Should You Begin Photography as an Assistant?

Should You Begin Photography as an Assistant?

Every once in a while, I receive a request from a beginner photographer who want to become my assistant. I usually decline their application, and in the following article, I'm going to explain why. This information is also useful for those who'd like to become apprentices of established professional photographers.

The Beginner Photographer's Perspective

As a photographer who's just starting up their journey and dipping their toes into the technical aspect of it, they want to advance their skills by learning from the pros. The best way, so far, is to become a student of a professional artist and devour every bit of precious information. This is way more convenient than just reading books or watching tutorials, because you have a real living encyclopedia right beside you.

The Professional Photographer's Perspective

A helping hand in the business of photography is invaluable. A beginner photographer can be a much cheaper assistant than a more technically advanced one. The drawback is they will probably make many mistakes, and they have to be taken care of like a baby. Although they can learn many things and become helpful assistants, they can turn their back at any moment and become a competitor.

Old Timers' Perspective

I have always admired the wisdom of older generations. I personally think, in general, they are much smarter than us, with a richer way of expressing themselves and better in many crafts. If you have read letters by simple people of old times, you will think they had the scholarship of today's academics. This is why I'd like to see how they dealt with that situation and to try to apply it to our time with our modern methods.

Apprenticeship back then had the same purpose then as today's assistants: students wanted to become professional and earn their money from that certain craft. Today, many want-to-be-paid assistants try to hide behind: "I just want to help you," but the real aim is to learn the craft and become masters (and a competitor, eventually). Back then, everyone was straight about it.

Masters faced the same problems: they had to babysit their students, deal with their mistakes, teach them the secrets of the craftsmanship, and knew they might see them as competition at any moment.

Let me translate that into more business-like terms. The master invests their time and efforts into teaching younger students and pays for their mistakes while they work on different projects. This is all an expense for the master and a gain for the apprentice. In business terms, that is not a good investment unless they return it with an extra profit. For that purpose masters, hired assistants for a period of several years, which guaranteed them that they would take advantage of the fruits of their teaching before the apprentice became a competitor.

Small workshop

Back to the Future

If a beginner photographer wants to become an assistant of a professional, the latter has to invest, let's say a $10,000 equivalent of their time, into teaching them the secrets of the craft. Sometimes, they have to re-do the lighting setup or completely retouch an image from the very beginning, because their student did a terrible job. In order to make sure their helpers won't turn their back and leave when they get "free education," which they even got paid for, it's good to have a formal agreement in the form of a contract. The contract has to state that the assistant must work for the professional photographer for at least a certain period (at a given salary). If they want to leave earlier, they have to reimburse the professional by paying back a certain percentage of the remaining salary and promise they will not become a commercial competitor until the end of that period.

That sounds quite fair to me in the position of the professional, but today's students won't like to take such a responsibility. Unless someone wants to sign a similar a contract, I think professional photographers would be better to hire well-trained and technically savvy assistants who can become real helpers from day one.

Let me know what you think about that situation both from a position of a professional who hires a paid assistant or from a position of an apprentice who wants to become a humble servant of a master artist.

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32 Comments

I am a commercial photographer and highly recommend assisting several professional photographers you admire. Do this before you start your own business. The experience is invaluable. And besides learning what they do right, you will also learn from the mistakes they make.

Heiko Kanzler's picture

The headline is misleading. It's all about why a professional should NOT hire beginning photographers as assistants.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The original title was "Beginner Photographer as an Assistant?", but was eventually changed by an editor.

Tony Clark's picture

After about a year of testing models, I received a call from a photographer that was new to town and looking for an assistant on a shoot for Time Magazine. I'd never loaded a film back or setup a Dynalite kit but I was honest and he was patient. For nearly five years, he would call and book me to travel extensively for his shoots and I probably learned more than most students at University. There is a great deal of information online but being onset and feeling the pressure of performing cannot be simulated.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The article talks about a full-time assistant whom you not only pay monthly salary, but also teach for free (they don't pay you), not hiring an assistant as a contractor.

WOW,

I don't even know where to start.

I was a 1st assistant and 2nd for many photographers in both LA and NY. in the 80's.

Not once did I see any assistant "have to be taken care of like a baby." did they have to teach the assistants how they like to have their equipment handled, how they like to light , how to treat talent on set. Yes. but that's the "investment" any person in the higher position has to make.

