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.
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.