Relentless Forward Pursuit11/24/2020 12:07PM ● By Dan Greeson
Photography by Noah Wetzel
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS- The phrase “bomb cyclone” might be enough to make the average person stop in their tracks and retreat, but this is not the case for Steamboat Springs photographer Noah Wetzel. A bomb cyclone, or a sudden burst of hurricane-level winds combined with frigid winter temps, didn’t stop Wetzel from capturing an incredible drone shot of Conor Pelton and Willie Nelson skiing through a burn zone outside the Mount Zirkel Wilderness boundary. The photographer’s courage earned him a spot on the cover of “Powder” magazine last fall.
Wetzel’s success has been hard to miss – his many accolades include the grand prize in the raw category of the 2019 Red Bull Illume with his shot of Chris Brule mountain biking in Teton Valley during the 2017 solar eclipse.
It was in high school in Ripon, Wisconsin, that Wetzel fell in love with adventure sports. “I put in a little more work in the dark room and started filming more, and started to ski, documenting the adventures of my friends and passing a camera back and forth. That’s where I originally started to focus my eye and started to shape it a little bit,” he says.
In 2005, Wetzel came to Steamboat Springs to attend school at Colorado Mountain College, and soon after he bought his first DSLR camera. “It was a rapid progression from there,” he says.
Wetzel credits much of his growth as a photographer to the fact that he was simultaneously growing a clothing business called Lightpole at this time. “A lot of my photography was motivated in pursuit of promoting Lightpole – doing that helped me shoot a variety of stuff, from product photography to adventure-based imagery. I gained a lot of knowledge, especially in terms of how to light things, from shooting products and portrait work. Eventually, I realized: ‘Hold on, I don’t want to do this, I’m a photographer.’”
Having narrowed his focus to photography, Wetzel set his sights on adventure sports. “Skiing was the motivation to move west, and my introduction to life as I know it now. It was through that that I was introduced to all these activities I know and love: backpacking, mountain biking, fishing, adventure sports in general … Anything that has me spending time in the high alpines,” he says.
Wetzel says he focuses on the setting of the shot first, then adds layers of complexity on top of it. “I try to take the most dramatic landscape I can and then place the human element – skier, biker, runner, hiker – in it. My favorite type imagery to shoot is really complex images that have multiple layers of challenges,” he says. “Not only is the location difficult to get to, but you’re also pursuing a specific time of day – perhaps 3 a.m. – unique off-camera lighting, and on top of it all, demanding pin-point accuracy from the athlete.” One example? A full-moon skiing shot that Wetzel captured last year, with a complex wireless flash set-up and powerful headlamps used by the athlete to help hit the air under the moonlight. Wetzel spent hours setting up in the backcountry, chasing the specific conditions and location, with just one attempt from the athlete – and one frame to fire and capture it.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect photo; it’s about creating a feeling,” Wetzel says. “You want to evoke an emotion from the individual looking at it. You want them to feel that moment. Feel the sun on your skin, or that electric moment within action sports when everything comes together.”
Striving to capture that magic is one explanation for Wetzel’s meticulous nature. “You have a location or idea in mind and sometimes you get it done in a year, and sometimes it’s a 10- year vision you have,” Wetzel says. “For most of the landscape images I’ve captured over the years, it took multiple attempts, hiking miles into the wilderness before sunrise or hours after sunset. There’s a downtown shot I captured with peak foliage and a three-foot snowstorm that took something like 13 different attempts. This past summer, I spent two sleepless nights at Fish Creek Canyon pursuing a shot that I have had in mind for a couple years, with the falls lit up in the sunlight.”
Wetzel’s enormous ambition and work ethic has left an impression on other photographers. “I used to loan him camera gear and tell him everything I knew, and now it’s the other way around; now I call him up and ask him for tips,” says Aryeh Copa, Wetzel’s long-time friend and fellow photographer. “He hiked a ridiculously long distance in the Flat Tops trying to get this sunrise shot, three days in a row, trying to get the perfect morning light for it. He’s strong as an ox – he’ll ride up a mountain with 40 pounds of camera gear on his back – but you wouldn’t know it the way he hikes and moves.”
To Wetzel, the secret ingredient to his success is a simple one: “For any artist, the key is persistence,” he says. “A lot of times it’s overwhelming. One thing that’s always stuck in my head is the quote, ‘Relentless forward pursuit.’ Every single time there’s an early wake-up call, I struggle with motivation – it’s natural for everyone. However, over the years I’ve gotten better at recognizing the negative dialogue within my mind and overriding those initial destructive thoughts that prevent me from taking the first step.”
“I’ve never gone on an adventure that – even if it was a difficult experience – I didn’t enjoy once I was in the moment,” he adds. “Even when things don’t line up and you don’t capture the shot you can learn something from that experience.”
Wetzel also emphasizes the importance of being a Jack of all trades early in one’s career. “You can’t let your ego get in the way and you just have to take the jobs that come to you, knowing that you will learn more and broaden your network,” he says. “Those challenges will polish your overall skillset in the long run. Shooting architecture has helped me recognize certain leading lines in my images, while shooting portraiture and lifestyle imagery helped me prepare for commercial lifestyle shoots and improvising quickly under pressure.”
Wetzel hopes his photography will inspire younger generations to respect the wilderness and advocate for the land. “The biggest thing is finding purpose within my passion,” he says. “Anyone can have a passion. But it’s human nature to strive toward a purpose. Where can I make a difference in my imagery? What stories can I tell to educate myself, to educate others?”
“Especially in the time we’re in right now, it’s always amazing and really heartwarming when people come up to me and tell me my imagery is a beacon of light, something positive,” Wetzel adds. “It helps keep me motivated.”
Where is this motivation leading Wetzel next? “I would be lying if I said National Geographic isn’t my constant focus,” he says.
Learn more about Noah Wetzel’s photography at www.NoahDavidWetzel.com.