Photographers Value A Photo Assistant’s Mojo

Whenever I meet photo students and new assistants, they will sometimes ask me what it is that they need to know to get the good assisting gigs with all the great photographers. In turn, I will ask them why any photographer should hire them at all. Most students will say something like they love photography or know Photoshop inside-out. New assistants and others might respond with something along the lines of them being a hard worker, a quick learner, or know this-or-that brand of lighting or camera gear. This is all fine and dandy, but, I try to get across to them that in addition to a little knowledge, a good attitude and work ethic, that they need to have something in their arsenal that will make them especially unique to the photographers they work with. To have a skill, ability, network, or service that will uniquely benefit their photographer clients and set them apart from all the other assistants. While some of this might be difficult to take in for the new assistant looking for his first gig, it goes without saying, that the photo industry has become more and more competitive, and in order to really make your mark in photography, you will need to roll up your sleeves and put your thinking cap on!

I say all this because it has become increasingly difficult, even for some experienced assistants, to get the good jobs with bigger budgets which allow photographers more freedom to work without too many constraints. In order to get these jobs, photo assistants (as well as all crew) should be able to bring something unique and specifically useful to the table. The photographer’s client must feel that they are getting excellent value for all the money they are shelling out to get the images that the photographer was hired to capture. The assistant and other crew, in turn, must contribute their best skills, services, or abilities which will lend to that overall value for the client.

I used to subscribe, almost exclusively, to the idea that photo assistants need to be a jack-of-all-trades, and that most photographers have become garden-variety shooters. While this may still be true in some ways, I have more, or less, discovered that the assistants who stay busy working with photographers who get the more lucrative jobs, are the ones who have tailored their repertoire to the specific needs of those photographers. It used to be okay to just be a general photo assistant–loading film, setting up lights, taking meter readings, and so on. But now, many shooters need assistants who can also do lighting design, minor digitech/basic retouching, prop styling, carpentry/painting, and provide basic production services, on-the-fly.

Earlier this month, I was hired by an out of town shooter coming in to Minneapolis to photograph, basically, just some medical device implants. Simple, straight-forward product shots. We chatted on the phone two days before his arrival. He told me a bit about the job and what he needed from me. He said that he had rented a studio space and that the rental lighting gear would be delivered. He thought we might also end up going to the clients offices, but wasn’t totally sure yet. I asked him to forward me a list of the lighting gear, if possible, so I might know how much gear I might be hauling back and forth. He also said he was shipping, via UPS, some basic grip and lens extensions from rental. Then, he mentioned that he may need a larger piece of sintra board to shoot some of the products on, but wouldn’t know for sure until he could have a pre-pro meeting with his clients after everyone’s arrival into town. There were actually a few other specifics that were up in the air, also hinging on more detailed communication from the client.

I told him that despite all the uncertainties,  we could easily meet whatever needs his client threw at him with the resources I had available. I mentioned that I was dialed in with the local rental stores and could easily get any additional gear that was necessary. I already knew where to get some sintra board, if he needed it. My vehicle could transport all the gear to the offices. I could easily return gear and his other stuff, shipping UPS, the day after, if necessary.

The first morning of the shoot, I started setting up lighting as the photographer met with his clients. After a few minutes, he came over to tell me that he wanted to pick up a larger sintra board, as we had discussed. Sintra is a light-weight closed-cell PVC, the relative equivalent of foamcore, but thinner, more rigid, and much more durable. I ran to the store that I knew would have some, only after many unsuccessful attempts to get through on the phone, that morning, and the previous day. Always call ahead. But, it seemed, that their phones lines were down for whatever reason. Of course, when I got there, they didn’t have it in stock. I explained the situation, that I needed it now, and how I had been unable to call to confirm their stock. The guy behind the counter got me the number of their supplier. But, first, I called another photographer friend to see if he had some sintra I could buy, but he was away from the studio. So, I called the supplier, arranged the order and and was ready to go pick it up when the photographer called me back to say we wouldn’t need it, afterall. Whew… first disaster averted!

Upon returning, the photographer was dismayed, after since discovering that the second floor rental studio we were in, had unstable wood floors, which made the products he was shooting jostle and bounce on their itty-bitty wire supports. This was a bit of a problem because previous lighting set-ups had necessitated the use of hot lights, and also for this shoot, so the exposure times were one-second plus. Bear in mind that we are shooting very small medical implants that require precise placement, alignment, and lighting for positioning, all within an overlay template to use on a trade-show booth. Luckily, we were able to control some of the traffic in the studio to diminish the product movement- just enough to get the shots we needed. The photographer was also prepared to re-shoot anything critical, back at his studio, but still wanted the client to at least sign-off on these shots, and then use just for FPO, if necessary.