The relationship between a photographer and an assistant has to be symbiotic, where its mutually advantageous for both parties, otherwise the assistant doesn't get hired again.

If you're worried that "they can turn their back at any moment and become a competitor." then the photographer hasn't done their job of vetting and treating the assistant with the respect they deserve. Or the photographer just isn't up to the job.

I once worked for a jerk ( and he was the only one out of all the photographers I worked with) that tried to fire the 2nd assistant because they didn't load one of the Hasselblad backs correctly. It was on a test roll. The photog had to do snip tests on the other rolls to see if he needed to push or pull the development.
He also would be the one to order a fountain soda without ice, stating " you get more soda and its cold enough".
I quit in front of the 2nd assistant and told them to get out before its too late.

As far as your contract idea goes, good F'ing luck. Unless you're a high end photographer with a whole staff, that "contract $hit" won't fly.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and helping the next generation will pay off in the long run.
Treat everyone on the set with respect.
Anytime someone adds value whether its getting equipment from the rental house or getting lunch for the crew, the deserved to grespect and to get paid a decent wage.

I'm glad you " usually decline their application" They obviously dodged a bullet.

" the best photographer and filmmaker in his house, " "rollseyes"

PS:

I usually don't write comments like this but anytime I see an attack on people just trying to learn I get pissed.

Well said, Michael...

Chris Cameron's picture

Well said man. With a bit of expansion, this should be the article fstoppers published.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

After reading that long comment I am not really sure if you've actually read the article. The article itself talks about two types of assistants. One is the beginner who knows next to nothing about the real business and real technical aspect of photography. The other type is the one that does know and can be helpful from day one.

The article also talks that this kind of contract is what I suggest for a full-time job for a beginner photographer. Let me repeat: full-time job, not someone who brings coffee and loads mags or cards on big shoot twice a year. Full-time job where they help with carrying gear, setting up lights, help with the marketing materials, help on the retouching, etc. Full-time job.

As professionals know, this is a complex business and I haven't heard any serious business man who has a complex business working there all by themselves to hire someone who will ruin their business with their lack of skills unless they have a backup "plan" (contract in this case). Would a master chef hire someone who doesn't know how to cook scrambled eggs in their successful boutique restaurant without any "backup plan?" Those apprentices would ruin their business otherwise. In order to be good for their business, the assistants have to be taught by the master how to cook every single detail first and this costs a lot of time and money of the master, because if they have important clients, those clients will expect the same food quality every time regardless of who the cook is.

I don't know how many of the commenters have businesses and how many of them hire underqualified personnel and at what salary, but when it comes to photography I hear something quite different. Why is that? Because everyone is used to receiving everything for free and everything has to be easy and quick. Why? Because many of the commenters (not just here, but as a whole) are not full-time photographers and filmmakers. They invest thousands using money earned somewhere else. They don't know the actual pressure of the market and never knew how much of their time and money goes to marketing and finding new clients. And there comes the newbie assistant who wants to learn the tricks of the trade and leave after one week without a notice (thinking they've learned them).

Let me say it again with an example. You hire a full-time beginner assistant at $2,000 a month whom you give free education for four months. After four months they have $8,000 and free education. They leave. Your business has slowed down, because you were busy to teach someone for free and give them money for that. They leave and you had nothing in return. What a smart way to manage a business... Tell that to a business person in other disciplines. They will laugh at you. Why would be photography and filmmaking anything different?

Have you been teaching? I have. I have been teaching people different disciplines. I have taught people photography as well. I know what it takes to teach a beginner in different disciplines. I know what it costs and how your business stops when you have to teach someone the proper way. If you have the luxury to stop your business in order to teach someone whom you also pay a monthly salary, go ahead. Did I say "full-time job?" I think so, but let me repeat that once again: you hire a beginner photographer on a full-time job where you teach them, they don't pay you and you pay them a salary. Oh, and just as you taught them, they leave. You paid them salary, remember? Your business didn't go at the same pace as before. You taught them. They didn't pay you. They left. If someone calls that a smart business investment, they better re-think their perception of business.

Now compare that to hiring a technically savvy assistant whom you gladly pay a monthly salary to help your business grow. This is what the article ends with.

