How to Be a Great Photographer's Assistant

How to Be a Great Photographer's Assistant

Are you thinking of becoming an assistant? Trust me; assisting can be brutal, yet it can be exciting as well. It really depends on who you assist. Working in this role is the best way to gain lots of experience, especially when you're working your way to becoming a professional photographer. Working closely with a professional gives you valuable insights on equipment, processes, and techniques.

There are lots of factors that can define an assistant, but here are the five key things that can make you a great one.  

Communication

Discuss the shoot and goals. Often, a photographer heads a shoot without communicating the plan to their assistant, or an assistant doesn't ask what the plan is. Communication is a critical part of any relationship, and it is a very key tool to succeed as a team. Remember to communicate if you're wondering what to do or if something is not going according to plan.  This will also save plenty of time during the actual shoot.  

Pre-Shoot Preparations

Be ready! It's important that you check whether there is anything you can do to aid the main photographer in ensuring they have everything they need in place. There are times when we tend to forget small things like batteries or lenses.  It helps if you meet with the photographer prior to the shoot day to discuss what's essential to bring in your equipment pouch. Helping the photographer scout locations can make it easy for you to know what the photographer is going for. Don't be afraid to ask if you can take photos of the location; this can help you remember where you scouted and can also get you some great brownie points from the photographer. 

Be Clear on Your Role

Discuss with the photographer what your role for the day is. You need to find out how you will be of most use to them. It may be as simple as transporting gear or keeping an eye on the equipment, such as light settings, checking for extra batteries etc. Be in tune with each other, because there are times when a photographer can't seem to achieve the creative goal and being in step with the photographer can help him/her achieve what they're missing on a shoot. 

Follow the Lead

Let the photographer introduce you to the clients and crew. Remember that it's not about you; it's about the job at hand. If you're thinking of assisting a celebrity photographer, it is very important not to get starstruck. Losing your focus can very well mean an unsuccessful shoot. Remember you're there to assist, not to get selfies or autographs from the subject. 

Be Ready

It's up to you to concentrate on what's going on within the shoot so that you can be ready to provide the photographer with the correct gear and adjustments. Think like the photographer, and always be ahead of the game. We live in an era with awesome cell phone technology, and being on your phone texting or looking at your Instagram is not being ready. The photographer needs to count on you when he needs a light placed or a smoke machine to work. Being on your phone can cause accidents; refraining from using it or just simply turning it off will help keep you focused on the job at hand.  

Once you find that right person to work with, everything will flow perfectly. You will both be in tune with each other to the point where you know what the other person needs to get the job done. Take it from my assistant, Jerome. He has been my assistant for many years, and he has proven himself as one of the greatest assistants that I can ask for. Jerome has been on crazy shoots, long travels, and hours of standing, staring at a bright light. Yet, he is an aspiring actor. Over time, Jerome acquired many skills. Nevertheless, I can use his gorgeous, sweaty acting face as a stand-in. Before photographing my subject, I tend to perfect the lighting that I want. To achieve that, I use my main man, Jerome, as a lighting dummy. Come on now, we all know that we've used a c-stand with a hat before, and nothing beats that, other than a trusty assistant sweating behind the scenes. 

Here's Jerome standing in for Camilla Luddington. He does a fine job looking beautiful as ever. 

  photographer-assistant-stand-in-1   photographer-assistant-stand-in-2

 

Here's Jerome standing in for Jill Wagner. He does an awesome job looking fierce.

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As you can see, he does an outstanding job being a stand-in. He also has other skills like being a companion while holding the lights. This is a great example of my assistant knowing what I want to achieve. 

photographer-assistant-stand-in-5

He also gives suggestions like lighting the subject right above her face. 

photographer-assistant-stand-in-6   photographer-assistant-lighting-7  

 

If I don't need him to be a boom or a talking stand, I can definitely use him to hold reflectors and flags, facing the sun. No matter how hot it gets, he never complains. A great assistant will go out of his/her way to get the shots you need. 

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He is great at being a model for some artsy iPhone shots when we're location-scouting. Having an actor as an assistant can get awfully useful at times. 

photographer-assistant-stand-in-9An assistant being in tune with the shoot can help a photographer see the small things the he/she misses, like removing a piece of hair on the subject's arm or making sure that all the small pieces of lint are gone.  These can help minimize post-production. 

When we are not doing commissioned work, I can always count on my assistant to go crazy, and hang out with the Power Rangers. 

So, if you're thinking about assisting, think of Jerome. It can be fairly difficult to find the right assistant. And most professional photographers would love to have their own Jerome lingering behind the scenes. Remember the five key components that will help you succeed as an assistant.. 

  1. Communication
  2. Pre-shoot preparations
  3. Be clear on your role
  4. Follow the lead
  5. Be ready

Becoming an expert at assisting can take some time; you won't become a professional assistant in your first week. Focus on these key methods, however, and before long, you will acquire those skills that will make you succeed as an assistant. 

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19 Comments

Kevin Krebbers's picture

I just want to add these: Mulititool ready on your belt. Picking out good music during shoots. And my own favourite: making sure the photographer is hydrated!

Isaac Alvarez's picture

Totally agree! Nothing beats a good music while hydrated. Thanks Kevin..

Jasper Verolme's picture

Multitool and gaffer on the belt! I recall from my assistant work at least 20% is mad DJ skills.

Isaac Alvarez's picture

Nothing beats rolls and rolls of gaffer, good times lol.

Anthony Tripoli's picture

I assisted for years, and I will still assist photographers I look up to when the opportunity presents itself. This is what I found to separate me from the rest of the pack

Coming with a bag of essentials (clips, gaff tape, multi tool, super clamps, light meter), a lot of those things tend to be overlooked or forgotten when a photographer is leaving his/her studio.
A well rounded knowledge of not just exposure/lighting, but a good understanding of different lighting systems (profoto, broncolor, speed lights, alien bees, etc)
Knowing when to speak up and offer input, and when to be quiet and out of the way.