Had the photographer had the foresight to check the rental studio for a solid, concrete floor as it related to the product shoot, I could have dropped-by the studio before-hand to check it out, and then made other arrangements if necessary. This is an easy one to miss, but nonetheless, is something to be mindful of. As it turned out, however, it wasn’t as critical as first conceived, since the photographer needed to shoot additional products that weren’t yet available to us at the time of this shoot. Re-shooting a few shots wouldn’t be too much more of a hassle. So, for the most part, this shoot became an opportunity for the photographer and agency to meet and hob-nob with the client. Can you say dog-and-pony show?

But, on the second day, it was decided that we would go to the medical device manufacturer’s office to take some executive portraits and environmental shots for collateral. I suggested we get some additional strobe lighting and grip, as well as a mag-liner. I also reserved a 70-200mm 2.8L from another rental place, as our lighting rental did not rent camera gear. So the next morning I made two stops to pick-up the additional gear and then met the photographer at the client’s office. The photographer told me that my ability to take care of this for him was, alone, worth my day-rate.

Later that afternoon, back at the studio, we finished the other product shots that remained. At the end of the day, I wrapped up, called for pick-up of the rented lighting gear, and packaged the items for UPS. The next morning, I returned the lens, and then went to a UPS Store and shipped the return items for the photographer.

Now, just imagine how much more value that could have been built with this photographer (as well as the photographer’s client) had he better-known, before-hand, some of his client’s specific needs, as well as some of the other things that would transpire during this shoot. If the photographer could have communicated that he for sure needed the sintra board, I could have purchased it the day before and had it at the studio, saving time and stress. If he could have told me that he needed a studio with a concrete floor for the long exposures, I could have made sure this was not an issue where he rented space from (keep this in mind and address it if you find yourself in this situation… you just might be a life-saver). And, if the client had known that we were to travel to their offices before-hand, the photographer could have been better prepared and ordered what gear he needed, stress-free, knowing that he had everything to get his shots. Of course, what I’m describing is a perfect-world scenario, and things never seem to happen just so. At any rate, a good photo assistant will have a deep network of resources available to him, to make the shoot as smooth as possible for the photographer and his clients when this stuff comes up. And, believe me, it will come up! In my situation, the photographer had many unknown possibilities, but I was able to tell him exactly what tools and resources I had in place that would make it all go smoothly, no matter what.

If you are going to work with studio shooters doing product, know your lighting and be well-versed in all the latest-and-greatest software. Understand digital asset management, workflow, and be able to do basic retouching and color correcting. If you are working with editorial shooters, be able to travel light and make creative use of everything at your disposal. Work fast and efficiently. Working with shooters who travel a lot have similar needs, but usually on a very high-end level. If you want to work with architectural photographers, understand color temperature, know your hot-lights, learn how to style and prop, and carry a carpet rake.

A good assistant might also have a lighting kit and camera gear for rental… and gels, clamps, and extension cords in their grip kit. Having a good vehicle to transport extra gear is a huge help. Knowledge of all the different camera capture software is becoming a standard, even if you’re not a digitech, as some budgets can’t accommodate both an a assistant and tech. Another good idea might be to have your own UPS or FedEx account for the photographer to use for shipping their gear.

Many times, in a pinch, photographers will scan through their emails to find the last assistant who emailed them. This happens for different reasons, but usually a photographer’s regular assistant(s) are unavailable, and so, they need to get somebody else lined up, right away, to help with a last minute shoot that their client sprung on them. So, the trick is, what can you tell them in an email, about yourself, and your skills as an assistant, that will make you stand out, and then help them remember you and find your email, even if it wasn’t the last one they received?

So, for you brand-spanking new assistants, you might want to try and figure out a way to market your extraordinary skills and services to photographers before they hire you, so that you will stand out from the crowd, from the very start. Or, at least, once you have worked with a particular shooter for the first time, they will know absolutely, that they will benefit from some unique skill or service of yours. What is it about you, as a photo assistant, that will make the photographer or producer call you for the next shoot? What value will they get by hiring you now, and in the future? What specific skill, experience, and attitude will make you the obvious choice, over all the other assistants, in their email in-box?

Whatever your assisting expertise–new gun, or old hand like me–make sure you communicate what you can contribute to the shoot. Figure out what specific needs your shooters have and tailor your grip kit, skills, and knowledge to those needs. Many times you will have to dig and research a bit to know what specifics are needed by a particular photographer or producer, but, they probably won’t ever know who can exactly be their best choice unless you spell it out for them.


  1. says

    Nice post Tim. This is packed full of information for any assistant. I was an assistant for 5 years and I wish I had all this info when I started out.


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