Is being a photographer assistant a bad choice?
Are you an enthusiast? Are you still soul searching?? Are you not confident in your own work and abilities? It is a unique questions to ask you self.
Do you want to pick up habits that are not necessary correct? Do you want to deal with other people’s clients and expectations? Don’t you want your own clients?
Don’t get me wrong assisting isn’t bad but it might not necessarily match your needs and teach you how to correctly shoot. Other objectives to why you want to assist no matter how well intentioned, it is futile.
You won’t learn trade secrets and skip ahead of the rest. You have to be the right breed, not just technical but to have gut instinct, the eye and knowledge about lighting. You won’t be ahead of those who are not assisting; you might fall behind as it takes guts to go out on your own. If it was as simple as assisting to get further than others everyone would do it.
I know after being in Business Development for over 12 years, it is not just about your photography technical knowledge, it is about your business acumen too. What is hated by one agency that won’t hire you, to another one that will snap you up in a second interview is subjective just like a viewer of an image.
Danny Frigo said from Platform 5 agency in Melbourne said, “a women walked in, did not like much of her work, but saw a shot of a wig on a rug, nothing special, but it made him laugh and he hired her!”
It has more to do with how well you know "business." And knowing business is not something you can efficiently or effectively learn by assisting someone else given the time and energy required. Sure, you can learn how to keep records, or to fill out a contract, or even to work with a buyer who's choosing images. But these are tasks, not skills, and they certainly don't teach the lower-level paradigms about how business is run. Again, it's not that you can't pick up some things, but what you glean over time is miniscule, compared to what you could learn if you invest that same time and effort elsewhere. Or, more to the point, started from a more advantageous position in the first place. (More on that in a moment.)
Another thing to note is that most all photo businesses vary in some very major way depending on the photographer. Some have great technical skills, and maybe a great client base, but they may not have the best negotiation skills or even marketing savvy. Others may have those all swapped. Photographers are somewhat like snowflakes in that they all look roughly the same when viewed from afar, but close-up, each is so uniquely differently, that it's a big mistake if you try to copy one by observation. If any given photographer is successful, chances are that he is so because of who he is: his unique qualities and characteristics happen to make it all work. A different individual will never be able to match these attributes perfectly, and trying to do so may cause more harm than good to one's own career.
What will make you a good photographer is by starting first from a basis of something you know really well. I always recommend to people they enter the photo business from something that they did before going into photography--like a previous career, hobby, interest, or anything that separates them from everyone else. For example: if you come from the auto industry and know a lot about cars, chances are you will speak persuasively and authoritatively about cars in general, which can help you land jobs with clients who need you to photograph cars. Knowing the business of the marketplace you are shooting gives you immeasurable insight into the business culture of that target market, which is far more valuable.
Those who have no substantive background before photography are not likely to do well in this business, and few careers in "the arts" suffer fools easily. And, it turns out, many of these very people sem to be those who want to work as photography assistants. Of course, not all are like this--but that gets back to my other favorite quote, "even a clock that doesn't run is right twice a day." (In other words, you can't look at anecdotal evidence of how "someone" was successful at doing something, and expect that it presents a tested and viable strategy for you.)
All that said, it's not like I'm totally sour to the idea of being a photo assistant; if one were to insist on my giving some kind of advice, here it is: (And you can't look to satisfy just one of these--they are all important.)
*) Work for someone you know. (Asking a total stranger is guaranteed to fail on the next series of points below.)
*) Do not work for photographers who are secretive about their business practices, or who feel the least bit threatened by other photographers. These people often have no real understanding of the business world in general; their success is more due to the narrow scope of their focus and having capitalized on opportunities early in their career from uniquely particular circumstances. Their success is like that of the lottery winner--they think they're smart, but in reality, they are more the lucky exceptions to the rule. It's not that they didn't anything wrong; indeed, they did do well. But a hundred people could have done the same thing and not yielded the same success either. Do you want to be another statistic? Arrogance is a sure way to rule out any given employer in this field. Success is not about knowing secrets and putting them together. It's about applying basic, common business sense together, along with a dose of talent, and be persistent.
*) Try to find those who are used to helping people learn--like photography teachers--and who are generally good employers.
*) Seek out those photographers who have built their businesses during or after the mid-1990s. It's tempting to find seasoned professionals who've been in the business for years and years, but the problem is that they learned at a time where conditions are too dissimilar to today's economic climate. What those professionals do today to maintain their businesses are not what you would do to build a new business from scratch. Which brings us back to the point: photographers who became pros after (or during) the 1990s understand the current realm of high competition, the role that the internet plays in business development, and the business mechanics of working in the digital age. Sure, seasoned pros have had to evolve these skills, but their back-fitting it into their existing business model is, again, nothing like building a new business from this foundation.
