Professional photography is an extremely rewarding and enjoyable profession to get into, but getting started can be very difficult. There’s an important distinction between taking photos of your friends for free and getting people to pay you for photography, and the line to profitability is a hard one for many to cross.
Today we’ll discuss one of the best possible methods of beginning to get paid for your work as a photographer: second shooting. We’ll go over what second shooting is, some tips for how to do it well enough to get invited back and how to find second shooter jobs.
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in April of 2011.
Why Second Shooting?
Helping another photographer with a session, also known as being a “second shooter”, is an awesome way to begin to establish yourself as a professional photographer. There are a ton of benefits to second shooting that you may not be able to duplicate going it alone.
First of all, being a second shooter is much less stressful than taking on a project all by yourself. When you’re the lead photographer, you have to handle communication with clients (often a real pain), plan every little detail, take charge on the date of the shoot, spend hours in the post-processing stage and assume liability over anything that goes wrong. As a second shooter, you often don’t have to worry about any of this!
Further, second shooting is a great way to gain experience. Though it may or may not contribute to your portfolio (more on this later) it will give you the experiential knowledge and confidence that you need to step up and run similar events all by yourself.
Finally, being a second shooter gets you acquainted with other photographers in your area. This is something else that we’ll discuss further later in the article but for now just know that making connections with other photographers can really help jumpstart your career.
Tips for Second Shooting
If you’ve landed a second shooting gig, there are definitely a few things that you should know before you jump in. Below you’ll find tips on proper etiquette and some practical advice for making sure one opportunity leads to many.
Make Sure the Terms are Crystal Clear
My first and perhaps most important piece of advice is to make sure you work out all of the “business side” details well before the session date rolls around. Agreements between photographers and their clients are complicated enough, if you throw another independent photographer into the mix, things can blow up fast.
This goes for anyone you’re second shooting for, whether it’s your best friend or a complete stranger. The problem is that inevitably, both you and the other photographer come to the table with unspoken assumptions. For instance, the lead photographer often assumes that all images taken throughout the day belong solely to them. Whether the photos come from your camera or theirs is irrelevant, you’re being paid so you should hand them over without a thought of self-promotion. Meanwhile, your assumption is that you can keep and use any photos that you personally take. Sure, you’re being paid to help out and will gladly hand your photos over, but that doesn’t mean they won’t show up on your portfolio. After all, they are your photos right?
This is just one possible scenario of many. The point is, too many photographers rely on their own assumptions as truth only to find out after the shoot that there is a conflict of opinion. Disagreements after the shoot are far worse than those before. The worse that can happen before the shoot is that the partnership simply never takes place. After the shoot however, both parties have already put in a lot of work and emotions are therefore running high. Arguments get nasty, relationships are permanently severed and in the worse case scenario, lawyers are called.
The simple solution to avoiding all of this is to ask for a simple contract outlining the basic terms of the agreement for both parties. If the photographer shrugs off this idea as too formal, push for it. At the very least, force a conversation and a verbal agreement regarding any areas that you could see going awry. If the photographer still refuses, they probably aren’t professional enough to waste your time helping. Most experienced photographers will be very interested in protecting themselves in the event of a disagreement and would ideally present a contract without you speaking up at all to suggest it.
Bring More Than You Need
The quintessential question every second shooter has for the lead photographer is, “What Should I Bring?” The answer you receive will obviously vary dramatically based on who you’re working with. Many photographers are insistent that you use their equipment because it makes things simpler for them. When it’s their cameras, their cards, and their lights, there is no confusion or concern about reliability. On the other hand, some photographers will prefer that you use what you’re most comfortable with, which will usually be your own equipment.
Regardless of what the answer is, it’s a good idea to pack some backup equipment. There are several reasons for this. It could be the case that the lead photographer isn’t used to packing for two people and will forget something important. Or maybe you’ll be using their backup equipment, which means if something goes wrong, there’s nothing else to reach for to replace it.
Bottom line, photography sessions can be fast-paced and unpredictable. If disaster strikes and you save the day by being prepared, you look like a hero. Anything you can do to establish yourself as a serious professional who brings value to the table will help ensure you get invited back. Which brings us to our next tip.
