The Benefits Of Being An Assistant

The Benefits Of Being An Assistant

When we start out as photographers, it can be a little underwhelming, I mean, we all have this idea of what we're capable of and yet we start out working on small jobs (often) with low budgets. Assisting helps you keep your enthusiasm while rising up through the ranks of experience and gives you access to productions possibly decades away from your current skill set. 

With an ever changing landscape, the routes to becoming a professional photographer have changed massively. Back in the day, (sometime before I started), you would go to college, learn the basics, and then find an assisting position. Today, you can make your fame and fortune doing it in whichever way you want. People are out there making a living as travel photographers on Instagram using just an iPhone, Joey L was shooting major campaigns as a teenager, and I am pretty sure that many pros today started off as the main shooter. However, there are still benefits to assisting those with more experience than you. The hours are long, the pay is poor, and the working conditions are often a tad grim, but here are some reminders of the perks of assisting.

Get the Inside Scoop on Photography Industry Etiquette

There are certain expectations in the commercial photography world that you can’t really read up on anywhere. Who buys lunch? What are the payment terms for freelance staff? Who makes the tea? Who collates the feedback? When do you know it's time to move onto the next shot? Understanding this before you jump in head first can save a few red-faced moments when you're the main shooter. 

Learn the Tricks of the Trade

Photography is complicated, and if there is a chance that something can go wrong, it probably will do. Knowing how to deal with these hurdles can only really come from experience. And it’s always nice to let someone else deal with the disaster rather than having to do it yourself. Watching a seasoned pro fixing an issue is a really quick way to pick up the tricks of the trade. Watching how they handle this stress and communicate with a client when things go wrong is probably even more important as a career lesson than learning what that tech fix was (Clue: think swan. Effortlessly graceful on the surface and paddling furiously under the water). 

Understanding Who is Who on a Shoot

On your first shoot, there may be a host of people on set. From creative directors, account handlers, through to the client's marketing department and the company's owner. When they all start throwing their opinions about, usually whilst standing over your shoulder and reviewing the work loudly in your ear, it can be hard to work out who you should be listening to. Watching these dynamics for a few years can help you navigate future problems and create a harmonious working environment for everyone your employ when you're the person in charge. 

See in Others What You Need to Avoid

This is a big one, it is far easier to see others bad practices than it is your own. None of us really want to be too hard on ourselves and admit which of our working behaviors are not great to be on the receiving end of. By the time I became a photographer under my own name I had worked with at least 10 other longtime pros and worked out exactly what I didn’t like. And what I did. This helped me shape who I am professionally. 

I still assist, second shoot, and help out on other photographers work regularly. There’s always something new to learn and it’s really refreshing not to have all the pressure on yourself. 

For those of you who have assisted before, what were the biggest learning points for you?

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Robert Thompson's picture

So...who buys lunch?

John MacLean's picture

When I was assisting in the 80s, yeah I’m a 55 year old dinosaur, either the ad agency client would buy, or the photographer would and add it as a line item expense to the final invoice. I’m not sure it’s like that any more.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes, I usually offer to buy lunch and unless the agency offers in front of the client I buy it. This has been the case in pretty much every type of commercial work that I have done to date.

Deleted Account's picture

Not sure that this is what you’re looking for, but the two things I learned during my very brief time assisting were that I should be prepared to take over the shoot if necessary, and I wasn’t interested in shooting weddings. lol

I was 14 at the time. I took a summer job at a one-man used camera store. In the space behind the store, there was a small studio, a darkroom, and a shop where he repaired cameras. He did a few photo assignments each week, and I assisted. This was in the 1960s.

One Sunday evening, he was shooting a wedding with a 4x5 Graphic and No. 5 flashbulbs. My job was to keep him supplied with fresh film holders and flashbulbs – and keep the exposed film separate from the fresh film (which wasn’t difficult, if you flipped the dark slide after each shot).

About 10 minutes into the wedding, the photographer was trying to get to the front of the chapel when a runner in the aisle slipped out from under him. He fell and broke his arm – the left one, which he used to hold the camera. I ended up finishing the shoot.