Part of an assistant’s job is not only handling problems but anticipating them. Issues can be varied.
Models being late, gear not working properly, lights may not work, you need to have a plan because you can’t get the shot.
Assisting a photographer whose work you admire is one of the most significant learning opportunities available and can provide invaluable experience.
Being a first time ‘real’ fashion photographer. It feels like entirely new universes were opening up, controlling the light, interacting with models, composing his frame and more.
There were endless opportunities to learn just by watching and assisting. You don’t just know what they do and how they do it, but how they think.
Because assisting can be such an incredible opportunity, hoping that the tips provided here give you the inspiration and confidence to be the best that you can be on set.
So as we get started talking about assisting, first, you should think about making a good impression with a photographer when reaching out and how to get your foot in the door for their first opportunity to be on set. I’ll give a few suggestions for tactics for catching their attention and the few things you must avoid doing at all costs!
Next, once you can assist, you need to impress that photographer and invite you back. These are some of the ‘rules’ to assistants. Professional assistants will already be aware of these things. This will help you better understand the expectations of any photographer you may assist.
What Are Some Of The Other Things You Can Expect To Do As An Assistant?
Few common duties:
- Making sure all the gear is ready. You need to know what the photographer will be using and have any extra stuff you may need on hand.
- If you’re working as a digital capture assistant, you need to be checking files on the computer as they come in and making sure that everything is organized and in its place.
- You’re “an extra set of eyes.” Rodrigo explains that since often it’s easier or quicker to fix things onset than in post-production, you need to keep an eye out for anything that looks off. The feedback is often as simple as “the suit is wrinkly”,—but it can make a massive difference for editing later.
- Other tasks may also fall on your plate. Depending on the photographer, “tasks may lay on you to organize lunch, build a set, clean, steam the wardrobe, or go get something that is missing in the shoot.”
Guidelines On What Do Photography Assistants Do
Getting Your Foot In The Door
Let’s say that you are interested in assisting a photographer. You love their work or business acumen… now what? Your first instinct may be to email them, but most of the time, that emails are easily ignored or lost. Instead, if you have an opportunity to meet them face to face, do it!
One of the best ways to make an impression is to find an opportunity to meet a photographer in person. Are they going to be at a local event? Are they giving a presentation? A gallery show? If there is an opportunity to make some ‘face time’ and make a personal connection, you will get miles ahead of the rest.
Another excellent avenue is meeting photographers at industry events. I’d much rather meet someone out at an event or industry happy hour than via email and can pretty find out whether we’ll work out well together in person.
When someone meets me, makes a good impression and sends a follow-up email, they often move toward the top of the list, especially when photographers need an assistant shortly.
Have paid internships 2-3 times per year, and many photographers also have such arrangements. An intern will dedicate their time approximately six months and then graduate to an assistant (paid per job rather than a monthly stipend). Interns learn the ins and outs of how to light, create a setup and work with other creatives, so they are the natural first choice for assistants. All of the regularly paid assistants began as interns and became an essential part of assisting the team.
If you have no experience with different light gear, metering, setting up scrims or multi-light setups, then perhaps you need to start with an internship to help build up your skillset before marketing yourself as an assistant. Companies also offer assistant and digital tech book camps to help catch you up to speed more quickly. Also, offer to assist an aspiring photographer (who may also be working as an assistant) in getting a solid knowledge base for what would be expected of a ‘real’ assistant.
Persistence & Networking
Persistence is KEY. You must seek to maintain that delicate balance between persistence and being annoying. Some fashion photographers currently have three regular assistants that rotate between, so I’m usually all covered and don’t need extra hands.
The best way to meet photographers is to reach out and be persistent, but know that there’s a fine line between persistence and being an annoyance. Get a good bit of emails from aspiring assistants and respond to everyone; they sometimes get lost for a bit. Sometimes they end up meeting for coffee or a beer with them, and that’s a great way to gain some face time. The deal-breaker is if an assistant comes across as overly persistent to the point of it becoming an annoyance, arrogance, or a sense of being unprofessional.
But how to select who will assist? First of all, take recommendations from other assistants. Have they been on a set before and seen an assistant that they thought would be a good fit. Thus, it is beneficial to always be your best and professional on ANY set and good to network with other assistants. Having various mixers for photo assistants as well as meetings for photo organizations is a great chance to make relationships and perhaps get future recommendations. It is pretty typical for a photographer to ask an assistant for recommendations if that assistant is unavailable.
The following way to select an assistant is through emails. If photographers have been chatting with a potential assistant they have met in person or will reach out to them directly. If no one comes to mind, Selecting one of the most recent emails I’ve received is also a good idea. See why persistence matters? Who is at the top of emails? Whoever was persistent enough to keep following up.
When you reach out via email to a photographer, you may want to keep in mind certain etiquette elements. There are certain things people can include in an email that makes photographers more likely to hire them and other things that immediately disqualifies them.
