How to be a photographer’s assistant

How to be a photographer’s assistant

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 09/05/12

A stint assisting an established photographer is a brilliant introduction to the day-to-day reality of working in the image business. Three photographers who have assisted in the past share their advice on making the most of the experience…

Be proactive

Assisting jobs are rarely advertised, so building a good network of industry contacts is vital. “All my assisting roles have been made possible through my contacts,” says Nik Adam, who has assisted Jason Evans, Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, and Nadav Kander. “My advice would be to chat to your tutors while you’re at uni, build a network and use Twitter – it's an incredible tool to find opportunities!” A similarly proactive approach worked for Mark Cocksedge, who assisted John Angerson and Daniel Kennedy when he was starting out. “John Angerson did a talk at my university and I managed to talk to him after. Six months later I got a text saying, ‘Free tomorrow 6pm?’ I was like, ‘Yes!’”

Research photographers whose work you admire and call them up directly to see if they need any help. Phone is always better than email in the first instance because it won’t get lost in an inbox. Stick to your chosen area – there’s not much point assisting a fashion photographer if what you want to do is documentary. 

Prove you’re committed

“You need to be dedicated,” says Mark, stressing that when a photographer calls you up with a job, “You can’t say, ‘Oh I’m shooting my own stuff so I can’t assist you today’ – you need to dedicate time to them.” Obviously there are going to be occasions when you have obligations that can’t be missed but try to make yourself as available as possible. If you say no, the photographer will simply call up the next person on their list. And if their second choice does a decent enough job, that might be the last you ever hear from them.

Come prepared

“You will learn loads on the shoot but it’s always good to go in knowing a bit already,” says Mark. “I went to the Pro Foto website and downloaded the manual for their lighting systems and went to Elinchrom and did the same.” Mark also recommends hiring out equipment beforehand to familiarise yourself with it. “If you hire something on a Friday, you drop it back on a Monday and it’s only a one-day rental,” he says. “You get the whole weekend to play around with the different settings and test it out so you go into a shoot with some basic knowledge.” 

“Have a list of local contacts close to the studio already in your phone,” says Chelone Wolf, who assisted Stephen Perry and now employs assistants of his own. “Lighting hire companies, electrical companies that stock memory cards, card readers and USB cables, coffee shops, taxi numbers or florists may all be needed at short notice.”

Enjoy yourself

“Have fun and keep a positive, can do attitude at all times,” says Chelone. “Get to know everyone's name. If [you’re] forgetful, use your iPhone to write them down. Sometimes models or stylists need distracting – this is people skill time. Have good banter to keep them occupied and calm to help the shoot run smoothly.” But, he warns: “Be ready to exit a conversation quickly if you're needed for a job.”

If you don’t know, ask

“Being on a shoot for the first time can be an intimidating experience but don't be afraid to ask questions – at appropriate times of course, not mid shoot,” says Nik. “Sooner or later you will be asked to do something and if you don't know because you didn't ask you will look like a bit of a fool.” Being an inquisitive assistant will make you a better photographer in the long run. As Chelone points out, “You should aim to know as much as possible to help when you strike out on your own.” Don’t let this new knowledge go to your head just yet, though. “You are an assistant, not a photographer, so keep your ideas and suggestions to a minimum unless asked,” says Chelone. “If you do have a great one, pop it in quickly. If the photographer likes it they can use it – don't expect too much praise or credit if it works, though.”


The spa

Image: Kid with a camera by jason rust on a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Have you ever been a photographer’s assistant? What are your tips? Leave a comment below.

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