Ten Things That Can Help You Get a Photographers Assisting Gig

Getting an assistant gig is top of mind for a lot of commercial shooters starting out. It can mean exciting photo shoots, learning the ropes they didn’t learn in photo school (and them’s a lot of ropes), and an opportunity to work in their chosen industry while earning a bit of money as well. It also means long hours, boring down time, and a lot of stuff that wasn’t expected… like sweeping floors and cleaning windows. An assistant can be called on to do some of the most exciting and menial things you can imagine… sometimes right next to each other.

When I started out in LA back in the latter part of the 20th century, it was a tough town. Yes, I know, still is. I was a pretty big fish in the small pond of Phoenix, but upon landing in LA I found I was a pretty small, insignificant, amoeba in that pond. I knew immediately that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

So I got a pager, an answering service and I started assisting on every day I wasn’t shooting. I worked with big names and small names, architecture and lingerie, celebrities and construction workers. It was a total blur. And I loved it and I learned so much it was like a crash course in what I needed.

These days it is a bit harder to get those gigs, but it certainly is not something that cannot be done. On the contrary, I think a really GOOD assistant would be very much in demand in today’s environment. And the reason I say that is simple… and it may offend some… I rarely find anyone who wants to work as hard as I do. That sentiment was was expressed to me recently at a lunch with a very well known editorial shooter. It isn’t that they don’t want to work, it is that they don’t understand the concept as we do who came from that world. No cell phones, no twitter, long days, long nights, tough work, boring shit, demeaning shit that you are well over qualified for… but has to be done.

It is rare that I meet someone wanting to assist that can put themselves out there and ‘show up’ for the gig without having to check in with the BF/GF or significant other. “When will we be through” is something my wife doesn’t even ask… she knows. Most of the time we have no idea… when we are through, I guess.

I am sometimes asked what kind of images to show the photographer to get an assistant’s job. I will speak as to myself here, I don’t care what you have. I am not being mean, I already have a photographer. Of course I will look at your work at some point, and I am one of those photographers who would teach and help, but honestly I don’t really care if you rock or suck… can you get the parabolic umbrella on my Profoto without crushing the edge? Do you know how to get the images off of the cards fast and get them processing? Can you make a killer PB&J? Are you fun to have around when there is absolutely NOTHING to do? Sell me on that, not how you shoot hot chicks wrapped in caution tape standing on railroad tracks in stripper heels… seriously.

Now, on to the 10 things you can use to get an assistants job… and I hope to get the comment area alive with more!


1. Be Persistent / Not Annoying.
Call and make contact. Voicemail isn’t contact. An EMail isn’t contact. Contact is one-to-one. Keep the call brief, but make your case for being hired. If there is no work at that specific time, ask how often you should check back, and by what means. If an email every Monday would be agreeable do it. The job may not be one that happens overnight, but if you stay focused, things change and you are up. Sending an email and whining that you didn’t get a return email is not a good sign for this business. (BTW… you think getting in front of a photographer is a pain in the ass… wait till you start trying to get in front of AD’s and Editors.)

Keep your followups brief and respect the photographer, or his first assistant’s time. That will go a long way in establishing yourself as someone who understands how busy it can get, and someone that would be cool to have around.

2. Know Your Stuff – and More
This is so important. As you read above, I don’t care what you shoot, or how you shoot. I want you to know how to work a new Profoto pack when I am busy with the talent. I want you to be able to setup and be familiar with the more common strobe systems out there. And hot lights. And natural light modifiers.

If you are not familiar with the Quadra Rangers, rent a set for the weekend and get real familiar with them. You have done your homework and know that I shoot with Profoto, so get to know Profoto if you want to work with me. And don’t whine about cost to learn how to work a couple of systems… it is still a thousand times cheaper than Refrigeration Repair School.

Some photographers will take the time to show you, but you better catch on real fast. Brands to learn… Dynalite, Norman, Speedotron, Profoto, Elinchrome, Broncolor, and Alien Bees. There are a few other brands, but most will work like one of these.

