Steamboat’s Noah Wetzel takes 1st in category of international adventure photo contest
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In the heart of Italy’s South Tyrolean Mountains and Dolomites, at 7,464 feet up Mount Kronplatz-Plan de Corones in the Lumen Museum of Mountain Photography, Steamboat Springs’ Noah Wetzel sat in a sea of fellow photographers. Each was a finalist in the elite Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2019 adventure and action sports photography contest, and each was itching with anticipation to learn the next category winner.
Out of 60,000 images submitted to the contest’s eleven categories, 50 contest judges — all photo editors and sports industry experts — picked the top five images in each category without knowing photographers’ names or locations, and the photographers of each were flown in from across the globe for a three-day winner award ceremony. The three days, Nov. 18 to 20, featured workshops, networking opportunities and parties, surrounded by stunning mountains in every direction.
Wetzel arrived from Salt Lake City, Utah; he splits his time between Steamboat and Alta, Utah. From his seat at the awards ceremony, he saw the silhouettes of photographers whose work he’d followed for years — some of the most inspiring, influential adventure photographers in the world, including Academy Award winning filmmaker and Lifestyle category finalist Jimmy Chin and photographer-explorer-preservation activist and Playground category finalist Chris Burkard.
As a finalist in the Raw category, Wetzel’s photo was completely unedited, untouched, and straight from his camera. This year’s contest was the first to feature this category, and many people thought of it as the purest category. Tucked into Wetzel’s pocket was his acceptance speech, just in case.
Wetzel’s venture into the world of adventure photography began when he was a 12-year-old in Ripon, Wisconsin, when his older brother’s purchase of a camera inspired Wetzel to save up for one of his own. When Wetzel reached high school, he learned to ski. Inspired by the freeski heroes of the day, Shane McConkey especially, Wetzel and his friends went on their own ski adventures and practiced ski tricks. Wetzel accumulated a batch of video equipment and, zooming alongside his friends, made videos of their snowy escapades.
After graduating high school in 2005, Wetzel followed the snow out to Steamboat, where he studied business at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and skied 110-plus days a winter. He purchased his first digital single-lens reflex — or DSLR — camera and practiced taking action photos, improving his craft via online tutorials, blogs and help from mentors. He founded Lightpole, a company with the mission of inspiring active lifestyles through art, music, photography and clothing. The year 2008 marked his first published photo, which appeared in Salt Lake City-based Arkade Magazine.
Over the next few years, Wetzel grew his base of photography gigs and clients, and his reputation as a landscape and action sports photographer; at the same time, he was working at a golf club and ski shop, grinding his way through 80- and 90-hour weeks to make it all work. He recalls asking a friend, a well-respected, full-time photographer based in Salt Lake, “How do you actually make a living taking photos?” It seemed like such a far-away goal.
But finally, a year later in summer 2016, Wetzel “jumped onto the self-employment train and rode it full-speed ahead.”
The next summer, Wetzel caught wind of the news that a total solar eclipse was expected on Aug. 21, 2017. It would be the first total solar eclipse visible from the mainland U.S. since 1979; it would be the first with a path of visibility crossing the country since 1918. It would be nicknamed the “Great American Eclipse.”
From Steamboat, a viewer was expected to see 98% coverage — in other words, in looking up from Steamboat, the moon covers 98% of the sun. But from several hours north in parts of Wyoming, a viewer would find 100% totality, with the moon covering the entire circle of sun except a thin ring of fire, allowing viewers to safely see the event without protective eyewear.
“It was very, very important that I made it up to (100% totality),” Wetzel said. “The difference between 99% and 100% totality is — literally — night and day.”
Wetzel spent weeks tinkering with ideas of how to capture the image of a mountain biker in the foreground of the sun’s ring. He planned to shoot in Teton Valley, Wyoming, which would get 2 minutes and 21 seconds of totality, and where his friend Chris Brule lived and knew the local mountain bike trails. With the start of totality set for 11:36 a.m., the sun and moon spectacle would be directly overhead. Even if Wetzel could shoot from under a massive jump or from within a deep canyon, hundreds of feet below the biker, the logistics fitting together during the eclipse perfectly, all within the 2 minutes and 21 seconds of totality, seemed, probably, impossible.
