Moving to London - Graduate Guide

Every year, thousands of graduates leave college with little idea what to do next. For many, moving to London will be their next step. Victoria Tennant talks to established freelance Dean Chalkley and recent graduate Daniel Lilley about making the move

You’ve left university, degree in hand, overdraft in your back pocket, and let’s not even think about the student loan. What on earth do you do next? London is the hub of the UK media industry and the place where the great majority of photography in the UK is commissioned. Not only that, but the picture desks often prefer to use a London-based photographer, assuming that in so doing  they’re dealing with a professional who’s familiar with the level of intensity that the industry requires.

For many young graduates a move to the capital can be a crucial career kick-start, but the sheer size of London and the pace of life can be unnerving to the newcomer in the first few months.

You’ve worked hard to get your degree, and it’s going to open doors for you in the future, but what you need now are the survival skills to take the jump and move to the big city, where the work really is there to be found. So let’s see if we can rub off a few of the sharper edges, and help with the first steps in the next stage of your journey.

Top music, film, and fashion photographer and filmmaker Dean Chalkley moved to London after graduating from Blackpool and Fylde College some years ago, and he’s never looked back. “You have to be efficient with your time”, he says, “and if you live outside town that’s really difficult.

"If you’re an assistant, and your boss is asking you to come into the studio for 7 in the morning, you want to be able to get to work with a minimum of fuss.”

Recent Bournemouth University graduate, Daniel Lilley meanwhile, already an award winning photographer, is in the process of making that move to London. Lilley lived in Bournemouth while at college and, when coming to London to do paid work, had to put up with a train journey of up to three hours every visit.

Now graduated, Lilley sees no other option but to move here, saying, “In town, you’re at the centre of things. You get to meet a lot of people, and there’s always something going on. Where you live is also a major factor when talking to picture editors. If you don’t live in London, you’re forgotten straight away, as they don’t have a budget for your travel expenses.”


Advance preparation

“The time you spend at university is very structured”, says Dean Chalkley. “You understand the parameters you’re working within, and what you have to do to achieve your goal. When it’s over however, you have to find your own way, and that can be a shock to the system.

"As any savvy graduate will tell you, it’s important during your course to make every effort to expand and fine-tune your knowledge.”

Despite the stress of completing your course, it’s crucial you think beyond the end of your degree, and prepare yourself as much as you can for the time ahead. This will make the step from graduating to starting work a lot easier.

“When I move, I’ll be following through with some jobs that I got through contacts made while I was at college”, says Lilley. “I wouldn’t suggest moving without having made contacts and being prepared professionally.”


Work experience

It is always good to get as much work experience as possible while at university. The old chestnut that it’s not what you know, but who, that defines your ability to succeed, doesn’t ring true in today’s hi-tech world, but there’s a tad of truth to every cliché, and contacts are going to be very important to you in the coming months.

By the time you graduate, it’s good to have the beginnings of an idea as to which route into photography you want to go down. Internships are a good way of gathering this knowledge, and a great way of getting a foot in the door while still at college. Internships however are very rarely paid positions. So if you’re interning after leaving college, it’s likely that you’ll need part-time work as well to make ends meet when you first come to town.


Getting around

Another old adage is that London is made up of many villages. In some ways, this is very much the case, but to the outsider the capital can seem huge and scary. So how do you begin the big move and what do you do when you arrive?

The minute you get to town, buy a pay-as-you-go Oyster card from your nearest underground ticket office. Oyster works on all buses, trains and the underground, and is the cheapest way of getting around. When buying your card, take an extra few moments to fill out and hand in the registration form. Registering your Oyster Card means that you don't lose the money you have pre-paid if your card is lost or stolen, and is well worth taking the time to do. You can also set the card to top itself up directly from your bank account, via the Oyster website.

Cycling round London is becoming ever more popular. Contrary to what you might think, central London is fairly compact, and cycling is a fast way of getting around: particularly on a Boris Bike from the Barclay’s bike hire scheme.