Why I don't hire assistants is a catch-22: if anyone were talented and smart enough to actually be useful to me, they would not want to work for me or anyone else. They would instead be working on their own to build their careers. Everyone else, I wouldn't want to hire.
Most photographers start out as photographers assistants so you must master all of the skills that will make you indispensable in the studio. Photograph: David Levene
That first call to the photographer is crucial
When calling photographers looking to get a foot in their studio door, it'll probably be the photographer's current assistant who will answer the phone. As you are looking to assist with that photographer, you are ultimately trying to get that person's job – most photographers only have one assistant at any one time – and so they may not be that keen to pass on your message to the photographer. So, it's important to be persistent.
When you do speak to the photographer just ask if you can come and visit, offer to help out on their personal work or to come as a second assistant on a job. It's all about trying to work around what the photographer needs at that time as it will pay off. Once you have worked with them, stay in touch and if you performed well you'll be asked back next time you are needed. And once that happens you're in.
It is essential to assist people you admire
When starting out, try and push yourself to assist across a variety of genres because you never know what kind of job you may get in the future or whether a completely unknown genre will surprise you. Different types of photographers use different cameras, lights and computer software. Working on fast paced fashion shoot is a completely different experience to working in a more methodical still life environment, for example. Once you know what area you want to get into, focus on that.
The main thing to remember is to always assist for people that you really admire. Learn what it is that makes them great at their job and add those skills to your repertoire. There's no point in learning bad habits from less successful photographers. So take some time to research the photographers and their work and figure out who it is you really want to work for.
A portfolio is a great way in, but no one expects a finished book at this stage
As an assistant, coming from a photographic background/college is helpful but it is not essential. Either way, showing work is a great way to get your foot in the door.
If you are pulling together a folio, remember that at this stage in your career, people don't expect a highly polished finished book, it's early days and there is still a lot to learn (whether you have been to college or not). A portfolio that demonstrates your enthusiasm for photography, a grasp of the basics such as composition and exposure and possibly work with a bias towards your chosen area such as still life or portraiture, is a good start. But ultimately an interesting eye is really what the photographer will be looking for. During your time an assistant you will be able to add to your portfolio as well as gain a real understanding of what people look for when commissioning work.
On average aim for about 25 to 30 pages, any more and it's a lot to take in. But if you have less that's absolutely fine, as people would prefer to see fewer strong images rather than more that are weak or very similar.
Remember, though, when you first meet the photographer, you are selling yourself as an assistant, not a photographer at this stage, so you'll need to show that you have a passion for photography, as well as a willingness to learn and that you're going to be a well-organised, helpful pair of hands.
Brush up on your industry knowledge
Being a photographer's assistant is all about giving the photographer what they need before they realise they need it, so take the time to really get to know the industry. Be a sponge and learn all you can about everything.
Get your head around all the kit - digital, traditional, lighting, everything. There are so many software options, including the programs that the camera shoots to, such as Phase One and Leaf. Try downloading trial software or approaching dealers about workshops to learn more. Although you are likely to have to do this in your spare time, being able to run the camera software is a great help.
New photography magazines or visually interesting magazines such as Wallpaper, Vogue, Dazed and so on, plus websites and blogs are great resources. For commercial photography good websites include Its Nice That, Features Shoot, Creative Review, D&AD and Campaign Live. There are also many photographic organisations and clubs from online blogs where you post your work and a 'pro' rates your picture to membership associations like the AOP. All have their place in photography and can help in some shape or form, so get involved.
Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in
It is perfectly normal to be assisting for three or four years before becoming a photographer. You'll be working long hours and you'll need to keep smiling even though you will find yourself doing a lot of the unglamorous stuff. But just roll up your sleeves and get stuck in because there is nothing better or more valuable than learning on the job
A lot has been said about the technical aspects of photo assisting in the past. But one topic that hasn’t been explored as much as it should be is how to behave on set. There are a lot of things that can be learned over time, after many mistakes. But here are some guidelines that could help you save a little face, and keep you getting hired back for more work (and hey, that’s what we all want).
Things to Do:
Address concerns QUIETLY with the photographer. If you’re the first assistant working with a top photographer, and something is awry (or you THINK it’s awry) get his attention and speak with him about it as soon as possible in low tones. Photographers’ relationships with their clients can take years to build. The last thing they need is to look like a big dummy because you noticed a rookie mistake and blabbed about it loudly. Anyone worth his salt will appreciate your decorum. If you’re a second or third assistant, address it with the first immediately and defer to his judgment. This chain of command applies to just about every situation, but some sets are more casual. In most cases, play it safe and assume that everything goes through the first.