- Show knowledge of the photographer: A generic ‘, please hire me to assist you email’ will immediately get you blacklisted. If you couldn’t take enough time to send out a personalized, dedicated email to a photographer, you don’t care about their work or their business that much. They are just another name and opportunity. Instead, write a personalized email that shows you pay attention to that photographer; congratulate the photographer on one of their recent accomplishments, mention why you like some of their current work, mention attending one of their gallery shows or anything else that shows you have taken a personal interest.
- Focus on what you have to offer: Don’t write all about why you need that photographer, but instead write about any relevant skill set you bring to the table. Are you familiar with CaptureOne, Profoto, Broncolor, grip, etc.? If so, mention it. If you are new to equipment and software, instead, focus more on your work ethic. Let them know you are willing to put in long hours, manual labour, and work to anticipate their needs.
- Offer a trial: One way to make it easier for a photographer to work with you is to offer a ‘trial day’… a day where you will come back, help out, and they can see how you work on set. Make it low (no) cost and low commitment so that you can shine and demonstrate your value to the team.
- Don’t be long-winded. If it is exceptionally long, it shows you do not respect the photographers time. Be long enough to be personable and show your interest, but not so long that it feels like reading a novel!
- Don’t forget to spell check and grammar: If you receive an email where names are wrong, the spelling is incorrect, or the grammar is horrible, it shows you ignore details. Also, you will not consider yourself an assistant because they can’t trust you to send out essential business emails or double-check other small details.
- Don’t brag: To be honest, your skill level in photography is mostly irrelevant to your ability to assist. If you’ve received awards or have a college degree in photography, it generally has no bearing on your performance as an assistant. So… don’t brag too much about why you are special. Instead, let the photographer know what you have to offer them and why you’d be an asset. Also, focus on what you find special about the photographer. This will get you a lot further. Plus, when you brag, a photographer may get the impression that you think so highly of yourself that you will be above doing certain tasks OR that you are so good that you are competition (and they will not want you onset).
Making An Impression
So, you’ve got your foot in the door, and a photographer has agreed to have you on set. What next? What can you do to make the best impression possible and become an important aspect of the team?
Fundamentally you want to remember that it is your job to make their lives easier. Yes, this includes setting up lights, changing lenses, and the usual ‘camera stuff’. But a great assistant is so much more than that.
The most important word you can remember is anticipation. Can you get inside the photographer’s head and anticipate what they need before they even ask for it? Do you see them backing up because the lens they have is a bit too long? Have the wider lens choice available for them if they want to switch. Do you see a photographer standing on their tiptoes trying to get a higher angle? Grab a step stool or an apple box to help them get a higher angle. The more you work with a photographer, the more you’ll be able to know what they need before they need to ask for it.
It isn’t that a photographer is ‘above’ changing their lenses or grabbing an apple box. Instead, their energies should be focusing on getting the shot – the composition, the expression, and the lighting. Give them back as much energy as possible so they can pour it into the final product’s success.
Know The Expectations
Periodically having new assistants or interns on set and wanting everyone to be on the same page about the ‘rules and expectations when working with photographers.
While some things may seem a bit strict, it’s always fun and a great time on set. When everyone understands what is expected of them and their roles, it helps everything go even more smoothly.
Be on time. No excuses. Photographers rely on their assistants for the day to go smoothly, and if you are late or unavailable, this can slow up the flow of a day. Know that trains get delayed, there is traffic, bad weather, etc. You can always show up early and begin cleaning up, setting up, organizing, or familiarizing yourself with new gear.
Assistants should dress in black. If not black, then they should be in solid, dark colours with no logos. There are valid reasons for this. First, dark clothing prevents any unwanted colour casts on the subject’s skin if you are holding a reflector or standing nearby. Next, it keeps a mood of professionalism on the set. Black also keeps the focus where it should be– on the client and creative process. Finally, black looks best for assistants to wear in behind the scenes photos and videos.
Safety is a priority. If you see a cord that could be a danger, move it. If you see a ladder that is not stable, fix it. Always put sandbags on the main light, especially with a boom arm. The arm should always be out over the stand’s longest leg, and the sandbag should go on that leg (and perhaps as a counterweight on the boom as well). Please look up ‘proper sandbag’ placement if you are unsure.
The set should always be kept tidy. Messy cords should be moved or put away. Unused modifiers or lights should be placed neatly to the side. Anything that would be in the way or a visual distraction must be handled. As the set is always changing, things will constantly be shuffled around throughout the day. When grabbing gear or moving things, everything should go back to where it was at the end of the day.
Expect to come in early and leave late, cleaning up. Do not consider you a maid, but all garbage should go out to the trash and new bags placed in the trash bins at the end of the day.
Sweep up the floor, and wipe down surfaces – respect the space. The best assistants are those who keep a clean, organized and safe setting. Are all the cords neatly taped down? Is the digital cart organized? Do all the lights have sandbags?
The keywords to assisting are ‘attention’ and ‘anticipation’.
Pay attention to photographers’ habits. When do photographers switch lenses? When do they need help moving the light? Doe’s photographers constantly move the light, and maybe you should stand by it to assist in this particular task. Where are you most useful? Not only will paying attention makes you more useful as an assistant, but it will also teach you more about how they think when they shoot.
