Getting Paid to Become a Better Photographer

I often see instructional videos and one-on-one tutorials with amazing photographers on various websites and while many of them are amazing and full of valuable information, they usually cost several hundred dollars. There are a lot of photographers that I would love to have a one-on-one tutorial with, but often it is just not in my budget. While I like to stay as busy as possible with my own photography business, in my free time I'll sometimes come across good opportunities. When I started assisting in my spare time, I quickly found that I could learn as much, if not more, than if I was watching a tutorial or having a one-on-one conversation with an experienced photographer — and I get paid to do it.

Over the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of different photographers. Some experiences have been great, while others have been less than ideal. The common factor between each project, whether it has been good or bad, is that I have learned and that in itself makes my involvement worthwhile. While there is no guaranteeing how a shoot with any photographer will go, I believe in paying your dues, and what better way to do this than by working alongside a photographer who has years of experience under their belt. So whether you're looking to make some cash, experiment with gear, or learn from someone more experienced than yourself, check out these four reasons why you should give assisting or second shooting a try.

1.) Learning

How much you learn from a shoot really depends on a lot of factors, but most importantly, I believe that you get out of it what you put in. Having an open mind and the will to learn from all aspects, even the bad, is crucial to walking away from a shoot with a positive learning experience. There is so much to learn, from lighting and rigging to camera settings and human interactions. Pay close attention to every aspect of the shoot. Pay close attention to terminology. If there is a term you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask, but keep in mind that some times are more appropriate for asking questions than others. Prior to shoots, study gear lists and look over as much of the equipment that you will be using as possible. If you are second shooting or will be operating a camera, make sure that you are completely familiar with the equipment. Most photographers are more than willing to take a second to explain something to you as long as you are not in the heat of a shoot.

Assisting gives you the opportunity to jump into a shoot that can sometimes be light years ahead of a shoot you could book. While I live in Rhode Island, I am only a few hours away from New York City, and I often come across opportunities to hop on a train and head down to the city for a few days or a weekend of shooting. I love doing this as it gets me out of the small town market I am accustom to and really helps me see the big picture. It is always inspiring to spend a few days working with someone else then heading back to your own photo business and be able to implement the new skills you just learned.

2.) Networking

Networking could perhaps be the best reason to assist, and depending on what you are shooting and who you are working with, it can play out many different ways. I have worked with some great local photographers and have gotten lots of referrals. When they get a job offered to them that they are too busy for or not interested in, they often pass it along to me. This has been a huge source of income for me while starting out in freelance.

On larger scale shoots, networking with other assistants can often pay off as well. You never know who they have worked with before or what shoots they have coming up, not to mention that a lot of assistants are running their own photo business as well. You can meet art directors and production company employees that could possibly hook you up with shoots in the future. Make sure to leave a good impression and work hard. Having a good reputation with photographers who book larger jobs can lead to open doors down the road.

3.) Getting Paid

Depending on how you look at it, this is either a huge part of why you jump on a job, or just an added bonus. Personally, I have been lucky enough to have had some great, well paid assisting opportunities. My advice regarding money is to make sure you know what you are going to get paid before you show up on set. That way there are no surprises. If you aren't being paid in cash or someone isn't writing you a check on the spot, make sure to send them an invoice as soon as possible. Find out if you will be compensated for travel, food, or anything else and make sure to save your receipts to include in your invoice.

While most of the jobs I have gotten have been great, a few years back when I was just getting my feet wet in the wedding photography industry I responded to a Craigslist ad looking for a second shooter. The wedding was about an hour away, or so I thought, and the pay was decent so I jumped on it. When I got to the meeting spot, I ended up waiting 45 minutes for the primary photographer to show, after which she informed me that she didn't have a car and the wedding was half way back home. I was pretty pissed to say the least. I made sure I was compensated for travel. I wish I could say that was the worst part of the day but it didn't stop there. She was not prepared at all and ended up borrowing my backup camera to shoot half the wedding. The moral of the story is to do some research, make sure who you're are working with is worth your time or at least the pay will be. Make sure you have clear instructions and know what your duties will be before the shoot starts. Shoots are always full of surprises but that way you can be as prepared as possible. This was an interesting introduction to wedding photography but I certainly learned what not to do.

4.) Equipment

Like most photographers, I consider myself a gear junky. Cameras, lenses, flashes, rigging, computers — I love it all and one of my favorite things about working with other photographers is being able to learn and use new and different gear than I am used to. Every shoot is different and if you are assisting on a wedding shoot you may have a different experience than if you are assisting on a commercial shoot. On larger scale shoots I have had the opportunity to learn knew flashes and strobes, set up cameras, and learn rigging I have never even heard of before. 

Recently, I was second shooting for a wedding photographer. Personally, I shoot with a Nikon D750 but I learned using older Canons. The primary photographer shot Canon and wanted me to shoot with a Canon as well. He let me borrow his 5D Mark III several days prior to the wedding to get re-accustomed to shooting with a Canon. It was fun to use a different brand of camera and it was a good learning experience. While I don’t think I am going to go back to Canon anytime soon, I enjoyed the opportunity to use a great camera and some beautiful lenses.

If you're like me and constantly looking to learn and improve your photography, why not give assisting a try? It may not always be easy, and at times can be stressful and require hard work, but I have never walked away from a shoot without gaining valuable experience. While assisting can be hard it can also be fun and give you the opportunity to experience a shoot that you wouldn't otherwise be able to book. It can also give you the chance to use some great equipment, learn how to use new and unique gear, and at the end of the day the payout usually is pretty good. So if you are interested in improving your photography, meeting new people, and getting paid to learn, give assisting a try. Feel free to share some of your assisting experiences in the comments sections below.

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Ralph Hightower's picture

Geez! The primary photographer had to depend on the secondary photographer to get to the wedding! Was that mentioned in the Craigslist ad? I'd be willing to be an assistant, but not for a photographer that's not prepared.

Rudolfs Alsbergs's picture

I am a college student in NYC, I want to go on an assisting job during my spare time, however, because i don't know any photographers, I have no clue how to find these "entry" positions. :(

Dana Goldstein's picture

Excellent, well-written article. One note on the subject of networking is that it's not considered good shoot etiquette to be handing out business cards and such to clients when you're on another photographer's job (you don't want the photographer to get the impression that you're after their client), but by all means exchange information with fellow photographers, makeup artists, etc. You never know when someone needs another pair of hands or wants to work on a personal project.

Matthew Sperzel's picture

I'm sold Michael, however how do you recommend finding assist gigs (outside of scouring Craigslist)?

Michael Brown's picture

The best way I can really recommend is to network with other photographers. If you really like someone's work and feel like you could learn from them, reach out. Send them an email or give them a call. Just be polite and let them know what your looking to achieve. Not everyone will be willing, it takes time to make the right connections but if you continue to search, I'm sure you will find a photographer in need of help.

Seth Pyrzynski's picture

Thanks for the post. It makes perfect sense. not only for photographers starting off, but even for a professional who has some time.

Marko Boss's picture

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