Honestly though, now days, I prefer to take on digital tech jobs as opposed to assisting gigs. With that being said though, I still come with my assistant kit just in case.

Isaac Alvarez's picture

Yes agree, it's always good to be ready. Definitely knowledge on lighting equipment is a plus. Thank you Anthony for sharing.

Scott Mosley's picture

Where would you recommend finding suitable assistant nowadays? Several people we have tried to work with have been very difficult and cocky, with little interest in remaining present during a shoot. We sort-of gave up on finding anyone we could trust after a few bad experiences.

Isaac Alvarez's picture

I would suggest posting an ad at a art school, art students usually take a photography class. Sometimes it could be your best fan liking your photos and his/her probably eager to work with you. In all honesty you never know when your gonna find that right person and if/when you do, try to keep him/her happy and teach them the way you would want to be thought.

Great assistants come from great bosses.

I haven't seen enough articles about how to be a great boss.

Its almost like a assistant is expected to know what to do...

I hated assisting bc of this notion and work hard to let my staff know what is expected from them.

Browny points are given when they get things the first time.

But nice article. Hope bosses see this and translate how to communicate to their team.

Isaac Alvarez's picture

I totally agree 100%. Having a great boss that not only teaches you but also connects with you as a person is amazing. It's a relationship and both parties needs to have that give/receive motto. This always stuck to me "A good boss is a man who isn't worried about his own career but rather the careers of those who work for him".

Edward Pages's picture

If you are in NYC and looking for an Assistant please feel free to reach out to me. I'm incredibly disciplined and hard working due to my 10 years in the United States Marine Corps but I'm also really friendly and love working as a team. I have a degree from the School of Visual Arts in Cinematography and a concentration in Fashion and Fine Art photography. I'm well versed in Canon, Nikon, Mamiya, Phase One camera systems, Profoto, Paul C Buff, Broncolor Lighting systems, Capture One, Photoshop platforms.

Isaac Alvarez's picture

Message me your contact info.

william mitchell's picture

I assisted in LA for 11 years and would like to assist again. Since i have used macs since 1988 I can also be a digital tech and or basic photo editor and retoucher. I was also member of APA LA. Good article.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Good info, these days fewer and fewer people have full time assistants and are using freelance people. This sometimes creates problems as the experience levels can vary. I am not really looking to train people that I am paying $200-$350 per day.
Hopefully they will know more than Profoto, Canon and Nikon. Ideally they know all the popular equipment, if they don;t they should spend a couple hours at a rental house setting up and putting away stuff including some of the video gear like stabilizers, jibs, sliders, etc and have a working knowledge of LED and KinoFlo etc.
As far as protocol on the set here is my 2¢
1. Stay off the cell phone or text unless regarding the job
2. Keep the equipment cases in order, ready to move at a moments notice.
3. Understand the chain of command, it's best to talk to me rather than the client when you have a good idea. While it may be a good idea it may not be in the budget or plan so talk to me first before blurting it out.
4. Don't Panic Maintain a Zen like calmness, even if I am stressed
5. On location jobs take a look at a map the day before to find food, hardware store, hospital, etc.
6. Keep sober on the job, no drinking or herbs even if others are partaking. You may need to climb a ladder to adjust a light or camera, if you are high it's dangerous. If weed is your medicine that could be an issue.
7. One thing that my assistant always has is the Letherman, Gaff tape, ziplock bags, etc. and a bag with all kinds of different cables and chargers and a couple extra SD and CF cards. Also energy bars, Tylenol and water.
8. Keep your head in the game try to think a move or two ahead (if there is no producer) that is why communication and sharing the plan is important.
9. Don't talk about all the other great jobs you assisted on in the past.
10 Be friendly and sociable but avoid too much socializing with clients, models etc. Don;t be a dick but don't be Chatty Cathy either.
11. And as my manager at Burger King told me...."You got time to lean, you got time to clean"

Isaac Alvarez's picture

Love the added tips. Thank you Mr. Hogwallop

Olafs Osh's picture

yes, it really depends on a photographer. I had assisted only one photographer. I did learn much, but in the end it was such a pain, because often, when assisting in the studio, I had just to kill countless hours [while I could go and work on other things], also I was made a bad person, if at times, when I had nothing to do, I did not look busy. by the end of our cooperation it just ate my nerves too much. also there were no "schooling", but I think assistant should learn from the photographer and the photographer should teach.

So, consider well all aspects when choosing to what guy to work for.

Isaac Alvarez's picture

Well said. Yes Photographers should communicate what they want done. Definitely a great point, thank you Olafs.

Anonymous's picture

You pay for what you get. If your gig relies on professionals, then guess what, you need to pay for professionals. That fact that articles like this pop up every year clearly shows that our industry does not truly value assistants, nor how to manage others. Instead of paying for quality labor, we keep complaining that our assistants don’t know enough and/or act professional enough.

As someone who hires an assistant whenever I can, not only do I pay them well, I send a lot of time explaining and educating them so they have a clear understanding of the job and where I need them. I also explain how critical they are in the process. Adding that the better I look, the more work I get, and the more times I can hire them again. In return, they want to keep working for me, and every time they get better and better because we are building a relationship. If I had more work, I would just hire someone, which would even be better.

On the other end, I do assist other photographers, including second shooting weddings. The ones I work hard for and want to keep working for are the ones that treat with respect, pay me fairly for my time, and include me in the process so we can resolve any challenges together.

Fstoppers, how about paying someone to write an article on how to treat assistants and others, like MUAs, who are involved with your shoot.