Story by Elijah Beaver
Photos by Neil Zeller
Neil Zeller has been shooting photos for as long as he remembers, but it wasn’t until his “midlife creative” that he decided to leave his job in corporate sales and turn photography into a career.
Zeller chose photography, a hobby he’s been interested in for years, despite not being initially “great” at it, to feed his creative soul.
Starting with a Canon XTI and its 18-55mm kit lens, Zeller initially shot anything and everything he could including family trips, events and the city landscapes – particularly the then-new Peace Bridge.
In the beginning, Zeller was very cautious about getting into the hobby professionally as he loved it so much he didn’t want to resent it, having knowledge in business and its possibility of failure.
“[Nearly] five years into [this] career and it’s still my favourite hobby,” says Zeller. A mantra that stuck with Zeller early on, and has helped him since is, “You will survive this very next minute.”
In November 2012, Tourism Calgary contacted him from his Instagram page after he shot photos that “professed a positive image” of the city. Zeller was then hired to shoot a fashion show, something he’d never shot before. He Googled how to shoot and what lens to use to properly prepare himself in the two-hour timeframe he was given.
“It would have been [better] if I knew what I know now. But from that point forward, I decided to say ‘yes’ to everything, whether I was afraid of it or I’d never done it before.”
That approach set in motion Zeller’s position on taking any gig that required a photographer, whether he knew how to shoot it or not. This brought in opportunities to shoot for Mayor Nenshi, Village Brewery, Beakerhead and many more.
Zeller sees the world in “4 x 6 boxes” and is constantly looking for ways to shoot common things from a more compelling point of view.
When describing the beginner workshops he teaches, Zeller says, “We try to make chicken soup out of chicken poop,” taking “uninteresting subject matter” and making it interesting.
The takeaways from these workshops include learning the camera language, techniques of shooting, composition, and finding inspiration.
“The Peace Bridge has been shot more times in the last four or five years than anything else in Calgary and you can still find unique views by not shooting from ‘selfie level,’” Zeller laughs.
Two things are front and centre in all of Zeller’s photos: the use of a unique point of view and colour, or, as Zeller calls it, “hyper-saturation.”
The result attests to his belief that our eyes see in higher definition than the camera, so his process in post-production is to edit the colour to how he saw them.
“Some people have the ‘eye’ and idea for [a photo], but it comes to [your] budget and equipment, which is unfortunate,” says Zeller.
He is currently developing a six to twelve-month photography program that would include on-site workshops, homework, guest speakers and more. The main hurdle is planning the program’s dates to work around his home-life, beginner workshops, and previously scheduled shoots.
“I want to make it as meaning and fulfilling as it needs to be. I’m debating whether to have it be photography alone, or business [as well] – that’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
For the summer months, Zeller hopes to have a stronger plan in place to get the program up and running.
From early on, Zeller grew his inspiration not from famous photographers, but from the people he’s met and knows personally.
Dave Brosha, a fellow photographer, was one who went through a similar circumstance.
“He was up in Yellowknife at the time, and he had a ‘midlife creative’ as well, [picking up] photography and loving it.”
A prevalent aspect of Brosha’s work is the writing alongside his portfolio, which is something Zeller wants to be better at.
“The writing part [for photography] is huge, so I’m trying to figure that out.”
Other peers Zeller mentions as inspirations for writing are Paul Zizka, Lyle Aspinall, Leah Hennel, and Mike Drew.
Collaboration and community are two things Zeller loves to keep in his back pocket.
“I’m friends with tons of photographers, and we talk about events and pricings; we work together at times and hire each other.
“The inclusivity – is that a word?” Zeller asks and laughs, “Being inclusive in the industry is easier and more fulfilling than any other way [to work].”
Zeller thanks his wife, son and his parents who helped initially with costs, all of whom are huge supporters of his work.
“My son is so proud of me, he adores what I do.
“I could never be what I am right now without the consideration of [my family].”