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.
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.
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.
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.
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.