And know your metering. Taking meter settings is something a lot of photographers need their assistants to do. Know how to use an ambient light meter, and a reflected light meter… and the difference between them.

3. Hone Your People Skills
So important. Look, the photographer and the assistant may have to spend a lot of down time together. Know how to converse, know what not to talk about, and when it is fine to not talk at all. Have a sense of humor, and have a sense of timing. Timing referring to those times when the photographer just needs to chill… not a good time to start drilling her on what lens she used for the shot and why she didn’t use that other thing. Just don’t.

You will also have to be ‘present’ when clients are there. Know how and when to have a conversation with them. Know what to discuss and what not do discuss. NEVER discuss the photographer, or the shot, or other clients. I like to have my assistants keep the client occupied while I work on the setup, and that is one of the things I look for in an assistant.

Be caught up on what is happening in the industry. Know stuff. Be informative. Be helpful. Be attentive.

4. Be a Self Starter
I love it when we would get to a shoot and Kevin would have all the lights on stands and the umbrellas out and the softboxes setup and the cameras on a table ready to go… and I was still chatting up the AD and looking over the layouts. You don’t need the photographer to tell you what to do… you know we need the lights and the tripod and such. Do it. Don’t ask.

When shooting, be aware of the progression. About time for a card change? All the lenses ready to go? Tethered cord is taped to the tripod and the floor. You know where I left my meter last?

Whatever needs to be done, do it. Don’t ask if it needs to be done, do it. Conversely, if there is something you don’t know how to do, ask. Ask. Do not barrel ahead and create a bigger problem than the one we had when it wasn’t set up. Follow the chain of command on the shoot, but get done what needs to be done.

If you are a freelance assistant, have a great set of tools at your disposal. Nothing wastes time like looking for my scissors. I have no idea in hell where they are when I am shooting. Have your own. See this post for a good idea for a grip kit, and then this post here at LE for some other tools that come in handy.

5. Be Familiar with the Photographers Style
This is very important if you want to be considered, and it will help you with the above. If the photographer is a natural light shooter, that may require different skills. Travel photographers mean you best know how to pack the most in the least, keep your head about you, have a passport, travel well and not complain about rainy days, bad food, less than stellar rooms and all the things that can befall a travel photographer.

A studio shooter could require a lot of knowledge in studio lighting, shooting tethered, Mac AND PC, Photoshop, getting lunch for 12, understanding how to connect the clients laptop to the network, sweeping and mopping, and a very organized approach to keeping the studio workable.

And if you don’t love the kind of work that the photographer does, it may make you a bit less interested. Don’t let that happen. Be interested in the work, or be interested in being the best photographers assistant, regardless of the style.

If you are wanting to get started in the business it is considered a good thing to work with someone who you can learn from. Even if the style doesn’t interest you, a people shooter is someone you should consider assisting with if you want to shoot people. And where this doesn’t always play out to be perfect, consider it a suggested guideline.

6. Know Your Place and Be There
Now that has two meanings, doesn’t it. Know your place can mean understanding you are an assistant, not the creative. It also means being on time at the location. Let’s look at both of these meanings.

An assistant is not there to proselytize or discuss the brand. We already love the brand. What we are shooting that day, we love that. If you don’t understand that, you are not cut out for this whole freelance thing. Assistants are not there to offer suggestions for the shoot… loudly. If you see the photographer struggling and have an idea, figure out how to get him/her alone and let them know. It then becomes THEIR idea… got it!

Get a GPS. Know how to read a map. Carry an iPhone/Android with the location already punched in. There is only one person who is allowed to be late to the shot… the client. The rest of us need to be on time, ready to go, and with a great and smiling persona. I hate being lost or late. I have a GPS, you should have one as well.

