Business before art - Photographer Vicki Knights

Leaving a successful high-level radio job behind, Vicki went freelance when she became a mum.

But you won’t hear say “Hi, I’m a freelance photographer”.
Instead it’s, “I run a photography business”.

From the outset Vicki’s always put business before art.

When burn out threatened she hired other photographers to work with her. She’s diversified into teaching both online and in person. She organises workshops and retreats.

We chat about pricing, collaboration, podcasting and putting an hour aside at the start of each day to work on marketing or her side projects - to eat that frog.

Right. Hit play and let’s get down to business.

Transcription of freelance podcast with Vicki Knights and Steve Folland

Steve Folland: Let's find out what it's like being freelance for this week's guest and that is photographer Vicki Knights. Hey Vicki.

Vicki Knights: Hi Steve.

Steve Folland: As ever, let's get started hearing how you got started being freelance.

Vicki Knights: Yes, well I worked in advertising sales for 10 years, very much an office job, going out to lots of meetings and I'm probably quite rare for a freelancer, in that I really loved my job, really loved it. It was a massive part of my life in my 20s. Then got pregnant, it was all planned, I was married, and got pregnant and I always planned to go back. I remember someone in the office saying, "Oh if anyone's going to come back, it'll be Vicki," because I was really ambitious and I loved my career. Yeah, when I went on maternity leave, I started thinking, "Actually, it'd be really lovely to run my own business." I'd always had aspirations in the future of having my own business and I thought, "Yeah, it'd be really lovely to run my own business but I just don't know what in." So the business part came before the photography part, and I think that's quite unusual, especially for photographers or people in art, in the art field.

Vicki Knights: So as a mom, I was looking around for a gap in the market, just thinking, "Right, what is it that I'm after as a mom and what can't I get?" I won't name any names, but I went to a high street studio to get some photos of me and my baby as a surprise father's day present for my husband and just had a really awful experience with them. Just the customer service was terrible, it was just really bad and actually I've got to give credit to my husband because we were sat in a café, I remember it vividly, on a Sunday morning and I was like, "I really want to set up a business, I feel like time's running out, I'm a few months into my maternity leave, I really need to think of something." And he said, "Why don't you be a photographer?" I was like, "Well I know I love photography," it'd always been a passion of mine, used to take photos for friends' families and stuff and I was like, " ... but I don't want a studio, I don't want to do that kind of thing." He said, "Well no, I mean, why don't you photograph like you photograph our baby?"

Vicki Knights: So I started looking into it and it just wasn't a big thing here 10 years ago at all, this was back in 2008 but I started looking at the States, because they're normally a bit ahead of us, aren't they? It was really big out there, lifestyle photography, and there was loads of photographers doing exactly what I wanted to do. So that kind of then made me go, "Okay I'm going to do it." But my plan was always to do it at the weekends for a while, while I'm working three days a week up in London and then in my negotiations with my employer at the time, because I ran a team of seven people, when I left I was head of sponsorship for lots of radio stations like Kiss and Magic and stuff and they wanted me to go back four days, which I totally understand. I had a big revenue figure on my head, I had this team of people and I just didn't want to do that. My baby was really clingy so every time I handed to someone else, he cried and I just couldn't face it.

Vicki Knights: So that kind of made me just go for it and I just thought, "Right, I'm not coming back, I'm just going to set up my business." I had to really go for it because I knew that I needed to earn the same amount as I would have done going back to work but actually by the time you factor in childcare costs, travel costs and all of that kind of stuff, lunch every day, your take home pay wasn't worth the sacrifice of leaving my baby for three days. So that made me just throw myself into it and go into it. So I was really lucky that when I set up the market was not saturated, so I remember my website going live, literally the next day getting an inquiry and a booking. You don't get that nowadays, do you?

Steve Folland: Wow, so did you have any savings aside? Did you plan for it or did you ...

Vicki Knights: Yeah, I was actually quite lucky in that ... so I worked in sales and actually just as I left we'd had a really good year, so I'd actually got quite a decent bonus at the end of it just right at the beginning of my maternity pay, so that did help me on my way but certainly was not a case of, "Oh great, I don't have to work for years." But I very much looked at it and went, "Right, black and white, this is what I would be taking home if I go into work three days a week, so this is what I need to earn," and I did, that first year, I earned more than that. When I was looking at figures, I was like, "If I shoot every weekend and I just work while my baby's sleeping ... " and then my mom came up and looked after him one day a week, so I knew I could shoot during the week once as well. As long as the business is there, I know this is viable and I can do it and luckily ... It was a big risk because obviously no one ever knows if the business is going to be there but it was, luckily for me, so it was the right decision.

