Talent does not come with an age limit. 25-year-old Kyle Wells is quickly making his bones and becoming one of the premier off-road race photographers of our day. Urbane, reserved, and talented, Kyle has a strong voice within his images and is passionate about his art.
I’ve been a casual friend with Kyle for a few years now – swapping stories in the dust and sharing a laugh at events – but I wanted to know more about the man behind the lens and introduce you to an up-and-coming talent in photography today.
Kyle is always articulate and thoughtful. Speaking from his home in beautiful Bountiful, Utah, it was great to catch up with him during a tiny break in his busy schedule. Here is my conversation with Kyle Wells about his vision, style, and art.
Ok. Before we get into the heavy stuff, I’m going to hit you with my regular “rapid-fire” questions; you know, “deep, important stuff” that people want to know, so be ready. Is that cool?
(laughs) That’s cool.
How long have you been a professional photographer?
Only about 2 years now.
What was your first camera?
Besides disposables as a kid, my first “real” camera was a Canon 60D.
What do you shoot with now?
The Canon 7D Mark ii. Yeah, I love it. I fell in love with the 60D, but this thing is just leaps and bounds…
I know I should know this, but just how old are you?
25 years old.
How long have you been married?
3 years this past May.
So what is your daily driver?
1950 CJ3A Willys. I daily drive that thing. I only work about half a mile from home, so that’s what I drive. It’s actually pretty fun. I haven’t driven my truck in several weeks now.
Who do you like more, Will or Nicole (mandatory, now…)
Will – without sounding, you know… (laughs)
Ford, Chevy, or Dodge?
Ok, now it’s time for a lightening round of “this or that?”. Are you ready?
(laughs) I guess.
Star Wars or Star Trek?
Beatles or the Stones?
Mustard or Catsup?
Burgers or Dogs?
Records, CD’s, or mp3’s?
Coffee or Tea?
(long pause) Tea.
Beach or Mountains?
Football or Baseball?
Hot or cold?
Halloween or Christmas?
Godfather or Scarface?
Netflix or Red Box?
Boxers or Briefs?
Your house is on fire, you have time to grab three things (besides your family members) – what do you grab?
Camera, hard drive, computer. (laughs)
Best movie you’ve seen in the last year?
Favorite movie of all time?
The Perfect Storm
AC/DC is always a go to.
The Hut in the Tree in the Woods.
(read more here)
Favorite adult beverage?
Jack Daniels whiskey.
If you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing?
I would be living with my parents, single, probably out on a hike right now… and that’s it.
Who would you trade places with for one day?
Loren Healy on the day of the King of the Hammers!
You chose Netflix earlier, so what is the last series you binge watched?
The last series that I binge watched was the “Modern Marvel” series.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way… let’s go into the deep end of the pool.
Why do you do photography?
I love it. Everything about it. Being outdoors, the creativity that goes behind it. It’s like the only thing I can do that’s completely free… even if I’m hired by somebody, it’s my direction… whatever I want to do with it.
What are your 3 most memorable moments while on a shoot?
My most memorable moment of all was probably just the moment that I got the call to go down to the Baja 1000. That was one of the coolest things ever… just being able to shoot that. I’d say the coolest moments are just moments that, without photography, I would never have… like being down at King of the Hammers and being out on the course during certain things and what not. Not really any one moment, though, that stands out above the rest. Just the collection of moments.
Have you ever been so lost in a moment you didn’t get the shot?
I have, yeah. Yeah, I have. I’ve sat by and watched cars go by and have been just been blown away and then like “Crap! I need to shoot these things!” (laughs)
If you owned a “rock bouncer”, what would you name it?
I thought about this the other night and I was thinking hard about it. I think I would go with like… I just don’t think I’d go with anything crazy… I’d go with something like “Billy Backwood” or something. “Backwood Billy Bouncer”.
What photographers do you admire (off-road or not), and why do you admire them?
#1 is Stephen Lloyd (www.stevelloydphoto.com). He’s a Utah photographer that I really look up to. I’ve actually interned for him. I’ve learned so much from him that I really think the style I have of shooting was earned while working for him. I have a lot to look up to him for.
#2 is Adam Barker (www.adambarkerphotography.com). He is also a Utah based photographer that does landscape and life style stuff and I’ve always been a huge fan of his. … just how clean his work is, his attitude in general, his attitude about photography… I relate very closely to why he does it and where his passion comes from.
