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Peter Hemming: A Dozen Photos and the Stories Behind Each One

Autumn Aspens. Obviously, angle is everything here, and Peter chose this angle not only to put the golden light of the late afternoon sun to work for him, but also because it was just about his only choice. "This is in the High Sierras of California, in a very dark canyon, so there were not a lot of possibilities," Peter says. Although sunlight was doing most of the illumination work, he used his SB-800 Speedlight to highlight the golden leaves of the aspens "to give a little sparkle to the setting." He considers those golden leaves "the stars of the show."

You can make the case that every picture in fact tells two stories: first there's the story the picture conveys—could be a sports story or a nature story, a news story or the story of a trip to the amusement park, but in all cases there's another tale to tell, and that's the story of the picture, the story that tells us what choices the photographer made, what he was thinking about and how his experience came into play. And you can make the case that it's the second story that helps us become better photographers.

We recently saw a selection of images by the versatile photographer Peter Hemming and thought his images perfectly proved our two-story case.

Big Sur Fisherman. It's not fog that's giving this scene its monochromatic look, it's the rough shoreline's ocean spray backlit by the afternoon sun. The location is about five minutes from Peter's home, so he knew what to expect from the area, and he played that knowledge to the hilt by taking a position on a cliff to get a composition that made the most of the natural graphic elements. The fisherman was a bonus he hadn't expected.

Elk. Peter got some front and side shots of these elk at Miller Butte in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but he prefers this image—"a humorous view of their uniformity." Some photos you take for caption appeal, not universal attraction. Or, as Peter says, "There are pictures you take for yourself...and for anyone else who gets the joke.

Garrapata Beach. Peter positioned himself at this Monterey location so the wet rocks and the light reflecting off them would play a prominent role in the image. "I felt they added to the texture of the scene," he says. An aperture of f/22 ensured great depth of field but didn't allow much light to reach the camera's sensor, so he set a long exposure—just over 24 seconds—to help him gather in the light and give the water its silky smooth look.

Golden Poppies. "Here's what I've found: to get that starburst effect from the sun, I have to use my 16mm lens and a very small aperture; here it's f/22." Peter says. The angle of the shot, which he achieved by placing the camera on the ground below the poppies and tilting it up a bit, put the sun where he wanted it. He took several shots from a few different tilt angles. "I knew I'd get something eventually," he says.

Indian Gharial. Peter made this shot of the endangered crocodile at the St. Augustine (Florida) Alligator and Zoological Park. Getting that striking reflection of the croc's snout? Just luck and quick reflexes as the critter reached just the right spot for the light to make the most of the reflection. Peter was, by the way, shooting through glass. "I got the lens parallel to the glass and as close as possible," he says. "Actually, the lens might have been touching the glass—to tell the truth, I don't remember. I was just trying to get the shot as quickly as I could."

Keyhole Rock. A prime illustration of item three on the stone tablets of the Photographer's Ten Commandments: Know Thy Location. "This is a famous landmark in Big Sur at Pfeiffer Beach called Keyhole Rock," Peter says, "and at different times of the year the yellow-orange setting sun will cast its light through the rock—just like this. You just have to know there's a chance that it's going to happen." Other than the right time—mid-November at about five in the afternoon—the second most important thing is a clear horizon. "Clouds or mist will diffuse the light and you won't get the flashlight effect."

Rough Ice. The idea here was to express the vastness of the field of breaking ice at the north end of the Admiralty Inlet to Baffin Island in the Arctic Ocean of northern Canada, and the way Peter got the photo he envisioned was by choosing the right lens for the job. "The 16mm fisheye's view gave me the vast look I wanted, plus the curvature of the earth. That lens is pure fun to use."

Running Zebra. It's one of the oldest techniques in the book— probably because it's one of the most effective: showing motion by showing motion. That is, using a slow shutter speed to blur the subject to depict its speed. Peter made the photo in Tanzania, from a moving vehicle. He didn't pan with the zebra, a move that would have given him a sharp subject and a blurred background; rather, he kept the camera steady as the vehicle progressed at roughly the same pace as the zebra. "I probably tried a couple of different shutter speeds that didn't work out, but this one—1/15 second—did. The secondary idea was that the blurry stripes would be a neat effect."

Strawberry Anemones. Peter took this image about 70 feet down in Monterey Bay, his camera in a waterproof housing. "I thought about a few things here: one, these anemones are very small—about the size of a dime—so a Micro-NIKKOR lens was a big plus in getting a sharp close-up. Then, fill the frame for a compelling composition—don't lose the viewer's interest by having blank areas at the edges." Third was his vantage point: he shot from above the anemones, his legs wrapped around a rock to keep himself as still as possible.

Walrus. At Foxe Basin, north of Hudson Bay, Canada, scuba diving wasn't a good idea. "We were told that the walruses could get kind of nasty," Peter says. So with his camera in an underwater housing, he prefocused on the walrus, preset his f/stop and shutter speed, leaned out over the side of the boat and with the housing held so the camera's lens was bisected by the water line, took the shot. The photo has been used by several conservation groups, including the International League of Conservation Photographers. "The walruses haul themselves out of the water onto the ice in order to rest," Peter says, "and the sea ice is fast disappearing, so this photo has become emblematic of the problem."

El Capitan. "Even a heavy snow in Yosemite National Park doesn't last long," Peter says. "It melts into the Merced River, and the walls of El Capitan are so steep that they don't hold the snow very well." So timing was all important here, a day earlier or later and there'd be little or no snow to photograph. But on this day the afternoon sunset and a bit of flash from Peter's SB-900 onto the foreground snow-covered rocks gave a familiar landmark scene a special glow.


© Peter Hemming