Many young photographers want to enter the world of professional and commercial photography by working with or for another photographer. This is generally called assisting and can be an essential part of climbing the ladder to being a professional photographer.
However, with these jobs in high demand, it’s important to do a good job assisting to ensure that you continue to be hired. In today’s article, we’re going to take a look at how to do just that.
Getting the Job
Getting your foot in the door for the first time is one of the tasks that photographers struggle with the most. I hear a lot of young photographers claim one of two things:
1) I live in an area with photographers who already have assistants.
2) I live in an area with no photographers to assist.
Do you see an issue with the above statements? I do. Both are cop-out attitudes that people use in order to overlook the real reasons that they are struggling to land assisting jobs.
My opinion is formed from personal experience, having at some point used both of those statements to make myself believe that my own efforts were enough. In reality, I needed to increase my effort to increase my success.
If you are suffering from the first feeling, chances are that you’ve attempted to reach out to a few of your local pros and have had little success.
Maybe your process was to email a few of the names you found after Googling “Photographers in My Town, My State”. The truth is that the photographers at the top of those results are often the most established, and thus may need an assistant the least. They may already retain an assistant who they have spent time and money training.
Let’s revise that process. Instead of reaching out to the big names in your area, why not go for some of the more mid-level photographers? They are perhaps no less skilled, and probably need the help just as much or more than any local photo celebrity.
I spent a lot of times pounding out emails to try and get jobs locally. Be kind, courteous, and to the point.
If you can’t find enough photographers in your area, it might be time to travel. Consider broadening the area you’re searching, and working out plans to travel to work for a pro regularly. I drove close to an hour nearly every weekend for weeks on one of my first jobs, and it was time incredibly well spent.
A tip you’ will probably hear nonstop is to network and build contacts. I had a hard time figuring out how to do this in the beginning, and I suspect many others do as well. Emails sent out on a friendly basis and other photographer meetup events in your area are the best way to kickstart a networking effort.
Also, stop by places where you know there are photographers. There are a lot of portrait photographers that still maintain brick-and-mortar studios. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to photographers at newspapers or design studios. It might not be the area of photography that you’re interested in, but that doesn’t mean they can’t point you in the right direction.
Look, I know it can be tough to work up the courage to talk to a photographer and put yourself out there. I struggled with it as much as anyone. But with enough persistence, you can land that first job and start down the path you want to walk.
Making an Impact
Assisting is like any other profession. It is easiest to stick around if you are good at what you do. However, it’s not always easy to realize what it takes to be a great assistant. I think that the ultimate thing is to meet the expectations of the photographer that you are working for.
When being hired as an assistant, the most important thing is to enter the agreement with a good idea of what you’re going to be doing. This ensures that you’re going to enjoy your work as well as meet the expectations of the photographer that you’re working for. No two jobs or bosses will ever be the same, so I can really only provide general guidelines for succeeding.
In general, you should work to make life easier for the photographer you are working for. If this means carrying their bags, do it. If they say jump, ask “how high?” Basically, while you are on the clock for them, do what it takes to make them more successful. Obviously, there are situations where assistants are taken advantage of. It’s your call whether that is happening to you, but it is important to remember that bag carrying, light carrying and lens wiping have to be done by someone. In my experience, abused assistants are the exception rather than the rule.
I’ve also been a primary and hired assistants. A friend of mine is my regular assistant because he knows how to help manage stressful situations and can think one step ahead of me. He is always ready with the lens I need, a spare memory card from his pocket, or even something to drink on hot days.
Checking my bags for all of my accessories and gear is something a good assistant can do to continue to be hired by me.
Also, a huge comfort to me is when my assistant double checks gear. Making sure that I have what I need ahead of time provides peace of mind when I have plenty of other factors to consider and plan for. Wedding days are events packed with activity. The less I have to think about, the more I can focus on doing my job. Consider this idea when contemplating how to do a great job as an assistant.
There is also a list of “don’ts” for assistants. If you’re second shooting, don’t post your photos online or send them to the client before the primary sends their images to them. You aren’t technically the hired photographer (at least not the primary one) and the photographer wants their own work to be the first impression. On a shoot, don’t think that you’re the star while assisting. Everything you do should be designed to complement the photographer who hired you. In short, assistants aren’t meant to be the star of the show. Assisting for me was humbling and a learning experience.
Most of the time, your attitude will determine how your assisting experience goes. If you walk into a job thinking that it’s beneath your station, it will show and you’ll be miserable. If you treat it as a paying gig with a huge helping of education on the side, you’ll be much more happy.
Roles Assistants Can Play
Assistants work in a variety of roles on photography jobs. Let’s take a look at a just a few roles you may play.
If you’re working on a studio shoot, there is a good chance you will be working on the technical setup while the photographer focuses on managing the talent (model / client). This can mean preparing and setting up lights and light modifiers, studio backdrop stands and backdrops, and much more.
Frequently, studio setups utilize tethered shooting setups that assistants are often tasked with managing. In a tethered setup, photos taken with the digital camera will appear immediately on a connected computer. This type of setup is handy for instant feedback and providing a quick look at what was just shot.
Brushing up on the technical side of things and learning the basics of how to setup tethering is a great idea if you think you might be working in this environment.
My second shooter Nathaniel grabbed this shot of me during a September wedding. He has shot a number of outstanding images of me while I’m working that I’ve used in several of my marketing materials.
This type of arrangement will be most common if working for a wedding photographer, but some portrait and event photographers hire additional help for alternate angles. When second shooting, I think the most important thing is to complement the primary shooter’s work.
Shoot the scene from an alternate angle and make sure that you stay out of the primary’s shot. If the primary is using a long telephoto lens, consider using a wide angle to show the scene in a different way. If you can provide more usable photos for the primary’s delivery to the client, you will increase your chances of continuing to be hired. Taking the same shots as the primary won’t provide more usable shots, but taking a different view on the same scene just might do that.
Some assistants are so highly regarded by their photographers that they are hired part-time to handle all types of in-house tasks for the photographer. These jobs are usually needed by busy photographers in order to take care of some of the day to day tasks. This could include things like handling booking appointments, preparing the studio for clients, bookkeeping, and editing photos.
Jobs like this are few and far between and are highly regarded as a way to understand the day to day operations of a successful photo studio.
You’ve landed that first job assisting – now what? If you decide that you like your role and want to continue pursuing it, chances are that you are interested in learning how to continue to be hired.
Your performance on the job you worked will be perhaps the greatest determinant of being hired again. To increase your chances of being hired again, I think that it’s a good idea to follow up with the photographer that you worked for. Find out what you did well and what you could improve upon. Even when the truth hurts, it can help you to be hired again.
Some people gain such good reputations assisting that they become in demand in their area. Weekends are filled working with different photographers on potentially exciting jobs. Continue to network and connect with local photographers, and your success can only grow.
Many photographers embark on their photographic careers by assisting other great photographers. For many people, this is an essential part of the path to success. Although finding these jobs can be a bit daunting, it is certainly feasible with some hard work and persistence. Being a great assistant and persisting in your work can greatly increase your chances of success.