Mark Hemminger Sunrise Somerset Winter

LIGONIER (Nov. 16, 2023) – Mark Hemminger doesn’t consider himself a photographer, but the Somerset resident captured one of the best images of the Laurel Highlands in the past year.

Early one January day, Hemminger was headed out to feed the cats on the family farm outside Somerset when he was surprised to see a halo around the sun.

“I thought it was my glasses because I have bifocals,” Hemminger said.

Hemminger used his cellphone to take a picture of the sun, which was low in the sky over his neighbor’s farm. The shot perfectly captures the sun halo, which the National Weather Service says is a phenomenon caused by light refracting off ice crystals present in a thin veil of cirrus clouds.

He didn’t post the photo to social media, but his wife, Wendy, convinced him to submit it to the Laurel Highlands Photo Contest.

Hemminger captured first place in the Nature category, one of nine winners honored by GO Laurel Highlands at a reception in Ligonier for the 19th annual contest. The top images will be published in the destination marketing organization’s 2024 Destination Guide, on and displayed at the organization’s visitors center on the Diamond in Ligonier. Winning photos may also be featured on the bureau’s social media, billboards and more.

First place in each of the three categories received $500; second place, $200; and third place, $100. Winners were chosen from 665 entries by the GO Laurel Highlands’ marketing team and professional photographers David Safin, John Rucosky and Alex Byers, who also serves as the organization’s content and design specialist.

“All the magic of the Laurel Highlands is expressed with wonder in our annual photo contest,” said Ann Nemanic, executive director of GO Laurel Highlands. “Each year, the submissions capture moments in a perfect setting or experience, making the competition keen. All these images help us tell the story to millions of visitors. And, for the winning photographers, their work is displayed in a place of honor in our visitors center for all to see and admire.”

R.Bruner, Westmoreland Air Show, Latrobe

Ron Bruner claimed first prize in the Events and Attractions category. The Rockwood-area resident captured a striking image of three planes, with a plume of smoke trailing each, in a perfectly executed nosedive at the Westmoreland County Airshow.

“I live out in the countryside, not far from Seven Springs,” Bruner said. “I don’t have planes flying by at low altitude or performing stunts. It’s a chance to see very skilled pilots performing in a way that boggles my mind. The precision maneuvers are always of interest to me. I don’t know how they do it, but more power to them.”

An experienced photographer, Bruner is a regular attendee at the air show, and always takes his camera.

“Photography is one of my hobbies,” said Bruner, who has previously won prizes in the contest. “I always enjoy taking and then submitting.”

Dan Thompson, of Pittsburgh, won first place in the Outdoor Activities category for his shot of Taylee Wilson performing yoga under a starry sky outside of Laurel Hill State Park.

“I wanted to experiment with rear curtain sync flash,” Thompson said. “I also wanted to do a single exposure of the night sky with a subject. We tried other poses but, due to the long exposure time, it was difficult. We decided to do something easier, and this pose worked nicely with the stars and Milky Way!”

GO Laurel Highlands will begin accepting entries for the 2024 Photo Contest on December 1, 2023.

Dan Thompson yoga milky way

2023 Laurel Highlands Photo Contest Winners

Category 1: Events and attractions

·                     1st Place: Ron Bruner, of Rockwood – Latrobe Air Show

·                     2nd Place: Holly Harris, of Coal Center – Mount Vernon Furnace

·                     3rd Place: Jeff Kern, of Mount Pleasant – St. Vincent College Basilica

Category 2: Nature

·                     1st Place: Mark Hemminger, of Somerset — Somerset winter

·                     2nd Place: Connie Weyant, of Somerset – bald eagle

·                     3rd Place: Billy Grenaldo, of Belle Vernon – Cucumber Falls

Category 3: Outdoor Activities

·                     1st Place: Dan Thompson, of Pittsburgh – yoga Milky Way

·                     2nd Place: Tom Bush IV, of Uniontown – Lower Yough rafting

·                     3rd Place: Michael Hills, of Pittsburgh – Lake Courage

Only photos that were taken in the Laurel Highlands – Pennsylvania’s Fayette, Somerset or Westmoreland counties – were eligible. Participants were permitted to submit an unlimited number of high-quality color images for the contest.