Capturing the Spirit graphic

Ames High senior Derek Peng has spent the last several years walking the halls of Ames High with a photographic eye. When most people walk into a classroom or the hallway, they see desks, lockers, and students typing away on their laptops. But, when Derek walks in, he is looking at lighting, angles, composition, and what is the best way to capture the spirit of that particular moment. 

On his Pics by Penger website, Derek describes himself as a “multidisciplinary photographer and designer in the Ames area. I love capturing portraits and events through an editorial lens. I hope that my photographs will impact its subjects and their audience, inspiring others to change and challenge our wonderful world.” 

“He is a gift to all who know him,” said Ames High teacher Ginny Seibert. “Based on academics alone, he is truly exceptional,” noting his grades, work ethic, and willingness to take on a challenging workload, “but Derek is so much more.” 

Derek “contributes high-quality discussion and is insightful in class and in his writing,” said Kirstin Sullivan. She has taught Derek in both AP European History and AP Government & Politics. “He is an intuitive student and makes adjustments to his study and work habits when he needs to, which makes him exceptionally mature for his age.”

“He always came to class with a positive attitude, accepting of everyone, ready for the task at hand,” said Seibert. “His demeanor and willingness to thoughtfully dig into literature always impressed me, and he absolutely elevated our thinking during discussions and group work.”

Academics is clearly an area where Derek spends a lot of his time, but he has a knack for excelling in every one of his versatile and diverse set of interests. For example, he is the Ames High boys tennis team captain, an easy decision. “He was chosen as captain by a voice acclimation of his fellow players,” said Ames head coach John Hernandez in an interview with the Ames Tribune. “A vote was not necessary.” And the creative side of Derek is often seen through the lens of a camera. 

“Photography has been a part of my life for a long time,” said Derek. “My family loves to take family pictures, and our inventory has progressed through Minolta and Olympus film cameras to the Canon 5D Mk II. I still remember six-year-old me struggling to hold up the 5D with our new 70-200mm (lens).” 

He was persuaded to join the Yearbook staff midway through his sophomore year. That is when he considered the beginning of his serious journey in photography. 

Ames High Yearbook Advisor James Webb saw this transition as well in Derek. “It was in Yearbook, where he is now in year three and Editor-in-Chief, that I came to understand that his work ethic is driven by a desire to learn and to excel, and not to get a grade.” Over the next year and a half, he dedicated himself to photography by watching videos, reading books, and picking the brains of our local newspaper’s photographers. During his senior year, he is being paid as a professional photographer and is assisting the Activities Department with projects and is work is often featured district-wide. None of this was for points or grades – he just accepted the challenge and refused to settle for anything less than excellence,” said Webb. 

Derek takes photos for the enjoyment of it. Still, part of that enjoyment is capturing the spirit of the moment and the challenge that photography can impose. “Photography is one of the few aspects of my life where I have complete control, both literally and figuratively. The freedom I have with my camera is part of its appeal,” said Derek. 

His blending of intelligence, personality, determination, and creativity set him apart from many peers. Like in other parts of his life, Derek is a photography scholar and has explored many styles. He’s done portraits, landscapes, sports, and fine art photography. He has worked with multiple exposures and long exposures, and is very conscious about the message that his framing communicates. But it’s not work for Derek, it’s freedom. “Photography is one of the few aspects of my life where I have complete control, both literally and figuratively.”

Photography will continue to be a significant part of Derek’s life after Ames High, but likely not professionally. A photographer’s eye is not something that one can turn off. “I look for images that hint at subtle stories behind the obvious. A mere suggestion, a minor discord, that nestles itself in the back of the mind.” There is not doubt he will continue to tell stories from behind the lens.