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Working as a photographer's assistant is, in my eyes, the best way to gain experience and work your way to becoming a professional in your own right. The chance to work so closely with a photographer gives you valuable insight into the ways in which they work, the techniques they use, how their achieve their photographic style and also how they control and shoot and all the variables that come with that.
So here are some rules or guidelines if you will, on how to work effectively as an assistant and make the most of the opportunities you get.
Find the Work
First things first, you need to find some assisting work. Build a portfolio of work that you feel best represents your photographic exploits. It doesn't need to contain vast sums of photographs, just a balanced and carefully selected group of shots that display your various skills.
Begin by approaching photographers that you already know. Get your name out there. Bear in mind that you aren't restricted to purely working with photographers from your local area, many photographers travel for shoots and may well be in need of someone who knows the local area, gear rental shops are good location to find people in need of help.
It can be fairly difficult to find assistant work, as new photographers may not have the financial resources to warrant an assistant and it can be hard to get close to the well established professionals, but keep pushing doors and building contacts. Opportunities will come.
Photo by Wolfgang Lonien
Discuss the Shoot
It's important that you are up to speed with the details of the shoot, so have a conversation with the professional well before the shoot to establish some basic information so everyone knows what the format of the shoot will be.
Who is the shoot for? Are there any specific shot requirements? What will the style of the shoot be? Are there any specific aims, locations or backdrops in mind? These elements will not only help you on the day, but it will aid the communication between you and the professional and ensure that everyone is working together effectively towards the same goals.
Photo by Mugley
Prior to the shoot, it's important that you check whether there is anything you can do to aid the main photographer in ensuring they have everything in place for the shoot.
Do they need to rent any gear, particularly lenses or lighting equipment if they are traveling far to the shoot. Will a studio be required at all, maybe a space for hair and make up needs to be organized? Are there locations that are yet to be decided, might you be able to help by scouting out and visiting potential spots?
As you work on more shoots, you'll find that you build up a database of information such as good rental stores, studios and locations, but it's important to do your research before suggesting them to the professional, as it may fall on your head if things don't work out!
Photo by Garry Knight
Be Clear on your Role
Before you get to the shoot, it's essential to discuss with the photographer what your role is on the day. You need to find out how you will be of most use to them? It may be a case of simply transporting gear, carrying lenses and being a second pair of eyes at the shoot.
However, they may well want you to be a back up shooter, shooting over the shoulder of the professional or taking shots that include them as well for promotional purposes. If this is required of you, be sure to research the style of the photographer beforehand, to ensure that your work will sit nicely alongside theirs. It's essential that you remember to ask permission before taking any photos. If the professional hasn't explicitly stated that you'll be shooting, don't except to do so.
Photo by Ugg Boy
On the day, it's essential that you get a few basic things right, just to show your intentions for the shoot. Be on time, in fact, be early. I know it sounds obvious, but showing up late really isn't an option. Ensure that you dress appropriately, especially if it's a function such as a wedding. If you're not sure, just ask. If it you're scared to ask, word your question carefully. "So will you be wearing a tuxedo or a suit?" See how that sounds.
Double check you have all the gear you require, and if you're not sure, take it. An extra tripod might be useful for a remote flash and that extra reflector cover might just add the extra warmth you've been after. Overall though, it's important to go along with the right mindset, ready to offer your services and do what is asked of you!
Follow the Lead
Let the photographer introduce you to the clients and use their example to acclimatize to the situation. Remember, that it's not about you, you may well gain a lot from the experience, but you're role is secondary to that of the professional.
However, the shoot is also not about the professional photographer, it's about the client. Your priority should be to ensure that everyone gets along and works together.
Photo by Ashraful Kadir
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
There will be various things that will be asked of you through the shoot, some of which you'll be more accustomed to than others. Carrying equipment sounds easy, but it's essential to be careful, especially if you're wheeling various cases of gear around.
Don't leave them unattended unless you're certain they're safe. You may be asked to take light readings, so be sure you know what you're doing with a lightmeter. It may also be required for you to sit in before a model arrives in order to check lighting and angles, this can feel a bit like you're being put in the limelight, but sit still and try not to pull any funny faces!
There will also probably be the need to control the lighting, angles and amounts, so again, know the gear and how to make the adjustments that are required. You'll also probably need to carry a selection of lenses with you, for which a robust bag can be useful. Make sure you know which lens is which in order to hand over the right one when it's needed.
Photo by morbuto
It's up to you to concentrate on what's going on within the shoot so that you can be ready to provide the photographer with the correct gear and adjustments on demand. To a certain extent, it's good to almost interpret what might be needed at specific times so you can pre-empt the needs of the photographer.
Maybe you'll need to shift some lights to the secondary set up, or maybe a different lens will be required as the models hold a pose, so be ready, be quick and be efficient!
Photo by Soundman1024
Be a Sounding Board
You may well find that the photographer uses you to bounce ideas off and to double check setups. This is not the time to just be a yes man, engage your mind and do your best to give accurate answers, not just the answer you think they want to hear. This is your chance to offer opinions on the elements within the shoot and maybe even offer some creative suggestions if you feel it's appropriate.
Don't take this as the open door to start commanding wholesale changes, but maybe you feel the photographer has missed something, a light might be better placed or an opportunity has been missed. By all means make suggestions, but don't hassle the photographer or clients as they will be under pressure to deliver the required shots.
It can also be useful to keep track of the time to ensure that everything is running on schedule. The photographer can often get engrossed in their work and if there are limits on the subject's time or upon the usage of the location, it's important to use the time effectively, and to not delay proceedings.
Photo by SparkFunElectronics
It may be the case that the photographer takes a break or wants you to go and photograph a separate element of the event on your own. If you do get the opportunity to step into the role of a photographer (as opposed to an assistant), be confident. Believing that you have the ability to take the shots required will take you a long way to getting the shots you want.
Having confidence will allow you to get into the best positions and command the situation, allowing you to control the subjects and make the most of the opportunity you've been given.
Photo by TDNPhoto
It's really useful to have an informal de-brief once the shoot is over, just to assess the positives and negatives of the workings of the shoot. Did the photographer managed to achieve what they set out to do?
It can also be useful to ask whether they feel you fulfilled your role adequately, which can be seen as leaving a door open for criticism, but hopefully they'll be generous in complimenting the things you did well, but also advise you on aspects that could be improved on for next time.
Photo by Sunshine
Returning Your Shots
If you have been required to take some shots, be selective in the work you send. Don't just send hundreds of shots hoping they'll like some of them. Choose the best select few and ensure that you take your time with the post processing to guarantee high quality images.
It's important that you are efficient in sending them to the photographer well within any set deadline to leave space for touch ups and re-edits. Also, don't publish your photos anywhere without the explicit permission of the main photographer. This is a huge faux pas made by assistants, as clients will get distracted if they see your shots before the main photographer's and it will detract from their work. It's also likely that you'll never get invited back.
As common courtesy dictates, thank the photographer that hired your for the work. If the photographer didn't ask for shots of him/herself working, that would make an excellent thank-you gift. Also, buying them so little piece of equipment you might think will help them out would be nice, even if it's just a pack of zip ties or a roll of gaffer's tape.
If the photographer has the time, it's smart to ask them for a post-shoot review of any photos you took. If you work with the photographer in the future, it will make you more aware of what they are looking for.