Where to live

Having decided to make the move to London, the next decision is where in London to live. While in times past a true Cockney may have lived within the sound of Bow Bells, today it’s more about the river, and whether you live north or south of it.

South London is generally more residential and, with the exception of the Northern Line, less well served by the tube network. When considering location, look at places a little further out from the centre. You'll get more space for less money.

Both north and south London have their up and coming areas, and the nearer to these, or the centre, that you live, the more expensive it gets.

Yes, you want to be in the centre of everything, but you want to be able to live affordably as well. It's a good idea to make sure you’re close to a 24 hour bus stop. The underground shuts overnight, to allow essential maintenance to run through the night, while increasing numbers of buses run 24 hours – and you want to be able to get home safely no matter what time of night you decide to call it a day. London’s night bus network can be a godsend!


Flat sharing

One reassuring fact is you’re very far from alone. Thousands of graduates move to London every year, and most start out in a flat or house share. It’s the cheapest way of living, and has the added advantage of giving you an instant group of mates who are also new to town. Always meet your housemates and landlord before agreeing to move in.

Very many graduates find their first share on gumtree, or loot.com, or you can use the services of an agency. Agencies can require a hefty deposit, but can be a good idea, as you’ll be less at the mercy of the landlord. If you do use an agent however, ensure you are aware of everything you are paying for, as there can be hidden costs.

Property in London is exchanged at breakneck pace, especially in the lettings market, so don’t book viewings more than two days in advance, and keep a close eye on websites such as loot.com, as new properties are listed every hour.

While looking round properties, keep a clear head, as there are quite a few things to keep note of. You need to be clear about what will be included, such as the furniture and appliances, so that if you need to buy any more you will know.

Ask about the management of the property, bills and council tax, where these responsibilities lie, and how they are divided. Learning what the current tenant pays in energy costs will be a good guide to what it’s going to cost you.

Safety is also an issue, London isn’t the universally dangerous place some perceive it to be, but it remains one of the largest hives of people on the planet, and you want to feel and be safe; so always have an awareness of this when deciding if a flat or share works for you.

The property also needs to be secure. Check that all locks work properly, and that they conform to your content insurer’s criteria. Ensure there is at least one smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector installed, and that any gas appliances have been checked annually by a Gas Safe-registered engineer.

Another thing to verify is that the landlord has a HMO (house in multiple occupation) licence. When renting shared accommodation for five or more unrelated people, in a building with at least three floors, the landlord should have a HMO licence for the property. This means they have extra legal responsibilities to cover you and your safety.

When you come across a promising property, do more personal research into the location. Go back there at night and see what the area is like after dark.

Check out the route that you will be walking from the station or bus stop, again to ensure you feel safe. If you’re happy with everything, decide on the date you’re available to move in, and remember that sooner can sometimes prove a good bargaining card.


Beware of letting scams

Letting scams are becoming more frequent, so be clear of the fees before starting, and be cautious when handing money over. One recent scam involved a bogus ‘landlord’ allegedly based in  Manchester, who required that the prospective tenant place £1000 in a bank account as ‘a sign of good faith’ before he travelled to London to meet them.

In this instance, the money promptly disappeared from the bank account, the ‘landlord’ was never heard of again, and the money was lost, so never part with your money before you are certain.

Where possible, use a letting agent who is a member of a scheme such as the National Approved Letting Scheme. If you are simply looking privately rather than through an agency, there is no reason why you should part with any money at all before looking at a place.

Always remember - if it sounds too good to be true, it most probably is too good to be true. Do not give anyone any money before seeing a place.


Before moving in

There are certain things to go over before moving in. It is vital to pay attention to your tenancy agreement. Make certain that it states it is the landlord's responsibility to ensure the place stays safe and habitable.

Before signing your tenancy agreement, look over what is mentioned about switching energy supplier. It may not seem important, but it could save you money. Tenants are free to switch to a cheaper energy supplier if they like, but there has recently been an increase in contracts that refuse permission to do this. While these aren’t legally binding, such clauses could cause complications later on.