7. Leave Personal Problems at the Door
I think we all know what it is like being around some ‘Mr Grumpy’ or “Whining Jane” and we don’t like it. I don’t want to hear about your breakup, who said what to who on FaceBook, or who you slept with last night. I don’t care. I don’t want to deal with anything but the job at hand. Sure, we’ll chat later if we are friends, but this is a job. There is a client involved and lots and lots of money at stake. Treat it as such.

8. Assist First, Learn Second
An assistant is there to assist. That is why it is called ‘assistant’. Not ‘student’.

If the photographer is one of those who is also willing to teach, let them do it at their pace. Not at the shoot, not at the edit, not at the wrap up… and possibly all three. It has to do with the style of the person, not the ‘implied promise’ of a photographic education. I worked with guys who were all about teaching and helping, and I worked with guys who never even asked me if I actually was a photographer them… they wanted an assistant to help them, not to teach on the job.

If you are looking to be educated, make sure that is the kind of photographer you end up working with long term.

9. Become Proficient in Photoshop / LightRoom

I think that speaks for itself. It is more than a plus these days, it is necessary. Even simple things like Importing into LightRoom or Photoshop, exporting JPG’s, understanding color and more are basic tools assistants must know. Get real familiar with the tools that the photographers are using… and yeah, if they are using some strange free thing they downloaded 5 years ago, do your best and ask… sheesh.

10. Don’t Ring, Buzz or Tweet, Thanks.
I understand you are a freelancer. I understand you need to make plans for the next day. But you have to understand that a constantly ringing cellphone or buzzing ‘texting’ alerts suck in the atmosphere of most shoots. It keeps the focus distracted, and things get missed. Or screwed up. I don’t have an answer for you in most cases, but in my studio, I don’t want to see/hear the assistant making too many calls. I definitely am not happy with personal calls. Gigs I get, GF/BF’s I don’t. Tell your wife you will call at lunch, or tell the husband you will reach him on the way home. This is a business, it isn’t screwing around on a weekend MM shoot.

And unless you are specifically asked to, don’t tweet anything about the shoot. It is not your place. There may be situations where that is most inappropriate. If, however, the photographer asks you to… tweet away!

I am sure there are a lot of other things we can add to this list. Being an assistant is a noble thing to do, and I really have little respect for photographers who treat them less than people. If you are working for an asshat like that, quit. Life is too short for that. I once showed up on a 2 day shoot and was told to get coffee for everyone… as I turned to the photographer he exploded all over me telling me to NEVER speak directly to him… everything must go through his first assistant. And then he questioned my mother’s marriage status upon my delivery and I told him that I didn’t give a crap about him and if he ever called me that again I would kick his skinny little 5’5″ ass all over the friggin east side of LA. I walked off and let everyone I knew know what an asshat he was. Life is way too short to be treated like that from a friggin photographer. Jeeezusss.

IMPORTANT RESOURCES:

Here is a great set of guidelines on being a great photo assistant.
A Photo Assistant: Offers real world, fact based information on being a great Photo Assistant.
A Photo Editor: keep up to date with what is happening in the photo business. Great for discussions and information.
What’s the Jackanory: Travel is a bitch if you aren’t prepared. Andrew travels a lot, and you can get some ideas from keeping up with this editorial photographer.
John Harrington’s terrific blog on the business of commercial photography. Keep up with that legal stuff.
Chase Jarvis’ blog has occasional tips and some great behind the scenes stuff that shows assistants, assisting.
An interesting take from Dan Heller. I think the title of the post is a little off, as he does suggest that assisting is something that is important to do.
At Heather Mortons blog, there is a category entitled “The Whole Nine Yards” which is directed toward assistants and working as an assistant.

Thanks for coming along. I would love to hear some comments from assistants, and photographers. Let’s try to keep it upbeat and positive, without bashing and such. What are your experiences as an assistant and photographers, what to do you look for specifically in hiring an assistant. As always, take a look at the workshop page for more information on them, and follow along with me on twitter if you are so inclined.

