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Why Professionals Should Still Assist Other Photographers

Why Professionals Should Still Assist Other Photographers

I’ve been working as a full-time professional photographer — meaning that 100 percent of my income is from photography — for over eight years. For the most part, I know what I’m doing. But I still make the time to assist other photographers when I can, and here’s why.

A lot of times when I’m doing a commercial or portrait photo shoot, I need an assistant. Sometimes, I need a hand and need to hire someone to help out. The level of photography knowledge required varies from gig to gig; sometimes, I need someone with lighting knowledge and who knows how to use my camera system, etc., and sometimes I just need someone to be a VAL (Voice-Activated Light Stand) or a human sandbag. I know the value of having a helping hand assist me with my work.

And then, there are times when I get asked if I would be willing to assist another professional photographer. Many years ago, I might have turned down such offers. After all, I was a professional, not an assistant and certainly not a VAL. But in the past few years, my opinion on that has changed.

Here are some reasons that, as a full-time working professional, I still assist other photographers when I can:

1. I Might Learn Something

This one might seem obvious, but it’s one that’s easy to forget. Even if I think a photographer’s work isn’t as good as mine, and especially if it’s better than mine, I have to remind myself that I very well might learn something by assisting on a shoot. I might learn a new lighting trick I hadn’t thought of, some tips on posing models, how to use a new piece of equipment — the list is endless. 

Thinking you don’t have anything left to learn is a sure way to stop learning, and by taking a step back and watching how another photographer works, you’re bound to pick something up, whether as a direct result of watching something they do or something they tell you, or even just something that pops into your head while thinking about the shoot later.

By being a photo assistant, you're able to pick up lighting tips and get some behind-the-scenes knowledge that's easy to miss when you're the main photographer at a shoot. This was taken while assisting at the After Dark workshop in St. Louis a few years ago. Photo by Stephen Ironside.

2. It Builds Community

In my opinion, it never hurts to meet and befriend another photographer, even if they are your direct competition, or possibly, especially if they are your competition.

The importance of a healthy photographic community cannot be overstated. As photographers and as creatives in general, we have to be able to stick together. Whether it’s encouraging one another not to shoot weddings for $50 or banding together to effect change in our legal system regarding small-claims copyright processes, it never hurts to work with other creatives. You never know who you’ll meet, who you’ll befriend, or who you’ll come to respect as a result of being an assistant on a shoot or the change that could occur because of it.

I assisted Benjamin Von Wong at a workshop in St. Louis about six years ago and got to grab a few behind-the-scenes shots. Photo by Stephen Ironside.

3. It’s Good for Photo-Karma

You really never know when assisting on a photo shoot might bring you some good karma (not the GoPro kind) and come back to benefit you. A few years ago, I was asked to do some location-scouting for a shoot for a nationally recognized outdoor apparel company that was planning a shoot here in Arkansas. I spent a few days getting paid to drive around scouting locations in the woods, and it was great. After that was done, I asked the photographer if he needed an assistant during the shoot, and he said yes. It was a great opportunity, and I learned a lot about how larger shoots like that worked. 

Fast-forward a year, and the client he had been working for sent me an email asking if I would be interested in doing a shoot for them. It turned out to be one of the biggest and best-paying clients I had ever worked with, and I wouldn’t have gotten that gig if I hadn’t agreed to location-scout or asked to be an assistant on the shoot. 

Another bonus is that if you assist other photographers, you’re more likely to get helped out when you need it. I know that there are photographers where I live as well as in numerous other states that would help me out if I needed something, even if it were something as simple as needing to borrow a light stand or sandbag while I was on a destination shoot.

Even just location-scouting can take you to some magical places. Hawksbill Crag, Ozark National Forest, Arkansas, 2012. Photo by Stephen Ironside.