One more point: every business has the right to demand a certain level of qualification for the people they hire. If they can afford to hire underqualified people and teach them, good. Usually, start-ups (yes, I've been in a start-up) require a handful of people that are good at what they do. They can't afford to spend money on teaching someone else, because they're a start-up. If you don't believe me, learn from history. See how Steve Jobs started and who he hired. Did he hire random people from the street? Big businesses are those who can afford to hire underqualified personnel, because that won't affect their budget or pace that much. I rarely see a photographer or a filmmaker as a "big business."

Ok,

It seem like you've gotten burned.

You constantly put up this $2,000. a month number.
" You hire a full-time beginner assistant at $2,000 a month whom you give free education for four months. After four months they have $8,000 and free education. They leave. Your business has slowed down, because you were busy to teach someone for free and give them money for that. They leave and you had nothing in return."

Sorry for your loss, but maybe you should have let the 1st assistant deal with the "beginner".
Thats what I did when I was the 1st. my responsibility was to make sure the shoot went as smoothly as possible. Which meant I took care of all of the minutiae, and let the photog focus on his or her process.

During the down times, sure the photographer would talk and answer questions and generally be a decent person, by remembering where they started.

But in no way did it " pause" their business. In fact it helped propel their business by attracting better talent to the crew and gave them the reputation of being someone that clients respect, because they respected everyone on the crew.

" You paid them salary, remember? Your business didn't go at the same pace as before. You taught them. They didn't pay you. They left. If someone calls that a smart business investment, they better re-think their perception of business."

Looks like some one should rethink their business processes, and maybe learn to delegate.
It's never too late to learn.

I suggest you spend this "valuable" time working on your business and stop trying to defend yourself.

You already have given one person(that we know of) a reason to reconsider becoming an assistant, you've done enough harm.

During this time of the coronavirus, while production has all but stoped' I hope you take some time to reflect and rethink your attitude.

best of luck.

What a load of crap.
Absolutely nothing is as rewarding as helping young new talent develop their skills and in the best cases exceed their teachers abilities.
The author is selfish and clueless.
From an Old Timer.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

So, you would hire an absolute beginner, will teach them for free, and will pay them a (let's say) $2,000 a month, your business will slow down and may suffer from their incompetence or your lack of time to take care of your business as you did before. And after 4 months they simply say good-bye, leaving you with minus $8,000, giving away free education, and business that didn't function at full speed for the last 4 months.

That I would call a very foolish business investment.

The problem with most people commenting here is that they probably don't pay a monthly salary to an underqualified person and don't know what is their business (if they have one at all) to suffer from workers' incompetence while you still pay them and teach them.

That's not two jobs per year where you load cards and carry light stands. That's a full time job the article talks about. It also talks about hiring a qualified assistant which is an entirely different thing.

That's part of my job. No BS. It's a great investment. Do I hire just anybody? No. Usually I screen over a hundred applicants for these positions. Pay usually higher than the amount you mention too. The last completely green photographer I brought on now has a very successful wedding photography business of her own. I am very proud of her.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's what I'm talking about. Any business has the right to hire those who they think are qualified enough for the job. If they are underqualified, can they afford to teach them and get the business going? That's up to the business people themselves. Usually it's a matter of resources (time, money, people). With photographers it's a small business with limited resources. This is why experienced photographers are better choice for assistants for a small business, unless you can afford to teach them, pay them, and run the business.

Mark Guinn's picture

Sounds like somebody is really insecure in his work (and ego).

Mind sharing how you got your start in photography? This seems like an attack on people who wish to become photographers and reeks of insecurity because of how many times you mention "eventual competition". If you think that your assistant beginning photog guy will be competition to you, maybe you don't have that much to offer to begin with? The entire article seems like you're trying to paint people who want to become assistants to learn the craft as evil people who just want to take advantage of photographers. If everyone had this mindset, there would be no such thing as "entry level" positions. If anything you should be aiming to get people who can potentially outshine you, because that would mean that you actually have something to offer and can nurture talent.

Steven Magner's picture

I just shadowed a hotel photographer on a shoot about a week ago. I learned a ton of stuff from the shoot, most of which was that I don’t want to be a hotel photographer full time. Why? Because the amount of time and effort, hours in the day and pay was not in the same ballpark as what I have been doing as an interior design photographer. But I learned a lot, and he offered me a lot of knowledge I hadn’t learned while shadowing on previous shoots or in my studies.