Steve Folland: So you mentioned getting a website, but how did you go about getting those first clients, the first few months or whatever it may have been?

Vicki Knights: Yeah, website and like I say, now that's really difficult. When someone's just setting up as a family photographer, they're going to be page 15 on Google, whereas at the time, outdoor family photographer, there just weren't any so I went straight to number one straight away. But at the beginning, what I did ... my advice is always to people is, make sure that you're marketing when you're not busy. So I think when people aren't busy, they sort of think, "Oh maybe I can get on with other things, the business will come in." That's when I just went out and marketing.

Vicki Knights: So the first thing I did actually is I was going with my mother and baby groups. So I contacted a few and said, "Could I come along and do some lovely photographs of moms with their babies?" I did it around mother's day actually and, "I'll take them outside, I'll shoot how I shoot, there's no backdrops or anything like that. It's totally free for you as a playgroup, and then I'll send them the gallery and then they can buy prints afterwards?" Actually I got loads of bookings off the back of that. So people bought prints, so I made something from it, not a vast amount from just the prints but then I started getting the word out about me and my business and my photography and got loads of bookings and built my network on the back of that.

Steve Folland: Yeah and families talk like no others as far as word of mouth.

Vicki Knights: Yeah exactly. Another thing I did actually in the first few years, this is what I really missed about working for a company, is just day to day banter and working in a team and the camaraderie and so I set up this business moms network because I couldn't find one that I wanted to join, they were all very much the breakfast meetings and stuff and I wanted something that was in my target market, so moms and also people that would understand what I was going through.

Vicki Knights: So I set one up and if I look back in the network that I've built from that, I've got so much business and friendships and actually feeling like part of a team from it. Even, I only ran it for about a year at the time, because then I had a second baby and so I just couldn't continue with it. But you know when you look back and you can ... you think, "Right, I got four clients from that," but actually they sent you another two clients each and then they sent you another ... just the whole ... When you look back, I got a huge amount of business from that.

Steve Folland: Yeah, so business moms network was an in person community?

Vicki Knights: Yeah, we literally only had a handful of meetings I think, there were no Facebook groups back then, so I literally set it up ... I contacted a couple of local newspapers and they put in a little bit about it saying, "Local mom photographer is setting up this business moms group." So a lot of people then told friends of theirs it'd be relevant to. My email address was in there so I got lots of emails and I just used to email everyone saying, "Right, we're meeting up, got a speaker coming in." We just ran it at this local pub once a month, yeah so it was free entry. So I only ran a handful of them but because I think it was ... everyone could see I wasn't trying to make money for it, I was doing it because I wanted to be part of it, I think it was a fantastic thing to do. I think that's how you build your network, is by recommending other people and helping people really.

Steve Folland: So did it feel like it picked up speed pretty quickly for you?

Vicki Knights: Yeah it did and that's the thing, when I look back, and whenever I'm advising new photographers about it, it's difficult for me to empathize with the panic of not having business because mine was always the panic of having too much business and trying ... The whole reason, my whole why was I did it to be with my family more and to raise my children and not have to put them in a nursery five days a week, so that's why I was doing it and the joy of running a business and loving photography as well. So I had to look at that and go, "I really don't ... " I was so scared of turning away business, so I used to just take on pretty much every shoot that came my way and then be totally burnt out because I was working every evening sometimes.

Vicki Knights: So I look back at when the boys were really little and I was working ... every time they weren't with me I was working, so there was no time for anything else, exercise went out the window and I'd sit there in the evenings working, my husband's watching TV in the room next to me. I look back and think, "Oh my God, I wish I'd taken on a bit less." But it was just that panic of thinking, "Is the business always going to be here and if I turn it away they're going to go to someone else and I may not get another inquiry like that. I think that's always the balance, isn't it?

Steve Folland: Did you gradually find that balance?