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

13 Comments

  1. Perhaps one of the harder things these days is actually finding a photographer who needs an assistant. I’ve put out a number of feelers before and even had a number of photogs calling me for my assisting rate, but then never working a job with them. Simply put, there’s no budget for an assistant or some of them are clinging on to using the one they’ve been using for the last year and don’t have budget for a second. Any thought on this particular issue?

    Reply
    • There are more challenges to getting the gig these days. That is for sure. But be persistent, and only take a final no as a reason to cut back. Heh.

      You should find a targeted group of photographers you really really really want to work with, and keep on them until one of their guys moves on or gets hit by a bus, God forbid.

      But never take one no as a no. I have had assistants quit with little to no notice.

      Get on every list you can. If you are not a member of ASMP, become one and get to know all the shooters in your chapter. Same with APA of there is a chapter in your town. Do not give up, ever. It will happen, but it can take perseverance for sure.

      Make sure you are letting them know what you can do FOR them, not what kind of shooter you are or how you would love to learn what they do so you can open a studio down the street and undercut them by 15% driving them into bankruptcy and divorce… but I digress.

      One of the best sites to check is the A Photo Assistant blog. Keep up with what is going on. And create a nice resume of what you can do. Keep it focused on gear you can work with and how much you hate to sleep and your organizational skills. Mention you have an inside track to every Starbucks in America… let them know you have a sense of humor as well as a sense of what it takes to be a great assistant.

      Reply
  2. I worked in camera stores for a couple of years before I started assisting, and it definitely helped me out when i started to assist. Getting some hands-on experience with pro equipment and knowing what was out there gave me a leg up when it came time to look for work. I didn’t yak about my knowledge on-set, but it helped that I knew which end of a power cable to plug into a power pack.

    Also, read a few books on lighting first. A key light is a key light, a hair light is a hair light, and know what a given light is supposed to accomplish helps you work without the photog having to guide you every step of the way.

    At all times, keep in mind that your job is to make the photog’s shoot go easier. Period. You’re not there to make yourself a better photographer, and it’s not so you can gain experience on the latest techniques and tools or to gain contacts with AD’s and photo buyers. All of that will happen organically: Your job as an assistant is to, well, assist the photog and the other people who are working on the shot. If that means running for lunch, you run. If that means snapping off test pics or creating the light setup yourself, you do it. If the photographer’s a jerk, don’t work for him again. That’s a luxury that freelancers have that wage slaves don’t.

    And the biggest thing that helped land a first gig was working for free with a group of photogs on a a free shoot they were doing for a charity (in this case, Special Olympics).

    Never work for a photog for free (EVER), but if he’s doing a good deed for someone, do one for him (and yourself) and work for free as well. That free shoot allowed the photogs to see that I was clean, loyal, thrifty, brave, irreverent, etc, and that led to a multi-year career as a full-time first assistant.

    BTW.. readers, this is the “Kevin” I referred to in the text. Kevin was and is still the best damn assistant I ever had the joy of working with. He is also an awesome photographer.

    Reply
    • I cannot agree more with the “NEVER” free statement. When someone says they will work for free for me, I get kinda creeped out. First of all, thee is NO free… if they are indeed wanting to hang with me, they are damn well wanting to get something for it. They may think they are gonna rip off my lighting (big deal, I teach lighting) or some secret to making great images (believe me, I am happy to share that as soon as I figure it out) but I can sure as hell tell you they are not volunteering to sweep and mop the cyc, carry a couple of hundred pounds of lighting gear or wipe down and store stands. Free work means they are not professional, and have no idea what to expect.

      I have a friend who has used a couple of free assistants… half of them bailed after the first 5 hours cause they had to get home or to dinner or just simply didn’t expect to have to work.

      Reply
  3. Perhaps one of the harder things these days is actually finding a photographer who needs an assistant. I’ve put out a number of feelers before and even had a number of photogs calling me for my assisting rate, but then never working a job with them. Simply put, there’s no budget for an assistant or some of them are clinging on to using the one they’ve been using for the last year and don’t have budget for a second. Any thought on this particular issue?

