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Steamboat Magazine

Noah Wetzel

08/09/2023 12:32PM ● By as told to Sophie Dingle
(Photo: Rabbit Ears Sunset. Photography courtesy of Noah Weztel.) 

From Steamboat Magazine Outdoors Edition 2023

Noah Wetzel is an athlete, adventurer and photographer whose art has earned international acclaim. He may travel to Montreal or the Dolomites to receive prestigious awards, but his heart remains in the Rocky Mountains, where he makes his home for part of the year in Steamboat Springs. His stunning images of the Yampa Valley do more than inspire awe; they also invite the audience to wonder: how did he get that picture? In this edition of Steamboat Magazine, Noah shares the stories of the adventures behind a few of his famous photos.


Trails of Autumn | By Noah Wetzel 

“In the fall of 2021, I was on a big mission to shoot a ton of autumn imagery. I had this idea when I was down in Crested Butte that I wanted to light up a forest and get star trails, capturing a unique perspective that I hadn’t seen before. The aspen trees down there are so tall and clean. In Steamboat, we have beautiful aspens but they’re not quite as tall. Back in Steamboat, I drove around for a couple of days trying to find the right location. I was just driving roads and looking at every aspect of each aspen grove that I saw. I was looking for the cleaner, most aesthetically pleasing trees. I needed to find a perfect grove of taller aspen trees with clean trunks (without scraggly branches), and I would also need an opening in the tree canopy to shoot directly upwards to the North Star, capturing circular star trails. 

I found this location after hours of searching, constantly looking up. It was a section of aspens near Hahns Peak that had very tall – 60 or 70 feet – clean trunks. This was captured via an 85-minute exposure. Two wireless flashes were positioned in the distant trees, aimed upward, and a third wireless flash was positioned behind the camera, illuminating the three immediate aspen’s trunks. Capturing this image at night would allow me to create a surreal perspective, mimicking daytime sunlight angles with flash positioning to illuminate the peak autumn foliage, while showcasing the contrast of the night sky. Over the course of two sleepless nights within a week, I had only two attempts per night, given the setup and capture time involved, with nearly three hours between frames.”

Fish Creek Illumination | By Noah Wetzel 

“Fish Creek has been shot a million times and I’ve shot it a number of times, too. But I always want to capture something different – in this case, the true majesty of Fish Creek Falls. This shot was captured at night. I couldn’t see the waterfall from where I was; I could only hear it. The gold color that you see on the top of the trees is from the setting moon; the canyon itself was pitch-black.

The idea was to essentially studio light the 283’ waterfall, controlling the lighting to capture a perfect exposure. In this scenario, top-down lighting would do the trick. Strapping a powerful headlamp to a drone would allow me to paint light via the remote control toggles while the camera (positioned on the ground) exposed the image on a tripod. (Light painting is a technique used to illuminate certain areas of a photograph during an exposure. A headlamp is typically utilized during an exposure. As the individual moves the headlamp up and down, side to side, the movement resembles brush strokes and casts light on certain features within the photograph). Given three drone batteries, I’d have only three attempts, and the batteries would go quickly as drones don’t like flying with that much weight. When you strap something like that to it, it blocks a few of the sensors as well. The first time I took off, I nearly crashed it. It’s really stressful and it demands a lot of experience.

Following the first two attempts, I dialed in the frame composition and camera settings. This was a 10-minute exposure. I set it to 10 minutes because not only did it need to be long enough to expose the image properly, but it also had to give me enough time to slowly fly up the creek bed and light paint with the drone remote control. With the camera on an exposed perch, I would set a 2-minute countdown timer on the camera before the 10-minute exposure started. Starting the countdown timer and a stopwatch on my phone simultaneously, I had two minutes to make it over to the launch site, and get the drone in the air and high enough so it wasn’t in the frame.

With the drone positioned 500 feet above the creek bed, the headlamp casts a powerful single beam of light into the dark inner canyon, illuminating 20 individual spots for 20-30 seconds each. Throughout the 10-minute exposure, I’m relying on my previous experience, trusting that I’m evenly light painting each location as I count off the seconds of the exposure under my breath. After painting the final top section of the waterfall with light, I hear the alarm from my phone stopwatch alerting me the exposure has ended.”

Rabbit Ears Sunset | By Noah Wetzel 

“Searching for the best vantage point is a constant for landscape and action sports photographers. I’ve shot Rabbit Ears peak a number of times. I’ve scouted, I’ve hiked through the woods, I’ve done it in the autumn, I’ve hiked through the snowfall, I’ve stared at maps to see where there might be clearings. I wanted to capture Rabbit Ears in a way that hasn’t been captured before. It’s hard to find the perfect vantage point of Rabbit Ears that showcases the prominence of the summit – that is, unless you’re shooting from a bird's perspective. 

