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Photography

7 Key Skills for Photo Assistants

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One of the best ways to advance in business and technical skills as a photographer is to serve as an assistant to an established photographer. Some professionals in larger cities even make their full income from assisting! Here are some ways to find an assistant position and how to make the most out of your opportunity.

Getting Started as an Assistant

Send an E-mail

If you have a mutual connection or friend, the photographer may be more likely to respond, so mention it.  If you desire for some face-to-face time, offer to take them out for coffee or lunch. Be courteous and direct, not overly formal or informal, and tell them you are looking for work as an assistant.

Workshops

Being a former client or workshop attendee will immediately provide face time with the photographer and you may be able to get a position sooner.

Get Social

Facebook groups for photographers in your area are great places to look for opportunities. Make yourself available, and start building your reputation. Regularly (and respectfully) comment on the social media feed or blog of photographers you admire. Familiarity and enthusiasm will help you become a trustworthy resource.

photographers assistant adjusting a flash unit
A photo-assistant adjusts a flash unit on a wedding shoot

1. Be Responsive and Eager

The photographer is your client. Respond to emails in a timely manner, be enthusiastic when asked to assist for any job. Make the job a priority – find a babysitter or request time off from your day job. The first invitation to assist comes only once per photographer. 

2. Prepare for Contingencies

Arrive early and pack water and snacks like trail mix or dried fruit. It might be a long day! 

Depending on the job, inquire if there are wardrobe requirements. Wear comfortable, closed toed shoes and presentable clothing that moves. Keep make-up minimal and tasteful. An extra pair of socks, a handful of sanitary wipes, and a multi-tool at the bottom of your backpack can come in handy.

Usually, you will not need to bring your own photography equipment: you are an extra set of hand and eyes on the shoot. If a photographer asks you to photograph, you're no longer an assistant, you're a second photographer. If you are asked to photograph, even if it's in the heat of the moment during the shoot, you can ask for and bill for a higher rate. Either way, make sure your responsibilities are clear before the shoot and be prepared to change direction on the fly.

3. Maintain a Professional Attitude

While the photographer is shooting, stay in the background while being courteous and helpful. If you have a strong personality, now is not the time to make connections, socialize with the photographer's client, or get chatty. Smile, laugh and enjoy learning, but not to draw too much attention to yourself.

4. Observe and Be Ready

Throughout the session, keep focused on the subject and photographer, not your cell phone.  Read the situation and be ready to move when the photographer requests your assistance. Keep an eye on the lighting setup, especially, looking for stray light and ways to achieve the photographer's goal. You may be asked to stand in a specific spot for the photographer to test the lighting and settings. 

If you are unsure of what to do, ask, “Is there anything you’d like me to watch for while you’re shooting or ways to make myself useful?”

5. Set Up and Tear Down Like a Pro

As there's nothing more telling about the quality of an assistant than the way they handle setting up before the shoot and packing up afterwards.

While equipment is being unloaded, show initiative, but respect the photographer's organization and process. You are there to help, so don't just stand around, jump in! Make yourself useful right from the start. If you are hesitant about equipment you shouldn’t touch, ask, “What can I help with?” Don't start packing up until the photographer gives you the cue - sometimes the photographer's client will ask for something last minute.

6.  Follow Your Client’s Lead

If you see anything concerning during the session, express it, but don’t disrupt the shoot.  Paying attention to small details such as clothing wrinkles, or background distractions will be valued. Ask, “May I jump in and smooth her hair?” You can also ask the photographer how to assist throughout the shoot. Photographers will differ in their preferences.

If you feel as though the photographer is open to hearing your suggestions, discretely share. You’ll know the photographer is receptive to hearing your opinion when you are affirmed with a thanks or you are asked for further opinion. 

7. Follow Up and Keep in Touch

Many photographers started as assistants, and most photographers are happy to share wisdom and advice.  As you observe during the shoot, think of questions to ask after the session wraps up and the client is gone. 

Always be receptive when the photographer gives you advice, critiques your work, or passes along suggestions. The more receptive and appreciative you are, the more the photographer will want to invest in you.

Stay Keen

With eagerness and a flexible schedule, you will find assisting opportunities to help further your photography knowledge. Photographers enjoy sharing their expertise and experience assistants who yearn to learn that can in turn provide reliability, self-sufficiency and professionalism to their shoots. If you build a good relationship with the photographer, they may even start to refer smaller jobs to you.

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