Setiquette: A Primer in On-Set Behavior

Setiquette: A Primer in On-Set Behavior

Whether you're an intern about to work on set for the first time or a production veteran, acting well on set is the easiest way to move up in the world, learn more quickly and be asked back on more shoots. In this primer, we'll cover some simple do's and don'ts that should be able to get anyone through his or her first production.  

Arrive Early, Stay Late

Showing up a bit before the call and making yourself available for the odd jobs that always seem to pile up at the least opportune times will make you invaluable to your DP, producer, etc., and will set you apart from the less dedicated help. Similarly, staying after the wrap can be a huge help: an extra set of hands makes tear-down faster, easier, and safer for everyone. But also make sure not to overstay your welcome. After wrap and tear-down, ask your boss if there's anything further to be done, and when he or she says, "No," head out.

Don't Get in the Way

Let people do their jobs. It's possible to be "too" helpful. Don't breathe down people's necks and don't step on anyone's toes. Depending on the size and scope of the production and your position in it, you may want to keep your focus on "your" department (i.e. lighting, sound, etc.). Try to always be aware of how what you're doing is impacting the set and people working (don't change lights while people are shooting, try not to walk around too loudly while audio is recording).

Make Your Boss(es) Look Good [Full Stop]

This is the single easiest way to get asked back to the next shoot. Again, depending on the size and type of the shoot, there may be a couple different people you're working under. For example, if you're working on a film production as a lighting assistant, you'll answer to the gaffer and best boy. Always try to keep in mind your boss' goals and what they are trying to accomplish. Try to anticipate their needs (as noted below) while keeping an eye on equipment. Be ready to provide a new battery, card, lamp, lens, etc., at a moment's notice. Finally, never go over your boss' head: if there's an issue, make sure he's the first person aware of it.

Be Personable

It's more than okay to let some personality sneak into your work. If they wanted to use a robot they would have bought one. One of the best things to do to quickly get in with the crew is to learn (and use) people's names. Calling someone by name is, first, less awkward, and second, gives them a reason to learn yours. Be polite (see below). Don't embarrass anyone. If you see something dangerous, it's important to fix it right away. If you see something technical being done less-than-perfectly, mention it to your boss and let him or her decide if it's worth fixing right away.

Be Professional

Take the temperature of the shoot. It's always safest to avoid profane, sexual, political, racial, or religious jokes entirely. If you wouldn't say it to the Queen, maybe keep it to yourself. Don't badmouth. "So-and-so didn't show up last time, so-and-so has terrible work," aren't appropriate on set -- plus, you never know who is best friends with the guy or crew you're talking about. Turn off your phone. Only take pictures if appropriate: most high-end productions will be copyrighted materials, so taking photos (even of behind-the-scenes action) without permission may result in you getting the boot or at least getting yelled at for sharing before everyone else.

Speak Up

If you see something potentially dangerous or unexpected happening, make sure to inform someone right away. Offering expert advice, when applicable, can be a little tough — especially when you're new on set. If you see something going poorly that you're confident you can fix, quietly (and humbly) make a suggestion to your superior or to the person to whom it's applicable. If the change is made, awesome! If not, no sweat, either.

Handle Equipment Responsibly

Cars, cameras, and lights are all expensive investments -- treat them with care. A good rule of thumb is to leave everything better than you found it. When grabbing or handing off anything expensive, make sure to ask, "Got it?"  Keep an eye on guages, battery levels and warning lights, and always be ready with a spare if possible. It can be easy to get caught up in big-picture aspects of the production and let little things like a battery at 3% and a full hard drive sneak up on you.

Film / Photo Crew Vets, spill the beans: What was your biggest on-set goof as a novice? If you have any suggestions for additional rules, add them in the comments below.

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While on set for a jean company, we were shooting some hoops on the nerf basketball in the studio. I tried to do a trick move and ended up knocking a V-Flat over and making way too much commotion. For some reason the fellas at the studio called me again...from then on I never shot another hoop. hahaha

jonas y's picture

That means they really like working with you, maybe because of your personality, that's great!

Kendra Paige's picture

Wonderful article! It's really so vital for those on set to remember they're a part of a team. I make an effort to work with new people often, as I continue to build a reliable creative team. The ones I ask back are always the ones that are more personable and energetic. It's easy to feed off someone's passion when they're excited, and those are the sorts of people I like to surround myself with when it comes to a production.

Anonymous's picture

My first job ever on set as an electrician I went out of my way to do exactly (and a little more) what was expected from me. Nothing was to much if someone asked me something. After a long successful we are loading up the truck, I am manning the truck's liftgate. Being over eager trying to work as efficient as possible I was already lowering the liftgate without the gaffer noticing. When he took a step back thinking the lift was still up he fell of. Luckily the lift was only half way and he didn't get hurt. It's been many years later and we still work together. Now it's one of those story's who get told whenever a new guy joins the crew. Best job I ever had.

Dan Howell's picture

I would add, if you are present at a shoot as an intern, assistant or an observer Don't try to be a photographer. I would have thought this to be basic knowledge, but I have had the experience when having either photographers request to observe a shoot or hiring a photographer as an assistant on a location shoot that they did not have the sense to turn off their photographer gears and stick to either observing or assisting. I have had assistant photographers
-give direction to models while I was shooting
-give advice to me about shooting
-attempt to make appointments with my client to show their portfolios
-ask for future referrals for shooting work from me with my client
-peep into model's dressing room

I appreciate the contribution a qualified assistant can lend to a shoot. In addition to that, I don't mind sharing my experiences or knowledge thru questions and observation. What my shoots can't use is another photographer competing for attention from my clients, models and other members of my team.

Bruno Inácio's picture


IMO an assistant should give advices to the photographer, but with discretion! I give advices to the photographers and DOP's and Gaffers and they appreciate that. There's so much things happening in some kind of shoot's that's impossible to control/see everything with only 2 eyes! Mostly when you have AD's blowing your head with that modern retro conceptual look, inspired on Irving Penn but in a Punk way!

Dan Howell's picture

I have never had an assistant with the experience both in photography and with my specific clients to know more about the project at hand than I do. Assistants can provide information about what they might see or experience, but that is not the same as advice--at least not what I was referring to in my earlier post. There is a big difference between "I see a hot spot' and "You shouldn't shoot so bright". The difference being future assisting work with me.

Evan Stone's picture

I'd add learn how to handle rejection. I've had help on set approach me with ideas that I didn't like. They usually do one of two things: Keep pushing their idea to the point where it's annoying because they won't take "no" for an answer until get rude or they clam up and I never hear from them for the rest of the shoot.

There is nothing wrong with having an idea that the director or photographer doesn't like... just drop and and move on but don't let it scare you away from sharing your second or third idea. If I'm letting you on my set I treasure your input and I want to hear it, even if I don't agree with it.

Michael Kormos's picture

Offer to get your photographer coffee. I love coffee, and need it to get through the day.

Bruno Inácio's picture

4 Rules for a good set/photo assistant:
- Never run on the Set, you can run, but only after the door! :D
- Speak only when somebody speak with you!
- NEVER touch on something that you don't know how it works! Even if you think that you know!
- Computers are Digitech's tools. You're not the Digitech? Don't touch! Ok, you got a computer since 3 years old! Still don't touch it!