Vicki Knights: Yes, so I would say especially in the last few years. So I moved out, I used to live up north Surrey which isn't relevant but in my head, this is where everything changed really. About four years ago I moved down and I think ... That was it, because my boys started school at that same time. So we moved house, both boys started school and I think I'd always thought, "Right they start school and I'll be able to work even harder." Actually I found they needed me more, there's loads to do when they're at school, actually. Yeah, so at that point, kind of went, "Actually, there's other ways I can manage this."

Vicki Knights: So I now work with two associate photographers. So I'm not out every single Saturday shooting, sometimes if I'm booked up I say to them, "I'm busy, I'm booked up for the next four months but one of my associate photographers can do the shoot and then you'll deal with me for everything afterwards." So that works really well. So it means I can do the more admin-y side during the week when they're at school but someone else is out shooting. I'm still shooting but it just means I'm not doing it every single weekend and I'm just much better with my time. Whereas I used to think, "Yeah, I can squeeze another shoot in there." I look at my diary and go, "No, that's already making me feel stressed looking at that, I cannot take on anything else." So I'm not afraid to refer someone else on if my associates can't do it but it's really nice being able to keep hold of that business and go, "Yes, someone else can shoot it but maybe next year if you book further in advance then I can do it." But I can keep them as my client rather than just constantly referring on.

Steve Folland: Yeah and I wonder whether part of that comes from that fact that right at the beginning there, you said that you wanted to own your own business? You weren't looking at just you, you were thinking perhaps even though it has your name, Vicki Knights Photography, that this was bigger than maybe just you.

Vicki Knights: Yes exactly and I think it is fortunate coming to the business from a business mind perspective. I said that really badly, but you know what I mean, rather than that starving artist mentality of, "I'm so lucky, people are paying me for my art." I was like, "I'm running a business." So I've always said, whenever people say ... and I remember hearing this from someone years ago when I first started, they said, "Never call yourself a photographer." So when you meet someone in the school playground or when you're out for dinner or something, someone says, "What do you do?" Don't say, "I'm a photographer," because actually, let's face it, everyone's a photographer. We all take photos. Say, "I run a photography business." Actually now, I've got lots of different strands to my business so I do run a whole, complete business, I'm not just a photographer. So I think that's a really good bit of advice actually, so I've always made a point of saying that.

Steve Folland: Yeah, it can take a while for that to dawn with a lot of people that we are a business. You mentioned having lots of strands, so you continued to diversify the way you get income, did you?

Vicki Knights: Yeah, and again it's not ... if I'd have just stuck to just doing the thing that I specialize in, which is family shoots outdoors, that's still my bread and butter, but I'm quite a distracted kind of person so I like to have lots of things on the go. I'm not very good at just sticking to one thing. So although I love it, I knew that if that's all I did, I didn't want to ever lose my motivation for it. I never want to wake up on the morning of a shoot and think, "Oh God, I can't be bothered." I always want to feel like, "Great, I've got a shoot." So that's why I don't take on too much. So yeah, back in 2011, lots of people starting asking me the same questions like, "What camera should I buy? How do I photograph this? How do I get that blurry background?"

Vicki Knights: So I was sending so many emails and talking to so many people that I thought, "I might as well just run a workshop." It was out of my comfort zone, because I thought, "I've only been doing this ... " I'd been doing it for three years by then, so I felt quite new to it. I'm not properly trained in photography, I was self-taught. So it's one of those, the imposter syndrome crept in going, "Should I really be teaching this?" But actually they were fantastic. At the beginning, I was running about 15 a year. I now run probably about seven, I think, seven workshops and again, for the very reason that because it's the same workshop that I'm running, I don't want to feel like I'm just ... It's like groundhog day and I'm just doing the same thing over and over.

Vicki Knights: Then the other thing I've started recently, a photographer friend of mine, we met on Twitter years and years ago, and she said, "Me and you should start a podcast." Probably, say five years back, I'd have said, "No, how are we going to monetize that? My time is much better spent taking on shoots." And I thought, "Do you know what? That sounds really good fun." And we get a lot of questions from photographers and neither of us really like writing all that much. We do it but the thought of writing loads of blog posts is not that appealing but we're both quite extroverted, we both love chatting to people so I was like, "Actually, if I can help lots of other photographers and entrepreneurs and chat to people, then fantastic, I don't have to sit there at my desk writing." Because I spend too long at my desk, frankly.