You should be given a full inventory that lists of everything that comes with the property – from furniture to knives and forks. It should also have record of the condition of the property, stating if anything is damaged and so on.

If you aren’t given one, ask for one. If you are still not supplied with one, make one yourself, making sure you don’t leave anything out. Get it signed by an independent witness, and send a copy to the landlord as soon as possible. For a sample form visit http://tinyurl.com/9tjhotq.

In addition, take photographs of the property when you move in, with your camera’s date facility switched on.

Finally, especially if you are sharing a place, to prevent arguments at the time you move out, keep records: who bought what, who paid for repairs or replaced anything, and so on.


Part time work

If you are determined to make a career as a photographer, your journey ahead is more likely than not to involve self-employment. Don’t panic: vast numbers of people are self-employed, and it’s by no means as frightening as you might first think, you just have to be organised.

Stay realistic when it comes to the beginning of your career. London is likely to seem horrendously expensive to start with, so look for part-time work near to where you live as soon as you arrive.

Waiting on tables may not be everybody’s idea of graduate employment, but it has flexible hours and late shifts, you get tips on top of your wages, and you may be surprised by the people you find yourself working with. It also allows you to keep your days free for building the all important folio and chasing work, and finally, when photography jobs do start to call in, you’re available at the drop of a hat.

In your spare time, a good place to start networking in the photographic world is First Thursdays. The galleries and museums of east London open their doors late on the first Thursday of every month. As well as a chance to see new work, it’s also a great chance to meet people with the same interests as you.



You’ll be on a tight budget, so prioritise. Are there things you can live without? You have to consider all your outgoings, such as food, bills, social life, and council tax.

Work out realistically how much you can afford on rent, making sure you keep an amount of money safe for emergencies. This will then narrow your search for accommodation.

“It’s easy to forget about the boring stuff like council tax and tax in general”, says Daniel Lilley. Keep it simple, and keep track of everything by using spreadsheets.

Banks hate surprises, so ensure your bank is aware of your situation, and stick within your means and agreed overdraft limit, as much as possible avoiding extra debt. Try to build a personal contact at your bank, who you can call if you need to.

Once you start to get work, find an accountant who understands you are starting out, and register with the Inland Revenue as a self-employed sole trader. When choosing an accountant, ask friends already working for names of those who handle photographers.

Get several recommendations, and then speak to them personally. You're likely to be with an accountant a long time, and to rely on their advice, so it's a crucial decision in any business start-up.


Photographic and assisting work

The reason you're coming to London is to launch your career as a photographer. Once you've got the basics of somewhere to live and a part-time job sorted, you can set about the business of finding a way into the world of photography. Assisting is a fantastic way of learning the business, and most photographers use assistants, but you need to be clear that first and foremost you are there to assist: it’s a job and you have to do it right. “Some people will approach you and say, ‘I want to learn all you know, even if I just sit in the back and watch you’, says Dean Chalkley. “But I always think, ‘Well, I don’t want that’. I want them to help me - not to be in the way. An extra body in the studio doing nothing useful is not what you want.”

Successful photographers tend to be fanatical about detail, and this is particularly relevant to your portfolio. Whether it's on an iPad, or in print form, make sure that your portfolio is finished to a professional standard, and always bang up to date with your best work.

You also need a website, and its importance cannot be overstated. Like everything else, it comes down to cost, but template sites can be an economic option for the time being.

Check out www.clikpic.com and www.amazinginternet.com, both of which are used by very many photographers, while  overnightimages.com offers domain registration and hosting.

Dean Chalkley uses Digital Photo Gallery. “You’ve got to have pride in your work”, he says, “and that will come through in your website. You need to remember it will be under scrutiny all the time. These days, people don’t have the time to meet in person and see a print portfolio, so having a website is essential. Invest wisely.”

Whatever your website, make sure all links are working, and that it is easy to navigate around.


Social networks

Social networks are an increasingly important way to get your work seen, so if you don’t have Twitter and Facebook accounts, set them up now! Social networking is also invaluable for seeing what other photographers are up to, but keep your professional and personal accounts separate. Blogs are also important for getting your work seen.