I spent two days in a row venturing up there to get this shot. As a landscape photographer, you’re constantly looking at the weather and cloud cover. You want about 85% cloud cover, hoping the remaining 15% of clear sky will be positioned on the horizon where the sun is rising or setting to illuminate the clouds with dramatic color.  

I was definitely checking the weather charts before this pursuit, and this particular evening was looking really promising. A lot of times you get skunked – you have to hike in, put yourself into position and then … the clouds are blocking the sun and the light doesn’t pop. On this night, the charts looked great and I got myself into position. In the last 15 minutes of daylight, the sunlight popped through an opening in the dark skies and illuminated the peak. This image was captured with a drone utilizing a 5-image stitched panoramic.

It’s so easy to talk yourself out of these pursuits. Every single shot that I’m really proud of, I definitely faced that moment where I was like ‘oh man, I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to hike into the wilderness in the dark. What happens if I get skunked and it isn’t worth it? Maybe I should do it another time. It will be a sleepless night.’ Every single time there’s a voice in my head trying to talk me out of it. The biggest thing is putting yourself in a position to succeed. Doing the work, doing the research and trusting your gut. There’s only one way to know if it will line up, and that’s to go.” 

Midnight Cascade | By Noah Wetzel 

“Over the years, I’ve realized that my best ideas come to me when I’m out in nature – hiking and skiing. When I’m outside in an environment and I see certain rock features, trees, ridgelines, the next idea immediately pops into my head. 

This shot took three separate trips on the middle fork of Fish Creek. For years I’ve wanted to explore the drainages of Fish Creek and hike up or down them. There are no trails in there so it was 100% off-trail, finding the route in and out of the creek. I went on an exploratory hike with my buddy Harry, who works with search and rescue. We worked our way down into the middle fork from the top of Buff Pass and then started working our way back up to Fish Creek Reservoir. That’s when we discovered an unbelievable spot where the water cascades in sheets over red rock covered in lichen and moss. It collects in pools and then cascades 30, 40, 70 feet into another pool. It’s surreal in the sense that it feels like a different environment; not like Steamboat. It almost had a tropical feeling to it. I immediately was like, ‘OK, I gotta come back here and shoot this location and light it up.’

In the daytime, the lighting is really harsh, but at sunset, the sun angle is really low and there’s a ton of reflection coming off the water. I couldn’t showcase the true beauty of this location unless I could control the lighting. I knew we had to shoot it at night with light from above (via aerial light painting) that would get the red in the rocks to come out. 

When I was in there the first time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back alone. It seemed like a place where mountain lions would be. My second trip was two weeks after the first. We heard mountain lion calls at 2 a.m. But on the third trip, we went in and it took two hours to set up the shot and get the lighting how I wanted it to be. That night we broke three drones, one of which lacerated my hand. It was an expensive night, but we captured a truly breathtaking image.”

Burn Slalom | By Noah Wetzel 

“For nearly a decade, I wanted to plan a winter ski expedition into this zone on the edge of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. With talented athletes, we would be able to capture and create amazing imagery, showcasing a different side of the Zirkels. I knew this burn zone was there and I wanted to capture it from a unique perspective, an aerial perspective of skiing within a surreal environment. 

The first day, we hauled all our gear in via multiple snowmobiles. From dome tents and cook tents to a generator and propane tank – we were fully dialed in for a week. One of the athletes, Willie Nelson, put on 100 miles that day shuttling stuff up. The next morning when we woke up, we had a few peaceful moments and then we were hit by the bomb cyclone. The dome tent folded in. We spent the next 10 hours building walls around the camp to try and dampen the wind. I’ve never been that terrified or on edge for that long.

A day after the storm cleared, we finally had a chance to capture the shot with a blank canvas of untouched snow before the area got tracked out by other parties. There’s a ton of communication that goes into capturing a shot like this. It’s not that you just happen to be there – it’s exactly the opposite. I knew I didn’t just want one skier for this shot; two would be more dynamic and draw the viewer’s eye into the image. Working together with Willie and Conor Pelton for years, I figured Willie had a slightly better chance of matching Conor’s opposing turns while navigating the treed corridors. 

With my drone positioned downslope and out-of-sight, I instructed them to ski straight downhill in the direction of the drone. With only one chance to capture this image, Conor and Willie navigated the challenging conditions perfectly, skiing the fall-line through the frame and to the bottom of the slope. 

I shoot a lot of ski imagery in other locations. I wanted to bring it back to the Zirkels and get athletes in there to showcase the environment surrounding Steamboat in a different way. One of the last covers of Powder Magazine, this image will always remain one of my favorites, especially knowing what we had to endure.” 

Be sure to visit the Noah Wetzel online at the Wetzel Gallery at

You can also keep tabs on Noah's latests adventures by following him on Instagram at @NoahWetzel