Steve Folland: So you started a podcast. What form does that take? So the two of you chatting?

Vicki Knights: Yes, and we have different guests on each week, mainly photographers but we also invite people who can help other photographers and their business. So it might be a branding expert or an SEO expert, or we had a mom coach on who helps people get things done. We brand it that it's the podcast for people photographers. We've actually had other creatives, because it's like your podcast in that you make a point of saying, "Don't just listen to the podcasts that are people in your field." Don't you? Listen to everyone, I've been listening to lots of yours recently and it doesn't matter what they do, it's just people's story isn't it? Everyone's got something interesting to say?

Steve Folland: Yeah and so how have you find that ... well, I guess the experience of doing the podcast?

Vicki Knights: Well it's time consuming, I'll be honest, because we do them all in person. Both of us have a real phobia of the phone, so you're lucky I'm talking to you today Steve, to be honest, but both of us, we literally won't pick up the phone to each other. We message each other all the time but love meeting people in person. So when she said it I was like, "Oh I don't know if I want to sit on Skype all day," but actually, although it's time consuming because we're traveling to London and meet people, or travel down to Brighton, but we always have a really lovely day out. We get to chat to lots of people and we do it in series so it's not every ... So I saw that you had a break for the summer, didn't you? So we do 12 in each series. We've only just started this year, but we plan to do three different series a year.

Steve Folland: Yeah, so you get the social aspect from it? As in it's a fun thing to do, and does it help your business as well?

Vicki Knights: Yeah, so the other thing I've branched out into, I've always done it but I've made more of a thing this year, is personal branding photography and I love doing it. So meeting with an entrepreneur and taking some photos that they can use throughout their website, on social media, so it's more than just a headshot, it's them doing what they do and I'll spend a couple of hours with them and it's brilliant. The great thing is for my business, is it's mid week as well, when my boys are at school. So that's fantastic. So because we get quite ... we're interviewing a lot of entrepreneurs and because we get lots of entrepreneurs listening, so I've had quite a lot of personal branding business from it. It's difficult to know whether it's from that or Instagram, because they tend to say they've heard and seen me on both, but it definitely helps. Also, I run a retreat for photographers once a year, so it definitely raises my profile, I hope and hopefully people can get to know me and see what I'm about and more likely to book onto my retreat as well.

Steve Folland: Cool, there's no ends to the ...

Vicki Knights: I've got quite a few different strands.

Steve Folland: Yeah, it's awesome. I mean, a retreat, so suddenly you're into organizing events as well, what form does that take?

Vicki Knights: That had been one of these things, I'm always thinking of new ideas and more often than not, I'm sure you have the same thing, you have to just go, "No, I can't do that now, I'm just too busy." But for years ... I mentor photographers sometimes on the phone, I don't take many on, but I do Skype mentoring but photographers have been asking me to run a workshop, but I knew that I didn't want to just do your standard one day workshop 9.00 to 5.00 because I've been on those kind of things and they're fantastic and you get to meet lots of people, learn lots of new things but then you're back home, dealing with your kids, back at your desk the next day and you don't ever action what you've learnt. Well I didn't anyway. Whereas I'd been on workshop retreats, which are three day retreats where you really get yourself out of your everyday life, to really sit and think about your business and I knew that I wanted to do that but the timing just wasn't right because my kids weren't at school and stuff like that.

Vicki Knights: So I first ran one, I think it was ... yeah it was two years ago, 2016, and I also had to find the right venue, which was really hard because I knew I wanted us all in the same house and I wanted catering and it's very difficult to find that in the UK actually. So I found this house down in East Sussex, where we all stay in the same house, you get three meals a day and we do some family shoots, but I ... it took me a long time, but I worked on this 170 page manual of everything I've learned in business. So we go through branding, marketing, SEO, shooting, everything and it's really intense but I love it. I can't talk by the end of it, I literally ... I get home to my husband and I'm like, "I just need to go to bed." But I love it. I have 10 people on it and I have a right hand woman, who's always someone I've worked with before. So the 12 of us just get so close in those three days.

Steve Folland: Wow. Was that a different kind of risk? I'm just imagining that hiring a venue before people have bought a ticket, that feels like a different kind of business risk?