This leads us to our next point: Know the roles of everyone on set. You’re the photographer’s assistant. Great. Got one down. 10 to go. Who’s that lady in the corner? Judging by all of the brushes and pigments it’s safe to say she’s the make up artist. Easy. But what about the random person on the laptop over in the lounge? What about the kid carrying a pile of furniture pads in the background? There are all sorts of people who can be around, and if you’re unaware of the difference between the hair stylist and the prop stylist, you could find yourself messing the shoot up instead of helping it to go more smoothly. This could be an entire article on its own, but key people to know are the client, producer, wardrobe stylist, hair stylist, make up, and occasionally prop stylist. Each person I’ve mentioned is a department head on photo shoots, and should be treated accordingly. It’s like a microcosm of the film industry, and each department is responsible for a key part of the shoot. If you’re on some really high end stuff, you might end up addressing the wardrobe stylist’s assistant with concerns versus the stylist himself. But most of the time you can speak with any of these people directly and avoid any hierarchal concerns. It should be noted that you should never discuss any creative concerns with anyone without consulting the photographer first. For the record, photo assistants are more or less the equivalent of grip electric and camera assistants on film sets.
Be close by. Just because you got all of the lights set up and your exposure set doesn’t mean that you can go wander off and pick your nose somewhere. Your job is to be exceptionally available for the photographer whether he knows he needs you or not. On more than one occasion I’ve had to sit on the floor behind someone and act as a human pillow so they can shoot from a lying down position. Glamorous? Nope. Endearing? Yep. If the person who is essentially paying your bills has to look around for you more than once when he needs you, he’ll be understandably frustrated. Don’t give anyone a reason not to hire you back.
Watch the strobes! If you’re on set or location and using flash, make sure that the damn things are firing! Nothing makes you look worse than the strobes not going off and you not noticing. Chances are, while the photographer is shooting, you won’t be off building another set. Redeem that time by paying attention to everything you can on the active set and everyone will be better off.
Keep an eye on the exposure. When working with a digital tech this is pretty easy, and he’ll keep an eye on it too. But if you’re shooting to card, it’s really a great idea to check the camera settings as often as you can to make sure the photographer hasn’t accidentally bumped something and messed the whole thing up. This could be considered a technical aspect of photo assisting, but in my mind it’s a matter of consideration. Part of being a great assistant is making sure the photographer doesn’t look bad, and if something starts looking wonky, it’s good to know why and be able to correct it quickly.
If someone has to be the bad guy, make sure it isn’t you. Let’s say hypothetically that the client, hair, make up, wardrobe and the art director are all crowding around the photographer. Most people, including me, hate that. But as one wise man pointed out to me, one day those might be your clients, and the last thing you want to give them is a bad memory of you kicking them off of your set or making them move. That’s what producers are for. Go quietly mention to your producer that the photographer needs more space, and they will be able to handle the situation. You look like a billion bucks, and the photographer gets his space.
Know when to shut up. Being friendly is one thing, but nobody likes the guy who keeps carrying on all day. Gauge your crew and audience, but discretion being the better part of valor it’s often wise to keep your mouth shut. If you have to crack jokes, do it with the other assistants privately. Furthermore, don’t say stupid stuff in front of the client. They are where the money comes from, and chances are they don’t need to hear about how drunk you got the other day, or how good so-and-so is in bed.
Stuff Not to Do:
Stand directly in the talent’s eye line. If you don’t know what an eye line is, think about it for a second and you’ll figure it out. It’s not uncommon for celebrity personalities to be convinced that they are very important people, not unlike royalty. As such, they often prefer that you don’t look them in the eye, or touch them. Is this totally ridiculous? Yes. Do you still have to know it? Absolutely. The practical reality is that photographers need to have a connection with their subjects and it becomes increasingly difficult the bigger the crew is. As a result, it’s not unfair to limit the amount of interaction that you have that detracts from their connection. Not a hard and fast rule, to be sure. The key is to remember that the shoot isn’t about you, it’s about you making it go as smoothly as possible so the images look amazing. If someone is going to be high maintenance, that’s their prerogative. That’s why they are the talent, and you are the assistant. Want to change it? Get famous and then be nice to people. Until then, roll with the punches.
Don’t stand in front of the lights. I’ve been on shoots where a less than seasoned individual wasn’t paying attention and ended up blocking the lights. This should be a no-brainer, but it needs to be said. Photography is ABOUT light. Blocking it is bad form.
Don’t hit on the talent. For that matter, don’t hit on anyone. This isn’t high school. It isn’t college, or the bar, or a dating site. I don’t even care if you happen to be on a job WITH someone you’re ALREADY DATING. If you’re on set with me, be professional to everyone.
