Peter Heck is a successful commercial and advertising photographer and videographer who works worldwide and in several genres “mostly as a people photographer.” Heck has a disdain for following the rules and a commitment to capturing natural looking images of people.
He’s executed assignments for many prestigious international clients including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Blauer USA and Hugo Boss. Destined to pursue a career in photography from an early age, he says candidly, “I have loved taking pictures and capturing special moments ever since I was a teenager so my pathway seemed clear. I was born in southern Germany and my parents were very interested in music and the arts, which also inspired my lifelong love of good music and encouraged me to express moods and feelings in creative ways.” Here Peter Heck recounts the story of how he has evolved from an assistant to accomplished lens man to a successful photographer in his own right, with a style that commands the attention of major brands seeking to promote their image.
Q: We were told that you use the Leica S-System. When did you start using it?
A: About two years ago. I’ve long been a passionate Leica M photographer and was hired for a job that required a camera with higher resolution. I picked up an S2 from my local camera rental agency and fell in love at once. That camera handles like a DSLR, provides the resolution of medium format and delivers the typical Leica fingerprint.
I subsequently rented the camera several times for studio and location jobs then last October I finally got one from LFI to cover a fashion shoot in Los Angeles.
Q: Is there any lens for the S2 you can call your favorite?
A: Yes, the 70mm f/2.5 Summarit-S ASPH.
Q: Have you tried the new Leica S?
A: Not yet, but I can’t wait to try it.
Q: Do you use any other Leica equipment in your work?
A: Yes, I love the M-System too and own several Ms, both analog and digital, and several M lenses.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: My father owned a Leica M6 and I always loved the sound of the shutter and the great workmanship. A while back I bought him an X1 and now I own his M6.
I initially worked with Nikon SLRs because when I was younger I thought I needed fast cameras with the ability to use long lenses. Over the years my photography has changed and I’ve found I don’t need long lenses and fast cameras anymore. Since I’ve been shooting digital I can see the benefit of Leica cameras and Leica glass so clearly that I try to avoid shooting with other systems as often as possible. I love that distinctive Leica fingerprint.
Q: How would you describe your photography? Any specific genre?
A: I work very spontaneously. I always try to create situations where my models can act naturally and where they feel unwatched. I consider myself a people photographer, but some say that my photography is hard to put into a box of a single genre. Someone once told me “Your photos are Rock & Roll!“ which may suggest something more about them.
Q: When did you get your start in photography and how did you become a full-time photographer?
A: I began taking pictures as a young child and loved to create photo stories of the trips I took with my school or with my family. I always carried a camera with me and took photos of my friends and our activities. It was clear for me from an early age that I wanted to capture moments and make them last a lifetime.
I’ve been in business for more than 20 years. I began working as a photo assistant for some great photographers here in Germany specializing in people, fashion, and automotive photography and then, after a few years, I started to work for my own clients. Nowadays I can combine all the different techniques I learned in those and other types of photography.
Q: Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: There are several photographers I admire. Anton Corbijn, is my all time favorite.
Q: Many of the images in your portfolio were shot into the sun (contre jour) with resulting flare, glare, and loss of contrast. Is this technique a conscious element of your style, and if so why would you use a Leica S2 (a camera renowned for its extremely high image quality) to shoot pictures like these?
A: I love shots taken against the sun when the light seems to melt the foreground away. All the softened and blown out areas in a picture open up a door into the viewer’s fantasy. Backlit photos actually demand equipment of very high quality. The S2′s image processing engine and the first-class lenses deliver the high quality image files I need to enhance and perfect the impression in post-processing. The better the data you start with, the more you can get out of it.
Q: You mentioned that Leica cameras and lenses including your digital and 35mm Ms and the S2, have a distinctive fingerprint or signature. Can you say something more specific about this, such as what these characteristics are, and why they are important to you?
A: When I switched over to digital years ago I always missed something special and unique in the pictures – every photo looked clinical and (I’m searching for the right words), maybe cold and boring. In analog photography you can chose a different film to achieve a special look. As a result, I found myself using digital only for my paid assignments and did all of my personal and portraiture work in analog, on film. When I switched over to a digital Leica, with the arrival of the Leica M8, I suddenly had that unique look with those outstanding raw-rendering and great lenses. That’s what I mean by the Leica fingerprint. These images have an identifiable look and feel. People sometimes say my photos look three dimensional — that’s part of that Leica look. Also very special is the fact that you can work with lenses that are nearly a hundred years old. Now I’m very happy with digital, but still shoot analog in some cases.
Q: It is evident that spontaneity is an important factor in the way you work, and all your images have that feeling of life captured on the fly. Do you agree, and can you say something about how you are able to convey that feeling so effectively with models in a commercial context?
A: As the photographer I always try to be only the spectator. When I work with models I create situations for them in which they are busy and do a kind of acting. That is especially important when you work with kids. Kids have to be in action and I have to make them busy. Then I pick the moments I need.
Q: The picture of the image of the smiling boy dressed in blue is not sharp and full of flare, but his joyful expression is very engaging. Many photographers would regard such images as technical failures, yet you seem to have created them quite deliberately and they do indeed work on many levels. Can you tell us why and how you shot them and how you feel about creating such images?
