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Becoming a photo assistant

I’ve always been a huge proponent of learning via hands on and have advocated to many on forums or to aspiring photographers to find a mentor. One of the very best ways to learn the craft of photography is to assist a photographer as their assistant.

This is much more difficult than it sounds and for anyone who has reached out to commercial shooters to offer ‘assistance’ you may or may not have encountered resistance and in some cases even reluctance when you’ve offered help. Having been on both sides of the ‘offering’ and the ‘recipient of offers’ I wanted to explain some of my concerns and what I look for in any potential assistant.

This applies primarily to non paid of ‘volunteer’ assistants. Professional paid assistants are invaluable and there is a reason why they can command hi day rates. It’s also very common for me to ask for references from paid pro assistants and meet with them prior to considering them for any session. More on why later….

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As non professional assistants most folks including myself when I was first starting out feel that any photographer would be happy to have free labor to lug, set up and help a professional photographer. Free labor seems like a fair trade to learn from an experienced pro right? So some folks may feel a bit put off when I am hesitant to accept ‘free assistance’ because the reality is it is NOT free, at least not for me.

Most non pro assistants are themselves budding photographers who want to learn about the nuances of lighting. The thought of being on set, learning to use lights, modifiers, scrims, reflectors, etc. is well worth their time and physical labor. What most if not all budding assistants fail to consider is the photographer is doing THEM a favor, the exact opposite of their initial attitude.

Here’s why:

  1. Most photographers have spent years if not decades learning their craft from reading, trying, retrying and retrying again how to use lights, scrims, modifiers.
  2. The cost of the equipment they are using to light and sculpt their subject is expensive either from a rental or owned standpoint.
  3. The non paid just starting out assistant has no skin in the game. That means that if something they are assembling is broken during the assembly, they have no financial consequences. Unless the photographer has had them sign a liability agreement stating that if they break something they pay for its repair or replacement.
  4. Then there is the liability of damaging  the property of the client or worse, causing  physical harm to the talent due to your mistake. Sure any pro shooter worth their shutter speed has property and liability insurance, but that’s not the point is it?
  5. Know the difference in assembling  an Elinchrom Deep Octa versus a Westcott 59″ Zeppelin?
  6. Or how about a Para 88?
  7. Know how to use and set up tethering software for cabled tethering?
  8. Ever used Sunbounce reflectors or their Sun Swatter line?
  9. Know the difference between a 1/3 a 2/3 stop scrim’s characteristics?
  10. Used head/pack strobes and monoblocks of various brands?
  11. Know how to use a light meter?
  12. Familiar with Profoto gear and PocketWizard triggers and their various versions?
  13. Know how to feather a reflector or modifier?
  14. Know where to stand so you’re not in frame, but can bounce enough light onto the talent?
  15. How about relay light bouncing with two to three reflectors?
  16. When specular light will be more effective than using diffusers?

 

Of course the answer to many of this abbeviated list of questions is NO, otherwise you’d be out shooting yourself right? The whole point of my questions is to illustrate that there’s a TON to know to be an effective assistant. And yes there are so many things one can learn from being an assistant. It’s kind of like the chicken or the egg question isn’t it?

My two critical items I look for when even considering any assistants paid or not are two things:

  • An absolute absence of an attitude of ‘entitlement.’
  • An authentic attitude and personality which embodies initiative.

So how does one start? Read all that you can about what goes into any commercial shoot. Rent gear that one may use on a commercial shoot. Know how to assemble softboxes, octabanks, how to use a light meter, professional grade triggers, etc. Practice using a reflector and know how to not just hit talent dead on with light, but how to feather the light….and those are just the very, very basics.

Approach a photographer whose work you admire with the attitude that they are DOING YOU A FAVOR by even considering you as a non paid assistant. Don’t expect to go onto a paid gig. I would NEVER take a non pro on a paid gig. I do consider people for personal projects and after MANY sessions I would then consider to take them on a paid gig. And if you’re not on time, each and every time, I would never consider having them on another session.

The reality is when I am not using a pro assistant I allow 40% more time to set up and strike than when I have a pro assistant. I’ve worked alone for a number of years and can set up my own gear without headaches. So I never count on volunteer assistants to save me any time and allow for the amount of time it takes me to do a session alone.

Questions should ALWAYS BE HELD until AFTER the session is over. I made the grave error of having a photographer of 30 years assist me on a complicated personal project with dancers in water. She was a friend of the talent and I felt obligated to allow her on set. She kept telling me how ‘she would have done that shot’ to the point where I got so frustrated I put the trigger on her camera, rattled off the settings and said “OK have at it then!” I could tell as she fumbled with her simple shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings that she had no idea how to work on the fly. And as she began to shoot I could tell she was not getting a single shot. Dance is all about timing and when you can see the strobe flash before or after the defining moment, it’s not hard to tell when someone is not nailing it.

Ever used her again? What do you think?

This session took a little over a year of planning.

This session took a little over a year of planning.

A paid effective assistant is akin to a great wife, dentist, executive assistant, auto mechanic or general contractor. They KNOW their business and have earned my trust. They are not there to show you how much they know simply because they ARE great at what they do. And their own photography reflects the expertise they’ve acquired by being great assistants.

If you are just starting out in photography I would not recommend approaching any commercial shooter to be their assistant. You need to learn the basics and learn by doing on your own. I recommend trying to assist a shooter whose body of work you admire when you’ve reached an advanced intermediate level of skill in photography having used lights and reflectors on your own.

2 thoughts on “Becoming a photo assistant”

  1. hey been reading your posted re: adapting PCB modifiers for other lights, useful info… thanks for sharing the tips! And by the way, happened upon this post… what a cool installation. Would you mind if I asked where it is located?

    Thanks again, and hope this finds you well,

    AV

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