time commitment

Framing a photo is challenging because there’s no viewfinder. He makes an educated guess on how to position the camera for the right composition. A typical picture requires about one minute of exposure and who knows how much advance thought.

He saw a hayfield in Missouri Heights that he wanted to capture. He had to wait for the cutting, and then he traveled to the field one early morning, drawing the attention of the rancher. Another time, he sat under a tree in the rain until a mountain stream landscape was bathed in just the right light.

He appreciates the effort required.

“I think that’s the anti-digital statement,” Duff said. Instead of merely pointing the smartphone at a subject and clicking off multiple images to capture the right one, he’s constrained on how many images he can take.

“As an artist, it slows you down,” he said. “As somebody who loves nature, it slows you down.”

Inspired by nature

Pinhole photography also offers the advantage of what Duff calls a “crazy depth of field” that ranges from just a couple of inches to a couple hundred feet. Something close doesn’t enjoy the focus at the expense of something far away.

He likens pinhole photography to a musician going “unplugged.”

Duff processes the film the old-fashioned way: in a dark room. The way the film comes, he has to develop six or 12 prints at a time.

“I have hundreds (of pictures), developed six at a time,” he said.

Duff uses Kodak T-max 100 black and white film. His images often have a haunting, maybe even ethereal appearance. He tends to go with outdoor shots that reflect his “love of nature.”

Some of his work is being displayed until Aug. 6 at Saxy’s Cafe in Basalt, which regularly rotates the work of local artists.

It’s all about the light

One of the shots selected by Duff is a small cemetery outside of New Castle. The black iron fence with a cross offers sharp contrast to the trippy, windblown, white clouds. The appearance of the clouds reflects the movement over one minute.

Another image is an unusual shot of moving water on Lost Man Creek. A light rain was falling, Duff said, so the grass and flowers appears covered in fog, the flowing water has an opaque presence and the sunlight glints through the dark timber.

Duff relented to the digital side for the show. He scanned his negatives and created digital prints, He used Photoshop to get ride of the dust.

“They weren’t touched up or manipulated,” he said.

Duff estimated that half of his photos just plain don’t work. Pinhole photography is “a playful thing,” he said, but it’s also touchy. So what does he like about it?

“The light and how it’s present in the environment and how I perceive it,” he said. “I think every photographer will agree, it’s the light rather then the lense.”