When crossing in front of the camera, let the photographer know. With digital it’s less life-threatening to burn a few frames, but if you’re shooting film, someone’s going to be mad that they just wasted valuable chrome just for a nice view of the back of your head. Wait for a good moment, then call out, “CROSSING!” before you go for a stroll and make everyone’s life easier.
The rushing-to-eat-first-maneuver is a move that I’ve seen a few people master. It’s less common at a certain level of this game, but some silly people still feel like they need to hustle up and grab catering as soon as it arrives. There are often a lot of hungry people on set, and just because you’ve been lugging C-stands around all day doesn’t mean that you’re more important than everyone else. Being courteous enough to let others go first is not only polite, it’s good business. I make it a personal policy not to ever eat before my photographer does. If nothing else it shows him that you’re conscientious and considerate, and often you’ll get waved on to grab your grub anyway. On a similar note, if you’re fortunate enough to have craft services on set, don’t be the vulture posted up shoveling snacks into your face. Grab a granola bar, and get back on set in case someone needs you.
Don’t pretend to know what everything is if you don’t. There’s always going to be some weird piece of grip equipment or light that you’ve never seen before. Being the person sent to the equipment room for a butt plug and coming back with an actual butt plug will get you in trouble. There are a million slang names for things, and there’s no shame in not knowing. ASK. If someone tells you then need the tall boy or the high roller, they aren’t expecting you to grab a big can of pabst out of your bag and hit the casino. People will appreciate your up front honesty more than you disappearing for 10 minutes to go look up what they are talking about and coming back with something that’s probably wrong.
Believe me, someone asked me for a pineapple once and I wandered around the studio for half an hour before I found out he wanted a Hasselblad lens. Sometimes people make up their own names for things and if you’re too concerned with looking like you know what you’re doing, you might end up looking dumb. (Thanks to the homie Adam Rindy for reminding me of this one)
Finally, I’d like to quote my friend, photographer and 10 year assisting veteran Daniel Bergeron, who said this:
“Check your ego at the door, and know your role. Some sets are level playing fields, some are strictly delegated. Size it up immediately, and do your job, as appropriate. Some days, your opinion matters, and some days you are just a pack mule. Either way you are getting paid.”
Justin Sullivan is a rad freelance photographer in Los Angeles. He assists for a variety of advertising and editorial shooters in between hustling his butt off launching his own career. He likes sharks, getting awesome, and riding bikes. Good people like him. Bad people don’t like him.
We use a lot of photographic assistants in our business. So many, in fact, that today we have former assistants running the office, managing all our post-production, and as our special projects manager. When we travel, we’ve picked up local assistants in dozens of cities nationwide. So what makes for a good assistant — and how do you find one?
The Assistant’s Job
The photographic assistant is there to make the photographer’s life easier; make the photographer look better; remember everything that the photographer forgot; know what the photographer needs before they need it; load and unload all the gear — yourself; get up early and stay up late; make sure the photographer is awake; and whatever else the photographer says to do. Seriously, that’s not an exaggeration.
John Birk, who is Philadelphia-based, is an example of an awesome assistant. He’s got it down. Cleans sensors (after asking if you want him to), anticipates what you need before you need it, and knows when to speak, and when to keep quiet. Oh, and he knows carry-on regulations so well he saved me from having to check my ThinkTank Airport Security full of cameras/lenses with a size change for a recent trip to the Baltics.
All Assistants Are Not Created Equal
Keep in mind that the “photographer’s assistant” is not an “assistant photographer.” An assistant photographer is often also called a second photographer, a backup shooter, and so forth. If you are working for a photographer and you have a camera in hand that will deliver images to the client, you’re an assistant photographer.
On the other hand, if you are unpacking gear, setting up lights, driving, getting food, making photos/video of the shoot in progress and/or the setup for the photographer’s use, holding an umbrella over the client’s head, pulling power, and so forth, then you are the photographer’s assistant.
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Then there’s the second, and the third. On large shoots, you have the “first assistant,” “second assistant,” and sometimes a “third assistant.” After that, anyone assisting on set is usually called a production assistant. The first assistant often travels with the photographer, and knows what the photographer wants, needs, and so forth. The second sometimes travels, but is often picked up locally. When you’re the second assistant, you do what the first tells you. When you’re the third, again almost always picked up locally, you do what the second tells you. Neither the second nor the third should be going to the photographer for anything. Go to the first.
Many photographers got their start as assistants, but not all. Then, there are people who never want to be photographers but really just love assisting; these are known as “professional assistants”. To each their own, I say.