Make Yourself Useful
Second shooting is a very different situation than running your own event. This person has hired you because they would likely be overwhelmed running the shoot themselves, which means that the best thing that you can do is look for ways to relieve their stress.
Obviously, this relates to actually taking photographs, but it goes well beyond that. Don’t imagine that just because you have a camera around your neck that you are too important for lesser tasks. Here are a few possible ways to make you an indispensable second shooter:
- Be the first to grab the equipment bags and carry them from location to location.
- Offer to set up light stands, umbrellas, soft boxes, or even props so the lead photographer can step back and think about the shot.
- Grab food and water throughout the day for your lead photographer.
- If you’re walking to different locations, run ahead and do what you can to prep the next area while the lead photographer is finishing up at the last spot.
- Be prepared with clear advice and solid opinions when asked for them.
- Watch for anything that the lead photographer doesn’t seem to excited about handling and offer to take it over, whether it’s asking a bride a question or helping some wayward children look towards the camera with their best “cheese” smiles.
- Try to make yourself busy when the other photographer sits down for a break. They will really see your value when they realize how much work is getting done even when they need to take a quick breather!
All of these things may not be the most glorious tasks to place on your photography resume, but if you resent them then you should probably be focusing on getting your own gigs. Remember that being a second shooter is about building experience and connections while you earn a little extra income, not about being a rockstar professional photographer. Our next tip takes this discussion further.
It’s Not About You
As much as it may suck, being a second shooter means that you’re not necessarily going to be in charge of much, if any of the session. Great second shooters are those that know when they should stay in the passenger seat and when to jump in and drive.
Don’t spend the day offering too much unsolicited advice (notice above we said to be prepared when asked) or trying to convince the lead photographer that they’re doing something wrong. And if you do make suggestions, don’t be whiny about how your ideas aren’t being heard or how you’re creativity is being squelched. When someone hires you specifically to shoot an event, you get to call the shots and do whatever you want, but when someone hires you to help out, you have to be prepared to work in an entirely different way.
One huge faux pas in this area is self-promotion. You might approach this innocently enough and begin discussing your own business with a few of the guests at the event, it might even be someone else who begins the conversation. However, you have to remember that if you’re shooting with Jane Smith, that day you’re part of the Jane Smith photography team. You don’t have to lie and run away from questions about yourself, but try to be respectful of the person who hired you.
As a photographer, you know the value of networking within jobs to earn future clients. The guests present at a wedding or other shoot you’re involved in represent an important piece of potential income for the photographer you’re with. They’re helping you out by giving you work, don’t pay them back by taking theirs!
Don’t Shoot The Same Thing
One of the most practical pieces of advice that you can keep in mind is to pay close attention to what the lead photographer, and any other member of the team, is shooting. If you’ve ever sorted through 5,000 wedding photos from multiple shooters then you know that 200 shots of the same scene from a few inches apart really isn’t valuable to anyone.
If you’re just getting started with professional photography, it can be very tempting to just cling to the lead photographer and stay at their heels the entire day, pointing your camera at anything they seem to think is important. However, you’ll be seen as far more helpful if, when they sort through the photos, they see that you genuinely captured all kinds of things that they didn’t or even couldn’t.
This can take many forms. Perhaps you focus on decoration detail shots while they’re shooting people, or maybe you take a few shots from the ground looking up while they are at eye level. The point is to find the gaps in coverage and put yourself in that position.
A word of caution while following this advice though, nothing is more annoying than a second shooter who ends up in half of your shots. While working those unique angles, always keep an eye on the lead photographer’s lens. The second it points at you, it’s time to move quickly out of the way. If you’re being continually asked to move a few feet over, you should take the hint that you’re being more of a pain than a resource.
Learn Everything You Can
One thing to keep at the forefront of your brain the entire session is that there is always more to learn and watching other photographers in action is a great way to do it. This goes for every aspect of the shoot. Take note of how the lead photographer interacts with the people, how they dress, how they structure poses and anything else you can glean.
