From purchasing a second-hand camera during the Covid pandemic to capturing portraits of former chancellors, Rob Nicholson speaks to unLTD about the impressive rise of Pedalo, an independent photography business based in the heart of Sheffield’s Kelham Island district.
When did you decide you wanted to be a photographer?
Cameras and photography have been in the background of my life for a long time. My uncle was a photographer for The Star, and I remember admiring his cameras as a youngster. My brother, too, picked up photography later and I remember feeling inspired by what he was creating. But it wasn’t until the start of the first lockdown that I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to get a camera.’ I was furloughed from work and looking for something to try out. I bought a second-hand camera from Harrisons, some cheap lenses, and went out to take photos.
How did you initially build up your skill set?
I started off with landscape photography, heading out to the Peaks and looking for shots which caught my eye. I’d then go home and edit the photos, slowly teaching myself the process via YouTube videos and anything else I could find. I graduated to taking pictures of still-life objects such as flowers, experimenting with using a flash, soft boxes and pop-up backgrounds. It was a case of gradually picking things up and getting used to the process.
How was Pedalo set up as a company?
My friend, James, owns a number of bars in Sheffield. He’d seen some of the pictures I’d been sharing on social media, and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing some promotional stuff for his bars at some point down the line. We’d started spending a lot of time cycling in the Peaks, where we discussed this idea further and he came up with the idea of starting a photography business together. Since we’d spent a lot of time discussing this when out on the bikes, the name Pedalo was suggested.
What was the next step?
Pedalo started off doing photography for bars and restaurants in Sheffield: Public, Gatsby, Picture House Social and Ashoka. Initially, it was for free, as these places were feeling the pinch of the pandemic, and it also allowed us the chance to experiment and hone our photography skills.
You’ve branched out massively since those early days. In terms of attracting new clients, has it largely been word of mouth and social media?
Yeah, hospitality shoots were the beginning of it all, but it’s never really had a particular angle or niche. In terms of clients, to this day I’ve never had to approach one, which I think shows the importance of a strong social media presence and website. Of course, it helps in a city like Sheffield where everyone seems to know everyone and friends of friends can get in touch!
At which point did Pedalo become something you wanted to do as a full-time occupation?
I had a full-time job at Apple and initially was juggling both. It all started to get a bit much and I began to feel burned out, so I dropped my hours and began working on a retainer for some of the bars. Things progressed from there, really.
You’ve since worked with some iconic Sheffield brands and creatives – from Sheffield FC to Pete McKee. Did that feel like a significant step?
It did, and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t sometimes a nagging voice in my head saying, “This is too big, you can’t do this.” But, to be honest, I think I thrive off things being a bit difficult, and I can now reply to that voice, saying, “Well, I better get stuck in and make it work, then.”
The Pete McKee exhibition came from an episode shoot of ‘Bracknall’, which I’m sporadically in the cast for. They were filming at Crookes Social Club, so I took the camera and got a few production shots of the main cast sitting around a table, not realising at the time that there was a Pete McKee in the background mirroring the scene: five Sheffield blokes sat in the pub. Pete saw it on social media, really liked it, and got in touch for a meeting about an exhibition he was doing where he’d be introducing photography work for the first time. He had these concepts and sketches on what he wanted to capture, so we went out scouting for places, bringing in people to be in the shots and trying to bring Pete’s ideas to life.
That opportunity came from one photo?
Yeah, pretty much. It just shows you that if you keep plugging away, opportunities are likely to pop up. What we were paid for the McKee exhibition essentially went towards paying the first six months of the Pedalo studio.
And you’ve recently gone from working with local icons to former chancellors! How did the shoot with Ed Balls and George Osborne come about?
A friend of ours who’s from Sheffield, Dino, runs a podcast company called Persephonica. They produce the Political Currency podcast featuring Ed and George, so we went down to London to do the promo shots for that. It’s a crazy feeling seeing your pictures in the Guardian and Observer, but I’m fairly pleased with the final results.
What motivates you as a photographer?
It’s a hard one to answer. I’m not one of these photographers who say things like “I’m putting my take on the world into my photography,” but there is something hugely satisfying about seeing a frame flash in the viewfinder and knowing you’ve captured a great image. When I share a picture I took from the Arctic Monkeys gig at Hillsborough or an image of Park Hill, and you have people getting in touch to ask about buying it as a print, so they can keep your image as a personal memory, that’s another feeling you want to recreate. I call it ‘moment photography’: capturing a moment people can relate to.
I spent a big part of my life playing in bands. I’d spend a lot of time worrying about how to get signed, what type of song we’d need to write, how to present ourselves, etc. With photography, however, I’ve found a creative pursuit where I feel comfortable. I share the work that I’m happy with and I’m not constantly worrying about how other people view it. I think that’s a good place to be, as a creative anyway.
What’s the ideal plan for Pedalo as a business?
Honestly, I’m not too sure! I still don’t quite know what sort of photographer I’d like to be, which is probably why I do such a wide range of things at the moment. I’ve always got ideas rattling around; it’s just a case of putting them into action. Around 18 months ago, I made a video in my spare room about the stuff I wanted to do: get a studio, keep pushing, do more moment photography, branch out. I’ve managed to tick off a lot of that, so maybe it’s time for a bit of reflection on what’s next now.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking about setting up their own creative business?
Do it for you. And if you love it and put the effort in, it’ll eventually work out. Try to enjoy the challenges, and throw yourself into the hard work because that’s where you’ll find the most rewarding results.