“I wanted to capture the eclipse and accurately convey the feeling of watching the eclipse: a magical experience that leaves you speechless, with goosebumps gracing your skin,” Wetzel said.
One morning, Wetzel woke up with a plan that made complete sense. For the first part of the double-exposure shot, during totality, he’d point his camera directly upwards at the eclipse; if captured correctly, the ring of sun in the top right third of the frame, would be the only image in the photograph, surrounded entirely by darkness.
Next, during that evening’s 15-minute window of fading twilight in which the fading light tones matched the rest of the first shot’s darkness, a second shot would feature in its lower half a mountain biker charging down a steep slope, lit by three wireless flashes. The data of the lower half of the eclipse shot would essentially be replaced during the double exposure with the data of the mountain biker shot, with a final photo featuring both the eclipse’s totality and the mountain biker.
For both images, the camera’s ISO and aperture would have to be exactly the same, which is technically restrictive.
While it would have been possible to Photoshop together a similar product by way of blending several different photographs, that route was never an option to Wetzel.
“If (the combining of images) was done in post processing, it wouldn’t be honorable to a purist photographer, or more importantly, myself,” Wetzel said. “That would be editing, as compared to photography.”
Plus, this way, he and the bikers in the project — would still be able to watch the eclipse itself; that wouldn’t have been a possibility if the bikers were biking during totality in a single shot.
Wetzel buckled down on the project.
“Once an image becomes a mission, it’s pretty exciting,” he said.
He ordered new filters and gear, sketched out concepts and tested his cameras on double exposure. He gathered a crew of friends who were up to mountain bike and help with the project: Brule, Evan Grott and Blake Sommer. He planned, he researched, he thought everything through, he triple-checked. Then, he packed up his Subaru and headed north.
“It was kind of like preparing for doomsday; however, in this case, it was our decision to head straight into the storm,” Wetzel said.
It would take several days before the eclipse to scout a perfect shooting location: Wetzel searched for a spot that would feature the Grand Teton and where the mountain bikers would be above the horizon in the photographer’s perspective. Also necessary was a camp spot with easy access to the shooting location, as to not be blocked by the projected thousands of eclipse-seekers heading to the area in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
“There was definitely nervous energy and anticipation the night before (the eclipse),” Wetzel said.
The morning of Aug. 21, the group’s alarms went off at 5 a.m. Loaded up with camera and bike gear, flashes, light stands, tripods, lenses, backup equipment, radios, filters, computers, headlamps and food and water for the long day ahead, they hiked in several miles to the shooting location.
In the minutes before 11:36 a.m., the moon slipped in front of the sun and an eerie shadow of darkness fell over Teton Valley. The temperature dropped; birds, confused, stopped singing. The perfect ring around the sun marked 100% totality, and in those 2 minutes and 21 seconds, Wetzel adjusted camera settings to fit both the eclipse and the anticipated conditions of twilight that would come nine hours later.
“With two cameras going at two different settings, between shots, I’d stare up (at the eclipse), breathe slow, take it in and absorb the moment and then say, ‘Okay, back to the shot!’” Wetzel recalled.
And then, it was over. The moon slid past the sun, and as the world brightened back to the normalcy of midday in August, the crew toasted with champagne. Without the first shot, the whole project would have been a bust, and they’d gotten the first shot. But the work of the second half of the double-exposure was still ahead.
“We were feeling pretty good,” Wetzel said. “I knew there was only one more frame to go, and this was my specialty: twilight flashed shots.”
After a power nap on the steep mountainside, the group got to work prepping the log feature for the twilight bike shot, and Wetzel set up his equipment. The riders practiced dropping in and hurtling through the air, hitting the feature, and Wetzel practiced snapping the image of them midair. Sunset was approaching.