Not once in our interaction did he seem nervous or afraid I would be a competitor. On the contrary he was looking to me to become part of his team and I was honest with him the whole time. In fact we have been in contact everyday just BS’ing about what’s going on in the world.

On top of that photography is really and truly about relationship building. His clients are not my clients and chances are never would be. He is flown halfway around the world routinely because he has a healthy relationship, and delivers on expectations. Now do I think my skill set could one day surpass his? Absolutely. But the 10-15 year relationship he has working for his clients will never cause them to jump ship.

Interpersonal skills go a long way, and maybe something many need to work on if they are so nervous they may lose clients so easily...

Eric Crudup's picture

I want to become an assistant to a photographer in my city (Portland) and don't really know where to start. This article kinda scares me a bit.

Eric,
When I started I basically went through the phone book and looked under photographers and started calling everyone.
These days you have Google, the PPA (Professional Photographers of America)web site( though I never gave them much thought), there are sites out there that have lists of photographers in your area, Craigs list, Model Mayhem, to name a few.

Be up front with the photographers and let them know your qualifications or lack thereof. be willing to work hard, be resourceful. Being resourceful is thinking outside the box and looking for other solutions to the problem. Lets say you need a reflector to pop in some light , but the photographer doesn't have one, use a white sheet if you need a large one maybe some crumpled tin foil if you need specular light. The idea is to solve problems.

I hate to say this , because I firmly believe if you provide a service you deserve to get paid, but these days you may have to do a couple of gigs for free depending on your experience.
Whatever you do don't let anyone dissuade you.

best of luck.

I do agree with a logic of most critical comments, but I suggest to look at Tihomir's portfolio to understand his reluctance to hire assistants. I would call him master of light. He has unique style that would be hard to copy even if you try. Should he teach assistant his lighting skills, he would create a competitor who could potentially steal his business. This problem is not unique to photography. Any time you hire an "apprentice" in any business - big or small you are taking a chance of creating competition. You all heard of spin-offs becoming more successful than original company they worked for. That is a risk you take. Michelangelo was apprenticed to the city’s most prominent painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, for a three-year term, but he left after one year, having nothing more to learn. Anybody ever heard of Ghirlandaio? I'm not a pro photographer and have zero desire to make money doing photography, but I started several successful businesses and never ever would consider playing second fiddle to the "master" to learn the ropes. If I was going into photography business I would dive in head first, invest in equipment and marketing, undercut everybody I could undercut, learn from my own mistakes and successes and set a goal to be profitable in 90 to 120 days. If it didn't happen , then I would conclude that this is not a business for me and would cut my loses short.
I'm pretty good photographer and have at least $30K in cameras and lenses. Why I have zero desire to become a pro? Simple - I can use my time and effort to make much more money in different type of business and use these money to pay for my photography hobby. If you think you have a talent and desire to become successful photographer - go for it, but don't waste your time trying to become assistant first. Develop your own style and try to sell it. If you have what it takes and can't think of anything else that would make you happy while making good living then your chances of success are better than 50-50.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks for the kind words, but I can't call myself a master yet. I still do rookie mistakes.

Your observation on the investment can be right and wrong. In my case I didn't invest that much money at once. I bought a camera body that was already discontinued (a Canon 40D). Before that I educated myself on what I need for such a business. I spent more than the camera in books, videos, and seminars. A month later I bought a lens. Two months later I bought a speedlite and a small softbox. I begain photographing people around me to build a portfolio. Six months later I got my first several clients. With the experience that I have now, I would not invest more than $5K in gear if I've just started.

My reluctance to hire an assistant is towards the beginners. Is this a smart business move to have a running business and you hire someone underqualified, pay them a monthly salary (say $2,000 each month), and teach them for free (they get $2,000 and you teach them... that's a quite spectacular opportunity from their point of view). What about your business? Would it go in full speed? No, it will slow down significantly. And after 4 months the assistant leaves with $8,000 and free education. Smart business investment? Not at all. Quite the foolish one. And this is what commenters praise, which I don't really understand.

Another observation of yours is absolutely correct: it's easier to earn $30K in a different kind of business than in photography.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

you selfish man very bad!