Vicki Knights: It is and it is definitely a risk. Luckily, with any venues, you have to put a deposit down before you sell any tickets. Had they have said, "Right, we need the whole fee from you." That would have been too scary, I think. But it was the risk I was willing to take and I said to people, I think it's that I needed six people minimum but I've run ... this'll be my fourth and they've always sold out, which I was delighted about. It's actually called the Delight Retreat funnily enough.

Steve Folland: And you wrote a 170 page manual?

Vicki Knights: Yeah, it's not like a book. So on half of those pages are photos. So you can probably halve that but I knew that when I did it for the first time ... I mean, every year, I go back into it because things change so much. In fact, even from last year, I've been changing stuff that I was saying about social media because it just changes constantly, doesn't it? But I knew that once the basis was there I could use that every year. So although so much hard work went into it in the beginning, it's held me in good stead for the other ones, which is good.

Steve Folland: Yeah, it's funny, very early on you said something about when you're not working, you should be marketing yourself, but it sounds like you're always busy. So do you force yourself to work on marketing?

Vicki Knights: Yeah, I make a point of ... because when you've got loads of shoots to edit, it's really tempting just to spend a whole week at your desk just editing, listening to podcasts, binge watching things. So I make a point every day of sitting down ... I always have some sort of project on the go like I've been talking about, whether it's personal branding stuff, I've also got a little holiday cottage in the Isle of Wight that I have to market as well, so there's always something going on.

Vicki Knights: So I always make a point of, up to an hour a day, sometimes it's not that much if I'm really busy with shoots and editing, I'll spend working on that project or working on marketing. Because that's the sort of stuff that falls to the bottom of the to do list, isn't it? That you go, "Well I can do that another day but right now I need to edit this shoot." But it's just making that stuff that needs to be done more important so that you do it at the beginning of every day so it's done. Because the editing will get done, it has to get done because you've told your client the deadline. That project you're working on that may never ... that course you may want to run or book you may want to write, just won't do itself so you have to spend that time on it to get these things off the ground.

Steve Folland: So make it the first hour you work on that and you'll sit down and you'll have a plan, "Well okay, today is the cottage day." Or, "Today is the writing this day."

Vicki Knights: Yeah and I remember, I can't remember the person who said it, have you heard the eat your frog analogy?

Steve Folland: Oh yes, yes.

Vicki Knights: I can't remember, it's a guy and I can't remember his name, but that always ... So basically, the premise of it is that if you eat a frog first thing in the morning, everything else you do in the day will seem like nothing because that's the most horrible thing you can do in the day. So at the beginning of each day I think, what's the thing that ... When I'm looking at my to do list, what am I dreading? Because I know that I'm going to go slower at everything else so I don't have to do it. Maybe it's sending invoices, maybe it's even folding the laundry and so I just get it done. I'm just like, "Right, what's ... " and normally for me, because I hate housework so much, it's normally something around the house to be honest. Or it might be that I need to phone my bank and I've been putting it off and I need to phone them because I've got a phobia of the phone. So I just get it done so that then I can crack on with everything else and feel quite good that I've eaten my frog for the day.

Steve Folland: Yeah. You've obviously approached this from a real business mindset from the beginning. So have you found the whole financial, managing that business side of it ...

Vicki Knights: Yeah, what I always say, because I think so many photographers or any entrepreneurs, what they always do, is they look at all their competitors in the area and think, "Right they're charging, they're charging that, they're more experienced than me so I need to charge x." Luckily, because I didn't really have any competitors when I started because no one was really doing it, I couldn't do that. So as I said, I just worked out my costs and what I wanted to earn and then knew how much I needed to charge. But I think the problem is with basing yourself on competitors, is you don't know if they're about to go out of business. I remember reading a statistic that 80% of photographers go out of business in the first three years, it's pretty scary isn't it? So you don't know that that person you've just based your pricing on has literally made no money and is about to go out of business. Or maybe they're doing it as a hobby and they don't need to make any money from it.

Vicki Knights: So it's really important to work and it's boring, for creatives it's really dull I know, but to work out your costs and everything else and then base your prices on that. But the other thing, this is a bit controversial because I know lots of people won't agree, is it okay if I just get on my soapbox for a tiny bit?

Steve Folland: You climb on up, go on.