In many cases, a more experienced photographer will offer to be the second shooter for a less experienced photographer. If this is the case for you, never kid yourself that you’re too advanced to learn something new. Just because you’ve been shooting for ten years and you’re helping someone who has been shooting for six months doesn’t mean that they don’t possess both experiential and technical knowledge that you don’t. If anything, sometimes watching other shooters helps you become aware of poor tendencies you might have. For example, maybe you constantly ignore the suggestions and feedback of the person that you’re photographing but won’t become aware of this tendency until you spot the same thing in another photographer.
Don’t Give Up After the First Time
Despite all your preparation and hard work, sometimes everything will go horribly wrong. We’ve all walked away from a shoot wondering how it’s possible that such a seemingly simple task as snapping a few photos could turn into such a disaster.
When you’re new, having one of these experiences could really turn you off to second shooting. Or, if you’re the lead photographer, a bad day could turn you off of the idea of hiring second shooters all together. My advice is, don’t let a single experience form your judgment, try it a few times before you decide whether or not it’s right for you.
Sometimes a bad day is just a fluke, other times you just got stuck working with someone you hate. Ask yourself what went wrong and how you can potentially make it better the next time, even if that means finding someone new to shoot with.
How To Find Second Shooting Jobs
Now that you know all about how to be the best second shooter on the planet, you might be wondering how to land your first second shooting gig. This section will offer practical tips and places to search for helping you fill your schedule with photography gigs.
Search the Web
This is the single most obvious piece of advice in this article, but it’s definitely a great place to start your search. How you go about it is important though so let’s discuss where and how to search.
For starters, check job boards. Craigslist can be a fantastic place to find freelance work of all kinds. In my experience, searching for “second shooter” yields few results as that particular slang term isn’t always used. Try just aiming for “photographer” and you can usually find some photographers looking for a little help. Another popular search term is “photography assistant” and two other popular free job boards you can try are Indeed and SimplyHired.
If you’re starting on Google or some other general search engine, be sure to narrow your search by location and to watch your jargon. For instance, “photography assistant, St. Louis MO” will yield much more useful results than simply “second shooter”, which will not only give you results for all locations, but tends to provide lots of news stories about violent shootings!
Make Yourself Known
For me, spending hours sifting through job boards is a bit impersonal, and it doesn’t always yield the best results. One of the absolute best ways to get started as a second shooter is to make yourself known to the photography community in your area.
If you’re not outgoing, this may seem like an impossible task, but it’s much easier than you think. For starters, search online for established wedding photographers in your area and shoot off a quick email to introduce yourself (calling might be even better but follow up with an email that they can search for later). Tell them that you’re just looking for some extra work and experience and that you’d be happy to help out if they ever need it. This simple task can go a long way towards finding work. Make up one email, send it out to ten photographers and you’ve just made ten connections that exponentially increase your odds of landing a second shooting gig.
If you live in a large city, spend some time searching for photographer community events. This can be anything from a class offered by one prominent person or a larger sponsored gathering. Also, don’t limit yourself to photography-specific events, instead try to think of any place that groups of photographers are likely to congregate. For instance, Phoenix has a huge annual wedding expo filled with booths from vendors of all kinds. There are always several wedding photographers there just waiting for people to come up and talk to them. Networking events like these can be extremely valuable for building the types of connections that could lead to real work. Be sure to speak to other vendors as well as many event planners, venue owners and rental companies are always looking for quality referrals that they can give to clients.
If you’re more of a tweeter than a hand shaker, sites like Flickr and Smugmug have communities that you can easily get plugged into, often in a location-based setting making it easy to target your area.
Beyond second shooting positions, befriending more experienced photographers can be a gold mine for anyone just getting started. Anyone who charges $4,000 for a wedding is often approached by people with budgets around a quarter of that and they are more than willing to pass that business along to their friends and colleagues. Constantly look for ways to be helpful to your local photography community and you’ll be surprised at how much they reciprocate.
To sum up, being a second shooter has many rewards, both financial and experiential. If you’re struggling to get your own photography business started, there are few things that will prove as helpful as taking these types of jobs.
When you do land a second shooting gig, remember to do everything you can to make yourself as valuable as possible to the lead photographer to ensure that you’re the first person they call whenever they need a little help on a big job.
Leave a comment below and let us know about your experience with either being a second shooter or hiring second shooters. Whether your experience was positive or negative, what advice can you give others so that they can be successful?