4. It’s an Exercise in Humility

Surrounding yourself with people who are better than you is the quickest way to improve your own skills and teach you what you have left to learn. When I assist photographers who are — or at least that I feel are — more skilled or talented than I am, it’s an exercise in humility. I remember that I can always get better and that I have a lot still to learn, and it feels good. If it doesn’t feel good or if you are discouraged by not knowing as much as “the other guy,” that’s a bad sign. 

Watching others create from a new perspective will help you realize that there is a lot of talent in the world and will push you to try even harder to hone your skills and get better at your craft.

5. You Might Get to Play With Exotic Animals in an Olympian’s Backyard

Earlier this month, I received a message from a photographer based in New York asking if I had any leads on a photo assistant for a shoot he was flying to Northwest Arkansas to do in a couple of days. I told him that, luckily, I was available that day and would be happy to help. “Didn’t expect that you would want to assist yourself, but of course I would be happy to work with you,” was his response. 

Fast-forward two days, and I’m standing in the backyard of Team USA Olympic Silver Medalist Sandi Morris, a pole vaulter, helping her place her large boa constrictors on her shoulders for a photo shoot for a Swiss magazine using Profoto equipment that I hadn’t had a chance to use before. What? Is this real life? I got to spend a day with some cool guys, play with snakes, watch an Olympic medalist train, and even got my photo taken for once.

Snakes were not what I was expecting when I woke up that morning. Photo by Peter Lueders, www.peterlueders.com.

Don't be afraid to reach out to photographers and tell them you'd be happy to assist them when they need it. If you get asked, and you have the time, say yes! You might learn something, might make a new friend, get a new client, or start fostering a creative community around you. It will be worth it, no matter the pay.

Stephen Ironside's picture

Stephen Ironside is a commercial photographer with an outdoor twist based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. While attempting to specialize in adventure and travel photography, you can usually find him in the woods, in another country, or oftentimes stuffing his face at an Indian buffet.

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I agree with this, but the Pro must charge a fee for this. Education was never free for me and should not be free for others.

Hi John,

Hope I didn't imply that I don't expect to work while assisting someone, or that I don't expect my assistants to work for me! That's definitely a requirement. (Related: the BTS photos I took while assisting these photographers were requested by them.)

Hi Mark,

You mean that assistants themselves should pay to assist, not be paid for their help? Not sure I follow. I'm not saying that photographers should assist others and get a free workshop out of it, but to actually help and maybe get some education as a byproduct.

Great post. When I was living & shooting in NYC, I had a small group of photographers who I would always assist for whenever I was available. Not only did it fill in the financial gaps when I wasn't shooting, but every job was different and challenging in it's own way. From quick corporate portraits, to big ad jobs, to long days helping on still life sets, I was up for anything.

Because the folks I was assisting knew I was a professional photographer myself, I could (when asked) contribute my own ideas about lighting, positioning, gear, etc.

While I don't think assisting is always necessary on the path to becoming a successful photographer, I think it's incredibly useful to be on that side of things. Seeing how other photographers interact with clients and solve problems in high-intensity environments has played an important role in how I navigate my own career. Thanks for sharing this!

How did you find this group of people to assist? I also live in the city and would love to do some assisting but don't really know where to look. Thanks!

Agreed. I'm relatively new to photography (bought my first DSLR 1 Year and 6 months ago) and the quickest thing I learned is that the sharing of knowledge within the community is one of the fastest ways to grow.

Now we are back to the "intern" aka slavery motif. Gee guys and gals. Just, go help someone or ask to help. This is 2018. Unless you are billing $1,500 k a day or more, folks should pay you to help. So, got do for free but don't let those little despots exploit you. Most of us (including me, having inflated egos). Just again, go help a good photographer who is not billing a client a lot. Well, that's my rant. In the past, I have asked at least a dozen folks. The brush-off was not nice. So paranoid some of these folks, just saying.

This is something I've eased up on as of late. I used to have a strict "no photographers allowed" at my sessions. But I am comfortable enough now that I am not worried about competition learning "too much" from being around.