    When I broke into the assisting biz in Phoenix in the 1990′s, and there where maybe three photog in town with full-time assistants. Part-timers were in bigger demand because of the prevalence of large format and Normans, but even with lighter cameras and strobes, I’d imagine that assistants are still needed today, if nothing else as voice-activated booms and stands. If I were shooting, i’d have BIG problems asking the client to hold a light for me. I’d only do that with clients that I’d known for years.

    Getting that first gig was the key, and I managed to break in because of a few, simple things.

    1. Preparation. I knew the photogs. I worked at a pro camera shop downtown, and I learned who used assistants and who did not, and who was a nice guy and who wasn’t.
    2. Luck. The Special Olympics gig helped, but my first paying gig happened when a shooter’s regular 1st call was sick and I was available at a moment’s notice.
    3. Connections. My photo teacher in college was a working pro (one of the advantages of going to a small school vs. the State U.) and he knew a shooter who was looking for a semi-regular assistant. As I was one of the better students in the class and I had a knowledge of studio equipment from my day job, I got the gig.
    4. Professionalism. I didn’t show photogs my portfolio, I handed them a card with my pager number, name and a photo of me leaning up against a stack of photo gear. They weren’t hiring me to be a photographer, they were hiring me to be a strong back and a second brain.
    5. Dogged determination. Unless a photog told me to p*ss off, I’d show up on their doorstep every couple of months, sometimes just to chat. Photography can be an amazingly lonely business, especially if you work at home or have the studio to yourself. If they weren’t too busy, I found most photogs would love to stop and talk for a bit.

    That led to a 10 year career (with a year’s sabbatical) as a full-time 1st assistant. Great job. Wish I could do it again, but you can’t feed a wife and two kids on an assistant’s wages.

    Reply
  4. Kevin (from across the building, down a flight of a stairs, with an armful of light stands)….

    “TEN”

    (back in the film days) . That Kevin?

    Reply
    • That is indeed the Kevin to which I referred, and who commented here.

      Reply
  5. Good thoughts Kevin. I try to make all the ASMP meetings and get my face out there. I do follow-up with a number of photogs pretty regularly. I’ve got to keep plugging at it looks like and maybe tap a bit of that luck ;)

    Reply
  6. #10. Seriously. Had a photographer as an assistant. My phone: In the car. Couldn’t care less who needed to get hold of me – I was getting paid. I have Voice Mail. And text. And e-mail. CLIENT takes priority.

    My assistant? Darn iPhone kept ringing, vibrating, chirping, all the damn shoot. Even AFTER I had told him to turn it off.

    Yes – last time he gets a call.

    Argh.

    Reply
  7. Great post, Don. Thanks for the link love also!

    I will re-iterate… persistence and attitude are what will get you in the door. And continued self-education will get you call backs. These are the big three I feel these days. Photo assisting is a tough gig. And it’s not going to get any easier. Staying up to speed on Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One is advisable. And implementing other software, hardware, or technique into your arsenal will be what separates the men from the boys. A general lighting/camera assistant will need to be better versed in digital tech work. There are fewer and fewer budgets that will allocate for both a photo assistant and a digitech. And, jeez, don’t forget video. That’s another huge can-o-worms to explore and add to your service as an assistant. The more you can bring to the table, the better your chance of getting the good jobs.

    Reply
  8. It appears that you forgot the longest running web site dedicated to photo assistants and the commercial photo industry http://www.1prophoto.com formerly http://www.photoassistant.net which began back in spring 1998
    and currently the largest FREE internet database of photo assistants and digital techs; and the only place offering the original Photo Assistant Boot Camp, now in our 5th year.

    All the best.

    James Sullivan
    http://www.1ProPhoto.Com
    http://www.1ProPhotoTV.Com
    http://www.1ProCrew.Com

    Reply
    • Thanks James.

      Reply

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