How to Be a Great Photo Assistant
I think I entered a photographer's rite of passage a while back when I started receiving inquiries from new photographers wanting a job as either my assistant or my intern. It was a flattering and surreal experience for me, particularly in light of the fact that I can name several photographers for whom I'd do just about anything for a chance to assist, even if just for a day.
There is no denying that working as an assistant is a great way to learn. I did it and am eternally grateful for the experience. A good assistant working with a good photographer can definitely jump to the head of the class, gaining an inside track to better photography skills, as well as better business skills. Many assistants eventually embark on successful careers of their own, while others make a name for themselves as professional assistants.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Sure, there's a lot you can learn from me once you get the gig, but what are you bringing to the table? What skills do you already possess that are going to make you valuable to me (and worth a paycheck)? This is where I think there is some confusion in terminology. If you are applying to be my intern, chances are you are either still a student or very recently out of school. You probably have very little professional experience behind the camera, and you're likely to strike out on your own about thirty seconds after you realize I've taught you everything I know. The bottom line for the internship applicant is that I have virtually no expectations beyond your abilities to charge batteries, be presentable, and not embarrass me in front of a client.
If you're looking to be my assistant, on the other hand, you'd best have some serious skills. As the saying goes, "Come heavy or go home." Don't get me wrong. I have a lot to teach and will gladly share it with you, but it's all there in the job title. An assistant has to assist, not just learn. So, what are my secrets to your success?
1. Know Who I Am and What I do.
Don't even bother clicking "send" on that email until you've spent some time on my website, gone through the galleries, and read my blog. You're not doing yourself any favors by applying for a job with a photographer whose style and genre you don't share. If you have your sights set on a career in fashion photography, working for a food photographer is going to be a waste of everybody's time. Do your homework first. A shared vision is crucial to a successful relationship.
2. Dress Appropriately.
I know this should go without saying, but experience dictates that I say it anyway. The definition of "appropriate" may change from day to day, so ask if you aren't sure. We may be shooting a band in the studio one day and CEO headshots on location the next. You are representing my brand, so you need to look the part.
3. Early is "On Time." On Time is "Late."
And late is unacceptable.
4. Know Your Stuff.
In some ways, you need to know almost as much as I do. Not necessarily all at once, but if you and I are firing on all cylinders you'll pick it up pretty quickly. Unlike an internship, this is a job-- not a tutoring session. I'm thrilled to have someone to mentor, but you need to know technique. You need to know gear. You need to know the language. When I ask you for something I shouldn't have to explain myself, especially in front of a client.
5. Know My Gear-- Better Than I Do, If Possible.
If you shoot Canon, now's the time for you to learn Nikon. You need to know the bodies and the lenses. You need to know where I store it, how I store it, and how I want it packed when we're shooting on location. You'll also have to know your way around medium format and 35mm film. And whatever you do, please be honest. I'm going to ask you all this stuff in the interview and "fake it 'til you make it" isn't going to work with me.
6. Think Ahead. Anticipate. Stay Busy.
Photo shoots can be busy, hectic, whirlwinds of activity. Don't be distracted by it. If anything, you should embrace it. After we've been working together for a while you should be able to anticipate what I'm going to need and when I'm going to need it. If you know that I always start a portrait session with the 85mm, make sure the 85 is on the camera. If you know we move the lights during wardrobe changes, be ready to jump in when the client jumps out. We'll spend some time going over the shoot before it happens. That's your time to ask questions and make sure we're both on the same page.
Remember that there is really no such thing as "down time." There is always something to do during a shoot. Find something if there isn't. Show some initiative. Just because I'm taking a few minutes to chat with the client or the art director, doesn't mean it's time for you to disappear and post BTS Instagram photos. Be a pro. Move like you have a purpose.
I am going to include you in as much of what we do as I possibly can. Keep in mind, though, that your actions reflect on me. If a client sees that you're just sitting around on your ass they are going to wonder why, and ultimately so will I.
7. You're in Charge of Location Reconnaissance.
Know where stuff is. And by "stuff," I don't mean the gear. By now I've hammered #5 so deeply into your subconscious that you and the gear are One. What I'm talking about here are the important things like bathrooms, snacks, electrical outlets, where to get lunch, and the closet bar. Essentials.
8. Be a Problem Solver.
You are smart, talented, and dedicated. Problems jump up to bite us in the ass all the time. Be ready for them and be ready to fix them. "No" is almost never an acceptable response. The tools of the trade include more than camera equipment and computers. A pen, gaff tape, and a cell phone are going to be three of your best friends. Make sure you always know where they are. Then move them closer.
9. Be Invisible. Be Silent.
I really do hate how that sounds, but "Speak only when spoken to" is even worse, right? Here's the thing-- you're an adult and I promise I'm going to respect you and treat you like one, but it's my name on the door. My voice needs to be the one that resonates with the client, especially if you and I disagree about something.
As far as your invisibility goes, nothing impresses me more than ninja skills. Let this be an extension of #6.
Another note on silence. The Vegas Rule is always in effect. What happens here stays here. You will be privy to a lot of private and proprietary information. Treat that information with the respect it deserves.
10. Never Commit the Cardinal Sin.
Yes. There really is a cardinal sin, and if you commit it there will truly be no penance. I will absolutely, positively fire you on the spot if I ever catch you giving your own business card or promoting yourself in any way to any of our clients. Not even remotely negotiable. This business keeps a roof over my family's head and food on our table. You became part of that family when I hired you. I get that one day you're going your own way. When that day comes I'll wish you nothing but the best and do whatever I can to help. For now, though, respect the team and know the boundaries.
"Are You Really Such a Hard-Ass?"
Not really, but I do have some pretty strong opinions on this subject. Here's the bottom line-- I will never ask you to do something that I'm not willing to do myself, and I will do my best to ask nicely. I've had some extremely generous and talented photographers guide me along the way. Here's the thing, though. Most of us would rather do it all ourselves or ask an already-experienced friend to help us out from time to time, rather than hire a full-time assistant. Why? Because most photographers who are looking to assist are trying to land their first job in photography, and almost all of them only want to do it for the short term. It's not worth our time to train you, coach you, and teach you everything we know and how we like it done if you're turning around in a year to build your own business on our foundation.
I'm not saying I expect you to sign on for a life of indentured servitude. Far from it. If you're talented and sincere I'd love to have you on the team. One of the things that has always impressed me about our industry is how willing and open people are to helping others find their footing. I was hired as an assistant by an amazing photographer at a time when I really had no business getting that job.
So, those are my Top 10. It's the least I can do, since I have no budget at all for an assistant right now. If you have any to add, feel free to leave them in the comments.
"Help Wanted" sign photo credit: Flickr user Thewmatt. Thanks!
About The Author
Jeff Guyer is an Atlanta, GA photographer specializing in commercial and portrait photography, as well as weddings, sports, and street photography. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter, or check out his work at Guyer Photography.