There are a lot of off-road and motorsports photographers that I look up to, but it’s funny because neither one of those two guys ever shoot off-road. With Stephen Lloyd we did some mountain biking and hiking shots. That’s why I kinda have the style that I like is that everything I’ve learned and everything that I like personally, it’s landscape driven… big skies, big landscapes. That’s where I get my style.
How does it feel to write and publish for a major publication like The Driving Line? How does commercial work differ from personal work?
Well, to start, working for Driving Line (www.drivingline.com) has been nothing short of a dream. To me, I feels like I’ve “made it”. I feel accomplished being with Driving Line, and every day I get another e-mail for another event or what not, I’m just stoked to be a part of it and I will ride it as long as I can.
That being said, with commercial stuff, before I started really shooting commercially, I shot a couple races like the American Rocksports Challenge 3 years go in Utah. That was one of the first Ultra4’s that I shot and I just fell in love with it just for my own reasons. I would come out of an event liking only one or two photos. And now that I’m working for somebody, you’ve got to produce images and different images, you know, telling a story. So it definitely puts a little bit of stress on you, but I kinda find, you know… creativity and freedom within that. So… it’s good.
Do you ever take days where you just go out and shoot for fun because you feel like it?
Yes. All the time. I hike a lot in the foothills above my house. I’ve shot the sunset here in the Great Salt Lake so many times… but it never gets old. I go out all the time just to shoot anything, really. I’ll shoot landscape; I’ll go up and chase deer around. Whatever it is, I’m always shooting. I love shooting photography.
What is your favorite location you’ve ever shot?
My favorite location, personally, I think, would been Johnson Valley. The fact that when I’ve been down there for the Hammers, there is racing and everything, but so much landscape. There is so much room to work with everything… and different landscape… in the sand, and the whoops, and the mountains… that’s one of my favorite locations for sure.
What is your favorite aspect of a shoot?
Definitely the shooting of it. The traveling is fun, but the shooting is what I’m there for. That’s the part I really enjoy. I like looking over the car, working around it, finding the angle, getting creative… that’s my favorite part, for sure.
What is your personal favorite style of photography?
Nighttime photography. I love shooting at night because you’ve got full control of everything. I mix a lot of long exposure with light painting and it’s just really fun.
How much time do you spend pre-planning a shoot vs just letting it happen?
As soon as I know about it (laughs). As soon as I know about it, I’m online… either researching what past stuff that they’ve used, what style they have… I try to look at the kind of quality they’ve had before, I start looking at locations, often I go out to locations, check them at multiple times… morning, sunset… just to see what it looks like. When I shoot commercial, I stress quite a bit on performing, so I’m usually planning just about every day until the shoot.
What is your favorite photograph you’ve ever taken?
The one that I haven’t taken yet!
Wait wait… how long have you been waiting to use that line (laughs)?!?!
Forever! That’s why when I found out about this interview… it’s all based on that answer right there! (laughs)
Ok, Ok… so what is your SECOND favorite photo you’ve ever taken?
My 2nd favorite is of a car, it’s a spec class car during KOH 2014 at the very top of Chocolate Thunder… just everything about it. For me, there is a lot more behind that photo than the image itself. For me, I remember being frustrated because there were so many people in Chocolate Thunder and I didn’t have a way around the valley that year. Out of frustration I hiked to the very top. I didn’t think I would find anything cool… it wasn’t that hard of an obstacle, but it ended up being one of my all time favorite shots. I could hear the crowd down inside the canyon, and I could hear the car coming through the canyon so I would know when someone was coming up, and that whole image to me is just what it’s all about.
What was your first professional photograph?
It would have been of a home. I very first started shooting real estate photography for a marketing agency here in town… that would have been the very first professional image I produced. I’ve come a long way from shooting homes (chuckles). When I first bought that 60D it was like true love… it was like “what have I been doing my whole life?”
What is the most important part of the shoot for you? The part that you really connect with?
For me, my personal all time favorite, when I’m at my high, it’s about solitude and creativity. Being alone in a moment, and having that moment… often times at Hammers I’ll be in a canyon with nobody else around. You can hear the car coming and you are all alone. You can see the car coming up and you have those moments of time to frame up a shot and get ready for that shot… and as the car works its way towards you, you’re taking those photos… you watch it continue on and then down the canyon…THAT moment of freedom and solitude is everything to me.
What keeps your motivated after all of your success?