Greg Murphy's picture

I think the way this article imagines a beginner photographer assistant is challenging. Like in any job, when you hire someone to have to invest time in training them to do the job you need them to do. When you hire someone who has no experience in assisting and has limited experience in photography you can't expect them to work independently. I am an engineer (photography is just a hobby for me), after I graduated from collage I worked for two companies. This first one assigned me projects, gave limited instruction in what I needed to do to get the work done. They were unhappy with the speed I worked at and the mistakes I made. In fairly short order, we parted ways. The second company I worked for, assigned work in smaller chunks and provided me lots of guidance on how they wanted the work done. For the second company I learned and started producing without guidance faster. My point is, being the employer is an art in itself, you have to figure out how to get the most out of an employee.Training an employee is not an exercise in babying, it is the art of assigning tasks that have well defined expectations, appropriate for their skill level, and progress over time to have more complexity.

The other comment I have is that if there isn't room for growth in a job and it doesn't pay particularly well, employees leave to find better work. The example in the article is $2000/month or $12.50 an hour (assumed 40 hour work week), this amount of money is difficult to get by on in the long term. I think that the expectation is that you be a perfect assistant for many years at this salary will result in disappointment. The way this article describes the beginner photographer assistant as a burden, says to me that their help is not supported by an increase in revenue earning potential. There is a huge difference in hiring help on an as needed basis vs employee. Employee retention is a challenge for all businesses.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Do you think a start-up software company that has only 2 people with a limited budget would hire you right after college? I don't think so. You will either pay someone who teaches or go in a bigger company who can afford training you and dealing with your mistakes without stopping their business.

Is a photographer more like a start-up or like a big corporation? Why would an absolute beginner want to learn from a struggling pro (yes, photography and filmmaking is quite a struggle as a business) while they can learn from someone (and pay them) who is a teacher and holds photography courses? Why don't these beginners come back to the professional when they have learned the technical stuff?

Think about that. That's business, that I'm talking about. That's business decisions.

Tihomir, I’m just popping in to recommend that you not write so many replies to comments. You’re not helping yourself.

Also, re the title - it should be something like “Should pro photographers hire students as assistants”. I know you didn’t write the current title, but whoever is doing the editing seems to be turning this site into clickbait.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

if afraid of competition, you not good person
not good at pictures too! my inglish bad this person worst

I'm myself responsible for hiring apprentices. My profession is somewhat unusual, so I can't help but hire persons who never had contact with the subject before. I tend to hire people either just having left high school or those who completed a training for another profession (with a preference for the latter).

Will my apprentices be able to become competitors? I do sincerely hope so, otherwise I'd have been a lousy teacher.

Will they become competitors? Quite likely. Or we may find a way of cooperation, for an agreed period of time or permanently.

Am I afraid of creating my own competitors? Heck no. I'll always have a competitive edge. I know my clients, I know the business, I have settled my everyday back office needs, I know how and where to publish, etc pp. - all those things that my future competitors will need time to get to where I already am.

Plus: Having apprentices keeps me mentally agile. I've never learned faster than during exams, and the constant need to teach and to face seemingly strange questions effectively puts me into an exam situation all the time. It prevents complacency. It prevents routine. It is a pleasure.

And, having been an apprentice myself before, I'd feel like an f'ing ahole if I didn't shoulder my share of keeping my profession professional.

P.S.: Those that need babysitting according to my experience will notice their ineptitude after a few weeks and quit on their own.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Do you pay those apprentices with your own money for the period they've been with you?

BTW, I've seen several commentators talking about the fear of competition while the article never stated it. Maybe that's in the mind of the comentators that every competitor is frightful.

Steven Magner's picture

“ Although they can learn many things and become helpful assistants, they can turn their back at any moment and become a competitor.”

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That is true or that is frightful?

Aren't photographers competitors? Yes, they are. Is a competitor a bad thing? When there is an athletic competition, are competitors behaving badly to each other? Some are (for example in boxing), but in general they try to be positivve to each other (like in tennis). Don't they compete for the same prize? Yes. This is why they are called competitors. What do photographers compete for? They compete for the next client or for the next masterpiece. Does this mean they behave badly towards each other? Depends on their personality, but in general they are fair-play and positive competitors.

From my understanding people try to "stay positive," but words like "competitor" trigger the "negativity" somehow, while that's not a negative word at all.

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