Finally, it was twilight. During the test shot, the landscape looked perfect, the athletes hit the feature perfectly — but the flashes didn’t fire. A month prior during a fly-fishing photoshoot, Wetzel’s camera had been water damaged, but it still seemed to work fine — except for the hot shoe, which communicates with the wireless flashes via an attached wireless transmitter.
Wetzel frantically turned the flashes on and off, unplugged and replugged, troubleshot in every way possible, sprinting between equipment full-speed. But nothing was working.
“It was heartbreaking, it was devastating,” Wetzel said. “I felt I’d let the athletes down — they’d put their trust in me. Because I was going after something so specific, I was going to walk away with nothing. I couldn’t believe I had made this mistake. I was holding back tears but was telling myself, ‘Don’t give up before it’s absolutely dark.’”
In the last moments of twilight before pitch-blackness of night, Wetzel had a flashbulb epiphany. He remembered a technique he’d used early on in his photography, which he called the poor man’s wireless flash: if the exposure was long enough, with the camera positioned on a tripod and manually triggered, he could manually fire the flashes as the riders were in the air.
As the last of the light dwindled, the shot became increasingly balanced, but the feature became increasingly difficult to hit, requiring the athletes to rely on the muscle memory they’d built up over the afternoon. During the 2.5 second exposure, the riders had to drop in and hit the feature, with Wetzel, who was also constantly checking the settings of the eclipse image, manually activating the transmitter as the riders reached the apex point in the air. If the timing was even slightly off, with the flash continuing for any more than a few milliseconds after the riders hit the apex, that rider would appear transparent in the image.
With the light nearly gone, Wetzel asked the riders to do one more run, and they agreed. The final shot of Chris Brule in the double exposure was exactly what they needed to balance the overall image and create the photograph that would name Noah Wetzel a Raw category finalist and bring him to Italy. After their 16-hour day, the crew hiked out through the darkness, stopping to sip champagne and gaze at the image they’d created, feeling the awe of the evening.
“I’d never put that much work into capturing a single image before,” he reflected, “so it’s probably the image I’m most proud of.”
In the months after the August 2017 eclipse photo was taken, Wetzel reached out to various outlets that he thought might publish the photograph, including National Geographic, Time and Bike Magazine, but no one seemed interested. Eventually, Mountain Flyer Magazine picked up the photo for their December 2017 magazine cover, as well as a two-page spread inside and limited-edition poster.
“That feeling was pretty good,” Wetzel said. “Everybody else had kind of passed on it for whatever reason, so it was nice to have validation that it’s a crazy difficult, complex image to capture.”
The Mountain Flyer Magazine feature, it turns out, was just a glimpse of what the eclipse-biker photo had in its future.
Back at the Lumen Museum in Italy in November, it was finally time for the Raw category.
The photographs of the other four finalists flashed, one by one, onto the screen, and then Wetzel’s eclipse photo appeared — and stayed there. As the contestants digested the image — this was everyone’s first time seeing it — the shock was palpable, and then applause shook the room. He’d won.
“Hearing the reactions from my fellow photographers in the room — that was the most heartwarming, rewarding thing out of the whole experience,” Wetzel said.
And as great as it is to have the validation and prestige of an elite, international award, Wetzel still values the enjoyment of his craft itself above anything else.
“It feels good to win the award,” Wetzel said thoughtfully, “but it feels just as good as when you capture a really good action image, right in that moment. That’s where the passion lies, the excitement, the pursuit of new imagery. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Wetzel also took home a 10-pound glass trophy, a Sony a7 III, 24-104 f4 GM lens, a bundle of memory cards and mobile work flow solutions from SanDisk and Skylum photo editing software.
“I could care less about the gear — it means everything to win the Illume, the title, and the respect of the best photographers in the world,” Wetzel noted.
The winner awards ceremony also served as the kickoff to a world tour of an exhibit of the finalists’ photographs, displayed as illuminated lightboxes. This year’s finalists’ photographs will also be compiled into a limited-edition, 336-page coffee table book.
See more of Wetzel’s work at noahdavidwetzel.com.
Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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