Assisting is probably the best way I know of to get into the professional photography world. Assisting allows a rare glimpse into the world of professional photography. Five or six years ago I was getting 2-3 emails a week from people wanting to assist me. These days, despite the fact that I am way busier and have higher quality work I get an email from someone wanting to assist me about every month. I think these days everyone is in too big of a hurry to become a photographer. When I get an e-mail from a potential assistant the first thing I do is ask why they want to be a photo assistant, assisting is difficult work with out much glamor. The strange thing is that about half the time the person never actually responds back. The first thing I look for in an assistant is some passion. My life is art and I have a passion for what I do. I want to see that passion in the people around me.
You should be a photo assistant because you want to learn. This is a hands on of what it is like to be a photographer. There are all types of photographers. There are pet photographers, food photographers, racing photographers, sports photographers, beverage photographers, fashion photographers, and the list goes on and on. The best way to get a taste for the real world behind this is to find a photographer to assist. You will learn things on an actual commercial photography set that you will never learn in school. You can set something up in the controlled environment of a school's studio, but never really learn, because you had an instructor watching your back. I'm all about people going to photography school I actually teach at one. Being on a real set is different. You will be constantly overwhelmed by sensory overload the first few times. There will be a ton of new people, and tons of new gear that you have to learn. It is a great opportunity to see how a commercial artist creates. Creating on a tight deadline when money is involved is a different process than creating for yourself or for a class. Also this is a good place to start learning to be a servant leader. A good photographer will have a servants heart the same goes for a good photo assistant.
The best way to become a photo assistant is to reach out to people who are already photo assistants. When you reach out be sure to tell them who you are, why you want to be an assistant, and tell them your experience in photography. I find that it is also best to ask to meet up for coffee so that they can get to know you. It is all about relationships. If you can get in with a few good assistants as friends then they will ask you when something comes up. Being top of mind is important. Reach out to photographers that you want to work with. It is harder to get in with a photographer before you have any names under your belt, but you would be surprised by who will respond to your e-mails. Also don't take it to seriously if someone does not respond or says no.
I started off my career as a photo assistant. If you are a photo student the number one pice of advice I have is to assist a photographer in the field that you want to go into. I assisted photographers for over 2 years. In that time I saw many photo assistants come and go. Some straying from photography all together and others that hit it big in their own photography.
I think that assisting is one of the most valuable tools for a young photographer. It allows you to learn the ropes of the professional photography world. You learn the business side, the lighting side, the camera side, the client relation side. You learn everything and you learn it fast.
Photo assistants also teach. You teach the photographer you are working with about theirself and their personal style. You always bring something of your own to the shoot. One of the biggest lessons you can learn from assisting is that good photography is often a team effort. An effort shared by stylist, art directors, assistants, photographers, production assistants, location scouts and countless others. The beautiful photo on the cover of Bon Appetit this month did not come from the effort of just one person but a team of people that worked together for a common goal.
Now for some actual tips:
1. Be on time! Really folks the first rule is to show up on time. If you are late espically on the first day this is bad. It is not that hard to plan ahead and be on time.
2. Be on point. Be ready to move when the photographer needs something. Always be thinking ahead.
3. Always keep busy. On a set their is always something that needs to be done.
4. Bring an assisting kit with you. I generally carried a knife, work gloves, a multi tool, gaff tape, AA batteries, cell phone, extra CF and SD cards, sharpie, and some paper.
5. Be quiet on set. The photographer is usually trying to convey detalis to the model or talent also if you are speaking to much you might miss a critical instruction.
6. Know your role. Generally their is a 1st assistant and a 2nd assistant take your cues from them. The job is the technical nitty gritty so the photographer can focus on the creative.
7. Going with be quiet on set, never push your own agenda. You are their for the photographer not social hour with the client. Don't talk to the client about your own work that is very poor taste also a quick way to get kicked off set.
8. Have a good attitude. Do what the photographer says with a smile. Serve him. Take care of his needs first.
9. Be positive. Be positive about the shoot at hand. Be upbeat and fun. If we are out in a swamp full of misquotes chances are that everyone knows this don't complain about getting bit, life will go on (also bring bug spray).
10. Ask questions. If you don't understand an instruction or know what to do exactly just ask. Not knowing something can cost extra time and money. If you put up a light wrong and it ends up falling on a clients head because it was not safety tethered... you get the picture ask questions.
11. Be willing to really dig in and work. If that means cleaning the bathroom and windows then do it. It will go a long way. Also be willing to help on personal projects.
This is just what I have gleaned from working as an assistant and a photographer over the last 10 years. You are welcome to add to the conversation. This is a photography community and everyone can take part.