Vicki Knights: Is, I think as freelancers, maybe because it's got the word free in it, who knows? But I think so many photographers, not photographers, just entrepreneurs, feel like to start making money when they're starting out that they need to do some work for free and I totally believe in, course you need to build a portfolio, that's slightly different from when you've been in business a few years and especially now with all these Facebook groups, there's always someone saying, "I need a photographer or someone else to do this. I haven't got a budget for it, but it'd be great exposure." I've never done that. I do charity, I auction off shoots, I do work for charities but I never just offer my work for free and I've been asked many times and people regularly say, "Could you bring your camera?" I just say, "I'm sorry, I don't work for free."

Vicki Knights: Then I think they just respect me and value what I do more and I know lots of photographers, and it'll be the same in lots of different industries, they go and say shoot and evening event and say, "It's going to be really good for exposure." But I'm like, "But you're a family photographer, so yes you've got credit, but that's dark evening shots that you don't do in your business, so you're advertising the wrong kind of work anyway." So any work you do get from that is not going to be the right thing. All that happens is you become known as the free photographers like, "Oh I've got someone who'll do that for exposure." Problem is is when people accept that, I just think it does crush the industry a bit because why is any business going to pay when they can always get it for free? Was that good on my soapbox? Shall I climb off now?

Steve Folland: Yeah, you can climb down now. No, it's something that as you say ... you're speaking from a photographer but I've ... similar things from illustrators as well for example, just that knock on effect that it has to everybody, but also the view that that client then has of you, if you call them the client, and often when I've done stuff for less even, they often end up being more of a nightmare.

Vicki Knights: Absolutely. You're absolutely right and I see in Facebook groups I'm in and people are having an absolutely shocker with a client and my clients are all gorgeous. I mean, you get the odd occasional that might have a ... just have a slight issue with but on the whole, they're absolutely lovely. They pay on time, they write amazing testimonials, they're just lovely to deal with and I'm sure it's because I value me and my time and what I do and so they do as well. I think if you don't pay for something, or you pay very little for it, you don't value it, do you?

Steve Folland: Yeah. Now if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Vicki Knights: Well I would tell myself that I don't need to prove myself so much. I think I was constantly worrying that the business would dry up, that I was just blogging 100 times a year and was just working too hard, really. So I'd tell myself to go slower and just say, "Enjoy your family and friends more. Exercise, don't feel guilty that you're not going through the to do list and that your business will always be there. You will still have clients in 10 years time, so just relax and enjoy things." Also, not to be afraid to invest in training because I've learned so much from the training that I've been on and met so many wonderful people so I think yeah, I'd tell myself that.

Steve Folland: Yeah and becomes something, doesn't it? That thing of actually spending the money that you're earning on a business.

Vicki Knights: Yeah exactly and although I've built up my equipment as I've gone along, as my business has grown, but I've never been afraid to spend money on training and learning more about business and photography.

Steve Folland: Yeah. Vicki, thank you so much for your time today. Go to, links through of course to what Vicki is up to so you can check out her photography but also various side projects that she's spoken about as well, including the podcast as well. Is it Shoot Edit Chat Repeat?

Vicki Knights: Shoot Edit Chat Repeat, yeah we chose the longest name in the universe. Yours is much easier.

Steve Folland: Go take a look and who knows? What point you might have heard this in the future, you can no doubt go to those links and find a million more things that Vicki has probably taken on in ... Actually are you someone who sits there with a plan for the future?

Vicki Knights: Yeah I am a bit of that, it sounds a bit nerdy doesn't it, but yeah I am a bit of a planner I think, which is why I've always had so much stuff going on.

Steve Folland: Yeah, yeah okay. Well there'll probably be 170 page book that you can buy or something like that, online courses, I can see it all.

Vicki Knights: I've already got an online course, I didn't even get to that.

Steve Folland: I didn't even get to that.

Vicki Knights: No.

Steve Folland: How did you find doing that?

Vicki Knights: Hard work. It was an online course of my Photography For Parents, so yeah that took a lot of work because it's all the tech side and I just don't like tech at all. So yeah, but it's there. I did it like four years ago and I still make money from it so I'm so pleased I did it.

Steve Folland: Cool. Vicki, thanks so much and all the best being freelance.

Vicki Knights: Thanks so much and well done with the podcast, it's brilliant.