A: I always say that a good photo is like a good song. When it touches your heart you’ve made it happen. By the way, technical failures can help. It does not matter if the singer or the guitar is not in tune; if the song conquers your heart it’s right on point.
Q: Your obliquely composed shot of a woman biker on a café racer riding past a body of water certainly captures the visceral joy of motorcycling, yet it has the wistful quality of an instant in eternity, evoking the inevitable passage of time. Also there appears to be light falloff, especially noticeable in the upper corners of the image. This may actually enhance the image as a statement, but seems rather odd, assuming you used the 70mm on the S2. Can you please comment on these observations?
A: The upper corners would have been blown out so I added a vignette over the image to dim the outer areas of the photo. That vignette also enhances the glow around the helmet and creates a more dramatic look. That post-processing is only possible because the sensor with an extreme dynamic range is able to provide such fantastic data. It might appear odd but creating controlled technical failures entails using very high-class hardware.
Q: Aside from the 70mm, what lenses have you used on the S2 and is there any particular feature of the camera (other than its size, handling, and Leica fingerprint) that you find particularly useful in your work? Is there any feature of the Leica S you are looking forward to trying or that you feel may enhance that camera’s value for your kind of photography?
A: Once or twice I used the 35mm and the 120mm but my favorite lens always is the 70mm standard focal length.
I don’t use many of the camera’s built-in features. I barely autofocus and work 98% in pure manual mode. Nonetheless, the camera seems to be perfect with its huge and bright viewfinder and comfortable ergonomics, although it’s a bit slow in AF and picture processing when shooting action scenes. That should be solved with the new S and I can’t wait to do a hands-on test. With its 37.5 MP sensor the camera has enough resolution for 90% of my jobs.
Q: Based on your extensive experience with the Leica M-System how do you think it compares with the S-System? Will you continue to employ the M-system for any of your professional work, and if so which cameras and lenses will you be using?
A: It makes no sense to compare the M with the S—these systems are simply too different. I prefer the M cameras for some things because of its unobtrusiveness and size and the way it feels in the hand. The M-lenses are also designed for manual focusing, which is what I prefer. I use the S2 when I need the higher resolution. What is common to both cameras is their unsurpassed workmanship and the harmony with which all their components work together! I haven’t had the chance yet to work with the new S or the new M but hope to do so soon. My favorite lenses are always the ones that provide a normal focal length and I have no idea what Leica could do to improve on the existing (old) lenses. For that reason I didn’t test the new 50mm f/2 APO-Summicron because there is no need—my old Summicron is so good!
Q: What are a couple of the most important things you learned from those great photographers in Germany you assisted, and how do you think that experience has shaped your vision or influenced your shooting techniques? What in particular do you admire about the work of your all-time favorite photographer, Anton Corbijn?
A: Besides all the technical aspects of lighting control, studio work and working with 8 x 10-inch large-format cameras, I learned a lot about working with people, especially models and clients. Organizing projects is another secret every aspiring young photographer has to learn. Every photographer has a different style in doing a job, and as an assistant you have access to all the inside information on their goals and working methods. That’s the key to the learning experience.
Times have changed, photography has changed and also my views on photography have changed. Today different things are important for me, and so in my photography I no longer use a wide array of different lenses and fast cameras. I shoot fewer images of scenery than I used to. My ideas of beauty and what constitutes a good photo in my opinion have changed as well. Years ago, I was thinking about my work and how I want to take it further; then I saw Anton Corbijn’s portraits and knew at once what it was all about—that moment was an epiphany for me. Anton Corbijn is able to convey so many different vibes in his pictures and does so in such a pure and simple way that I think is absolutely amazing. His photos come from his heart and hit directly in the viewer’s heart and that’s what it’s all about!
Q: Where are your pictures published and can you tell us something about your relationship with professional clients and the types of assignments you are asked to execute for household name companies like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Hugo Boss?
A: The companies rarely come directly to me; I get 80% of my work through advertising agencies and they hire me when they want exactly my style of photography or when they want to convey feelings and vibes I create with my photography. It’s amazing that at the moment the fashion industry has been knocking at my door although I’m certainly not your typical fashion photographer. At that point you realize that as a photographer you are not just a person who is able to take pictures, but rather the source of moods and vibes that a brand needs to create their image.
Q: Judging by the images in your portfolio we certainly agree that you are an accomplished people photographer, and that “your photos are Rock & Roll.” What, aside from their freewheeling spirit and disregard for convention, do you think the person who said that meant by that statement?
A: Rock & Roll, for me, stands for everything that is non-conformist. My photography displays a lifestyle that is independent and unselfconscious. I also don’t care very much about those so-called unwritten laws of photography. I shoot very much as I please.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years? Do you plan to explore any other genres in your personal or professional work? Also, do you have any projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
A: I’m currently working on a book project where I do portraits of different kinds of artists. Meeting with these people is often a source of inspiration for me, and that influences my other work. I have no idea what the future will bring.
Thank you for your time, Peter!
– Leica Internet Team