Neil Zeller was a furniture salesman for 14 years. But after having doubts about his future in that career, he decided to shift to photography full-time.
“I had what I call a ‘mid-life creative’ and decided I needed to do something more fulfilling with my life,” Zeller said.
Long before Zeller decided to pursue photography as a career, he worked as a commission salesman, a far cry from a career as a photographer.
“My previous career was in office contract furnishing sales,” Zeller said. “I sold office furniture to the big towers downtown.”
Zeller also owned a landscape construction company, and during those years, photography was just something Zeller enjoyed doing in his free time.
“I always loved photography. I wasn’t particularly good at it,” Zeller said.“I started taking photos of the Peace Bridge here in Calgary, and started getting a bit of critical acclaim for that. And it got me learning the technical side of the camera.”
As Zeller’s photography skills improved, he found his passion for sales began to dwindle.
“Selling a product for a long time can get monotonous. I made a good living at it, I was decent at it. But it didn’t feed my creative soul. It didn’t give me that satisfaction that I had created something that was meaningful to myself and others.”
Zeller knew photography would be the fulfilling job he was looking for. But, he remained apprehensive about taking the plunge.
“I knew [the] business well enough that if I tried it as a business and ended up burning out of it and resenting it, I’d probably hate myself. That’s how much I loved photography,” Zeller said.
Despite all the risk he associated with pursuing a life-long passion as a career, Zeller decided to jump in.
“It [photography] kept showing up in front of me like, ‘this is it.’ And I tried to push it away because I loved it too much,” Zeller said.
The gamble paid off. And upon making his life-changing decision, Zeller decided that he would apply a positive outlook into his work.
Zeller’s change into photography he says has been successful. He estimates that in 2017 he did about 180 corporate photoshoots and 20 different workshops, including numerous travelling tours.
So far, the career change has allowed him to work with several notable figures for his shoots, including Mayor Nenshi.
However, he doesn’t often dwell on the recognition he’s gained.
“I’ve worked to achieve that. When I get there, it’s less about being in the company of these other people and more about making sure I get the photos. There’s never a moment to stop and say, ‘Here I am.’”
Carla Link, the Marketing and Communications manager at YW Calgary, recommends working with Zeller to anyone looking for a great photographer.“I had what I call a ‘mid-life creative’ and decided I needed to do something more fulfilling with my life.” – Neil Zeller
“He’s very creative in how he approaches things. He finds creative ways to have a real visual impact. And particularly when we work with clients he is extremely respectful. He’s great at gathering people together, and making it fun,” Link said.
A surprising addition came with the career change, and Zeller began holding workshops for individuals interested in learning about photography.
“I was a terrible student, so I didn’t think I could be a good teacher,” Zeller said.
His first workshop started with a Facebook post asking people who wanted to learn how to take pictures of the night sky to meet him at a Tim Hortons and was far more successful than he had expected.
“Fifteen people showed up. And we went off in 40-below that night, and somebody got stuck in the ditch and we had to get AMA to tow them out. But everybody seemed to like it, and people that were in that class four years ago are now on career paths in photography, which is really cool.”
Zeller says teaching photography has showed him more about photography than he had ever learned on his own, and he is searching for more opportunities to teach.
“I love it. It’s my favourite thing to do now.”
Some might think that turning a hobby into a career would cause one to search for other pastimes, but that’s not the case for Zeller.
“I go out in the middle of the night because I love shooting the night sky. My wife is used to me putting on all my snow gear and just heading out. A lot of times we book our vacations around where there will be really cool photography,” he said.
Even with all the time spent focusing on his photography, Zeller still finds time to spend with his wife and 10-year-old son.
“I’m a family man, so whatever my kid is doing I’m involved in. We enjoy the outdoors. My son and I started building an N-scale train layout,” Zeller said. “We figure it will take us five or six years to finish.”
Zeller also says that his wife and son have influenced his photography in numerous ways.
“I see the world from his eyes a lot. It shows me a different view of things,” Zeller said.
“My wife takes photos with her iPhone in places. And she’ll find angles that I don’t find.”
Zeller admits that turning his passion into a career hasn’t been easy, but believes his ability to use his skills and background in business have helped him create a thriving photography business.
“I wake up and every single morning and I consider myself unemployed. And being unemployed, I have to do the things that day to solve that problem.”
You can check out neilzellerphotography.zenfolio.com for more examples of Zeller’s work.
- By Tristan Oram