To keep pushing and doing more. It is just the fact that with photography there is always something new. You can build rock buggies, for example, but as much as you change that tube, at the end of the day it is still housing somebody inside of it. It’s still somewhat square. It is still something that fits in a box and has tires on it… but with photography, every image is different. So I’m always motived just to create that new image. I want to always be on the frontier.
Where do you see the evolution of off–roading racing taking the sport?
I think the sky is the limit. I’ve been blown away by the growth in the last few years anyway and the attention that we are getting. People are starting to realize that these are state of the art machines and they deserve respect. They aren’t “just a rock crawler” anymore and they are state of the art. Even the government is looking at prototypes from some of the builders. I think that it will end up being as big as… you know. For me, I hope that we look back at it and it’s like NASCAR… we remember when we started on dirt tracks and now here we are.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the last 5 years regarding photography in general and motorsports photography specifically?
The biggest things that I’ve seen in the last three years of shooting motorsports is just an unreal amount of photographers… it doesn’t matter if it’s the Hammers or a Dirt Riot in the middle of Arizona, it’s amazing how many green vests come out. That’s great for the sport… really great for the sport… but it makes it hard for us because you are fighting for that shot and you’re crowding around. Really, I would say that’s the biggest change in photography, also the fact that cameras are amazing these days and it’s not hard to create a good image.
How do you see social media and cell phones affecting that same space?
It’s hard. Social media is such a powerful tool; obviously you get your exposure. That’s how I came up through the ranks so fast was gaining exposure, getting those photos out there, getting known, getting your name out… all on social media. That’s also what hurts us. There are so many people at races and at event and hanging out in garages during builds. With modern cell phones, they take really good photos. And when they are posting them on social media, they don’t need to send a pro photographer out to somebody’s garage to document a build when they have things going up daily on Facebook. So it hurts a little bit, but it’s good for the sport, so it’s hard to hate it.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
At the ripe old age of 35? I want to be shooing an off-road event every weekend. Every weekend I want to be traveling around with my wife and working hard, doing good photography. Have one kid. ONE KID. You can make note of that, by the way… and that’s it. …doing what I’m doing. I’m happy where I’m at.
Who or what is your mentor / inspiration to do what you do?
Stephen Lloyd and Adam Barker. I look up to Will Gentile and people like Will to motivate me as well. They are on the cutting edge. They motivate me. I want to be on the cutting all the time as well. They motivate me.
If you could give one piece of advice for someone who wants to do what you do, what would it be?
Be prepared to be broke for a long time… long schedules, a lot of stress (laughs).
What is one thing you would change about photographing motorsports if you could?
I would grow 9 arms so I could hold 4 more cameras… (laughs). I would say “bigger venues” instead of short course stuff. It’s kind of a love / hate. I know it’s good for spectators, but…
Do you feel there should be limits to the number of photographers covering events?
That is a super conflicted question for me. Right now, I would say “yes”, you have to be limited. You should be either on assignment or they should check out your outlet to make sure it’s a legitimate outlet… BUT, that being said, I wouldn’t be where I am if they wouldn’t let people in to shoot. The first event I shot was the American Rocksports Challenge and the only reason I shot it was that I didn’t want to pay for admission… you know, and I had my camera, and it fell into place and I fell in love with it. If it wasn’t for Shannon (Welch) letting me onto that track, I don’t think that I would ever have been here. It’s super conflicted for me. That’s hard for me to answer.
What are three things people should know about you that they don’t know about you?
I’m pretty shy. It takes a lot to meet new people, but I do a good job of hiding it so people might not know that about me. I am an avid skier. I love skiing and I do a lot of skiing. I also love fly-fishing. I love it. I grew up fly-fishing. My old man’s whole life is fly-fishing and I grew up loving it. Also, I won a ski boot race for a season pass at a ski resort. It’s a 1K in ski boots. I’m in my shorts and ski boots and everything. I’ll send you a picture. It’s crazy. I puked at the end of it, it was terrible, but I won!
A visionary with a strong statement in each of his photos, Kyle is moving the art of off-road photography forward at a rapid pace. If you get a chance to see Kyle on the job at a race, take a minute to introduce yourself and get to know this talented young photographer. If you are a publication, it’s worth exploring Kyle’s work and adding his world view to your contributing team. If you just need a drinking buddy… well, evidently some Jack Daniels and a copy of the Perfect Storm will at least get the conversation started.
~ The Dusty Gnome
See more of Kyle’s work on his website here: www.kylewellsphoto.com
Like and follow Kyle on Facebook here: Kyle Wells Photo
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