Working as a photo assistant and traveling to a location shoot can be a lot of fun. I’ve had many, many opportunities to travel and work on location, and one thing that each has in common is that every one is different. Working with different photographers will inevitably lead to traveling to many different locations, working on various types of shoots, with many different types of people. So, I guess the other thing that all location shoots have in common is that they are hardly ever boring. But, it can also be a lot of work. If you like lugging gear, working your butt off from sunrise to sunset, overcoming adversity, dealing with weather and other uncertainties of the road–then assisting on location might be the life for you.
There is both an art and a business to traveling and photography. The photographer must know what the client expects from them. As a photo assistant, you must know what the photographer expects from you. If there is a producer, they will handle many of the minute details. But the photographer and assistant will need to be on the same page with concern to ad layouts, gear to bring or rent when arriving, job roles of everyone on the production, and catering to the client. Sometimes, the assistant will double as a mini-producer and handle, or assist, with such things as car rentals, hotel reservations, getting lunch, pulling permits, scouting, and scheduling. Making it all work takes resourcefulness, creativity, hard work, and many times, a lot of overtime.
A couple weeks ago I was on a shoot in Alabama. I was working with a photographer I had never worked with before. He’d heard me speak on a panel about photo assisting at my local ASMP chapter last winter. He decided to bring me on because of my experience, and this shoot was a bit beyond what he was accustomed to. We met a couple weeks prior to the shoot to go over the layouts, lighting, and just to get to know one another a bit more. The photographer told me he would drive down to the location with all his gear in-tow, so I wouldn’t need to worry about rental gear. He also hired a producer to handle many of the logistics. He made my flight and hotel reservations, so, all I had to do, basically, was fly in the day before for the pre-pro/pre-light, and then light and manage the sets and changes during the shoot the next day. We had some weather to deal with, as well as some software glitches, and some concerns about a couple added shots. After 13 hours things can get frustrating and stressful–but, all in all, everything went off well and the client was happy. If the client is happy and satisfied, then your job should be considered successful.
Working with another photographer, I usually have a small role in production, scouting and whatever else is needed, in addition to assisting. I’d rent an RV as a production vehicle, drive it to the location, scout a day or two before the shoot, and email jpegs of locations back to the photographer and client. Sometimes I would meet with talent and fill them in on the particulars in preparation. I’ve even gone shopping for wardrobe and props. Then, when the photographer and client arrives, we would travel to our locations, set up lighting if called for, get our shots, and do some on-the-fly editing with the client in our RV. A much more guerrilla approach, but sometimes very necessary given the subject matter, conditions, or client’s needs. Like I said, every shoot is different.
A few years ago, I drove from Palm Springs with a photographer and an account rep, to a golf resort in Flagstaff, AZ, where we spent four days running around the fairways, clubhouse, and real-estate properties shooting for the golf resort’s overall media assets. I think it was early October and the season had just ended. The grass was browning and the trees had mostly shed all their leaves. Not an ideal way to shoot a golf resort, especially when you want to sell new memberships! We were all kinda scratching our heads as to why the client wanted to shoot after the season, especially at a mountain resort. We had our hot-lights and strobes, packed them and the rest of our gear into golf carts, and went balls-to-the-wall to get all the shots the client wanted before the first snow hit. One the third day, the temperature plummeted and we got hit with a hail-storm that left piles of little, icy golf balls all over the greens and fairways. The food and accommodations rocked. The interior stuff we shot kicked ass. The exterior grounds… not so much. On our way home, driving down the mountain, we drove through four inches of snow. Back home in Palm Springs, it was 95 degrees. When I arrived back at the studio to pick up my truck at the studio, I found a mama preying-mantis had taken the liberty of depositing here eggs into my tire-tread.
When traveling on a photo shoot, make sure you consider a few guidelines to make life easier on yourself, and everyone involved:
• Make sure you know, up front, exactly what the photographer expects from you in your role as an assistant on the road. Many times you will need to go above and beyond the call of duty, but, just make sure you aren’t getting yourself into something that you can’t handle.
• Make sure you pack your personal items accordingly. Take only what you need, but make sure you don’t leave anything important behind. Hats, gloves, footwear, rain gear, umbrella, casual-dress clothes for dinner with client, etc. When in doubt, ask the photographer.
• If you normally pack any grip gear, or other helpful items as part of your assisting arsenal, make a list available to the photographer or producer, so they can determine if it is needed, or not. Gaff tape, batteries, trash bags, flashlight, bug-spray, sunscreen, first-aid kit, A-clamps, gels, etc. The thinking behind this is, What can I bring to the shoot that might be needed, but the photographer may not be packing himself. And, does the photographer necessarily expect you to bring any certain grip gear?
• Save your receipts for your invoice. You will need to provide hard copies to back-up your expenses.
• When driving rental vehicles in unfamiliar territory, make sure directions to locations, hotels, and airports are clear and free of any major road construction. Check the state and county road crew sites (usually under state DOT’s websites) before you leave, for possible delays and detours. Sometimes it just takes a lane closure during rush hour to make it possible to miss your flight. (Once, I had to drive 1,100 miles after missing a flight to make my next gig!).
• Make sure you are familiar with all TSA regulations when flying.
• If you have layovers and any checked baggage, prepare for the inevitable missing bag when you get to your destination. Make sure anything critical is carried on the flight with you, if possible. Again, know the regulations for carry-on, checked baggage, and personal effects.
• If you’re traveling with gear and happen to be in busy locations, keep your eyes on your bags. I’ve heard too many horror stories about camera bags and computers getting swiped in all the chaos of a busy street. Make sure everyone in your party is alert and wary.
Traveling is fun. But, if you’re traveling and assisting on a photo shoot, you will definitely need to be prepared for just about anything and everything. Drawing on experience, being extremely resourceful, and the ability to be optimistic in all situations are things that will get you through most unpredictable circumstances on a location shoot.
What are some of the crazy unexpected situations you’ve encountered on a location shoot? What did you do to overcome the problem? What could you have done to better prepare?