“When I do projects, I put them up on photography blogs”, says Daniel Lilley, “and I get more work through that.”


Business cards

Despite the expanding digital arena, photographers' cards remain crucial: something you can easily hand to people, with the essential contact information, and another chance to show your work.

When choosing a photograph for your card, rather than relying solely on your own judgment, ask other people which picture they think you should use. They don’t have to be photographers - the more people you ask the better an opinion you’ll get of which picture to put on your all important photographer’s card.

Having given out your contact details, you need to make sure you are easily contactable. If someone follows you up and doesn’t get a reply straightaway, that doesn’t send out a good signal.

Having a smart phone is increasingly necessary, but in these ever more digital days a remarkable number of things still arrive by post. Getting your post re-directed can seem expensive, but communications are crucial – if you move home make sure you redirect your post!

Also on the communications front make sure your email address isn’t a jokey or embarrassing hangover from university days: you’re a professional now and it’s important to look the part.

Photographers' contact details are available from their websites, and they’re used to being hit on for internships and assisting jobs, so it’s important to stand out from the pile.

Take time and care over your CV and, if you have one, it is always good to state that you have a clean full driving licence, as driving can be essential for some jobs.

Work out who you want to work for, why you want to work for that person, and then write to them personally. Never ever send out a generic trawl for work, as anything sent generically will be instantly deleted.

Don't make it an essay, though. Keep it shortish, and to the point, stating your experience so far, the fact you are available now, and that you aren’t afraid of long hours and hard work.

Be confident and persistent. People are busy, and won’t react well to harassment, but it’s good to back up an unsolicited pitch for work with a phone call, stating who you are, that you’ve sent in your CV, and that you’re keen to work for the photographer in question.

Keep a record of who you have contacted, how, and when. If possible, hand in your CV in person. “Even though it is awkward, make sure they understand that you don’t mind that they didn’t reply, as you know they are busy”, says Daniel Lilley.

London is a tough place to get a break, but the breaks really are there to be had and, as the song nearly says, good help is hard to find. If you’re keen and keep at it, your break really will come along. 



Having had access to equipment, studios, and printing facilities free of charge while at university, their cost in the outside world can come as something of a shock.

Rather than buying kit outright, hiring may prove to be a more sensible option. You get the chance to try out different gear on each shoot, and can sometimes cover hire fees in your bill to clients.

It's a good idea to open accounts with equipment providers like Calumet and The Flash Centre, which may not require business references from you if you’re assisting a photographer who already holds an account with them.

Account holders aren’t generally billed until the end of the month, and then have 30 days to pay once the bill has been sent, which can make a real difference to your cash flow, and prevent you having to borrow money to pay a hire fee that allowed you to do a job.

Suppliers will hire equipment to you without your being an account holder: but in this case will put the entire value of the item on your card until it is returned in the condition it left the shop, so you need to become an account holder as soon as you can.



Insurance is the hidden part of your equipment, and with expenses all around, the temptation is to simply avoid the cost. But while it’s rarely evident to your clients, for you it’s vital.

“If you accept any money, including expenses, for any work you do, then you should have public liability cover”, says Aaduki Multimedia’s National Marketing Manager Nik Stewert. You won’t need an expensive package to start with, and several insurers now offer packages for photographers at an early point in their career, but never, ever work without insurance.



Keep things in perspective, and plan for as much in advance as you can. “Don’t worry if you don’t get any commissions from big companies on the night of your degree show”, says Dean Chalkley. “There is plenty of time. It’s a long game. Don’t feel like you have to get it all done in the first week. You just have to find your own way. Keep your ambition, but keep it relative. Develop a good manner, and be conscientious."                                                 f2



Equipment hire



Insurance providers



Website hosts






Property websites







Getting around



Barclays Bike Scheme: http://tinyurl.com/322ze38


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This article was taken from Vol 6 No 8. THE BUSINESS 18. Moving to London - Graduate Guide.