When you pay attention to shooting habits and behaviours, you should begin to anticipate photographers’ needs. You’ll know when they need a higher angle and when to grab an apple box to stand on. You’ll be ready to pass a lens when they need a different focal length. And so on. Truly effective assistants anticipate.
Distractions, Professionalism, Other Etiquette
- Phones: Assistants should not often be on their phone. Even during downtime, there are always things to do, and it also can create an overall appearance of lack of professionalism when there are clients on set.
- Please keep distractions to a minimum. Please avoid talking about personal life or controversial topics to clients/subjects/creative teams. The wrong topics can completely ruin the mood or offend a client. The best thing to do is to NOT engage in conversation with the client unless they directly bring up a conversation with you. Overall, photographers prefer assistants who are quiet on the set, even if they are talkative in ‘real life. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a personality or be you; just prioritize a professional working environment.
- Always be respectful with your language and subject matter.
- Place the needs of the photographer, client and model first.
- Yes, having fun on sets is good, but this is a workplace. Always handle yourself in a professionally and respectfully manner.
- Don’t eat lunch until ‘lunch break’ has been called. As soon as people are finished with food, start cleaning up.
- Lounging is NOT encouraged. Sure, there are times to rest and relax, but just ‘hanging out on the couch is not the job (or leisure) of an assistant. A general rule is that if photographers are not sitting or relaxing, assistants probably shouldn’t be either. See what else you can do on set to make things go more smoothly. That may be preemptively cleaning or organizing.
- Opinions: If you notice something on set that you think you should draw attention to, mention it quietly so the client does not hear. Don’t draw attention to any problems, especially if doing so would make the client unhappy. Though this may sound harsh, for the most part, if you are not asked for an opinion, don’t give it. Stating an unsolicited opinion may cause a client to change their mind or for photographers to become distracted. Instead, when you learn things they like/don’t like, mention it quietly. Comments like “I don’t like this shirt” or “I think the lighting doesn’t work” are not welcome.
Behind The Scenes, Social Media
Always ask if you are allowed to shoot and/or post behind the scenes. Sometimes the project requires you NOT to take or share any images from the shoot. Ask first.
If you take any behind the scenes images, they must ALWAYS include a behind-the-scenes element like a light stand, photographer, makeup artist brush, etc. NEVER shoot and/or post anything that is just a shot of the model.
I may ask you to capture behind the scenes for me. Please know this is an important business task for social media purposes and doesn’t grant permission to be on your phone all day.
Finding Work As An Assistant
- Do your research and find photographers you admire and want to learn from—and reach out to them. It’s a lot of cold calls and emails. “It’s tricky—you want to be persistent but not annoying,” Rodrigo says. He advises keeping emails professional but friendly.
- Working as a second assistant is a good way to get in. Rodrigo explains two types of assistants: a first assistant works with the photographer regularly, but an additional second assistant can also be hired specifically for special shoots.
- Having a portfolio and a website is a must. “They want to see what you do, what kind of photographer you are. Even though you’re not taking any photos,” Rodrigo explains.
- Showcase your personality. It can affect how much and for whom you get hired. “You need to bring positive energy. Show that you want to be there, that you care,” Rodrigo says.
- It helps to assist a variety of photographers. Rodrigo has assisted food, fashion, and corporate photographers. A broad range of photography styles can give you a glimpse into what working in each field is like. “Food photography, for example, is very team-oriented,” explains Rodrigo. “If the styling of the food isn’t right, the photos won’t be right. Same with fashion photography. If hair and makeup aren’t good, it shows.”
- Make the most of each opportunity. “When you get in – that’s the moment you shine. Prove that you’re needed; that you bring something extra to it.”
Reasons Why Being A Photography Assistant Is Worth It
We learned all about the setup, gear, and technique, and the rest of the team used during these shots. But perhaps more importantly, here are the five main reasons why working as a photography assistant is worth it.
- Soak up the photographer’s knowledge and expertise – in Joe’s case, his incredible way with lighting.
- Enjoy the security of a full-time job when assisting while still making time to cultivate your style.
- Take advantage of all the networking opportunities when working with an established photographer, and build your confidence working with clients.
- If you have the chance to travel with the photographer, make sure that you utilize the time to shoot for your portfolio – you might not get to go there again!
- Remember that your experience working on set is key to learning what to expect in the photo industry and gives you a leg up when you set out to make it on your own.
Most of the photographers don’t like the ‘I’d like to come to assist you once or twice”, who also feels it’s important to show you want to commit to working with and understanding a photographer. “Shadowing a shoot is the same thing. Knowing not everyone can make a time commitment to being a regular assistant, but that’s where the value is. The relationship needs to have value both ways, and someone coming in once or twice isn’t really of as much value to me. Someone who writes looking for a more dedicated position always goes higher in the list because they are more invested in the experience. If you just want to watch someone work, you might just have to settle for youtube. If you want to learn how someone THINKS, assist long-term.”