Today’s post is by guest blogger, assistant/photographer Justin Sullivan.
A lot has been said about the technical aspects of photo assisting in the past. But one topic that hasn’t been explored as much as it should be is how to behave on set. There are a lot of things that can be learned over time, after many mistakes. But here are some guidelines that could help you save a little face, and keep you getting hired back for more work (and hey, that’s what we all want).
Things to Do:
Address concerns QUIETLY with the photographer. If you’re the first assistant working with a top photographer, and something is awry (or you THINK it’s awry) get his attention and speak with him about it as soon as possible in low tones. Photographers’ relationships with their clients can take years to build. The last thing they need is to look like a big dummy because you noticed a rookie mistake and blabbed about it loudly. Anyone worth his salt will appreciate your decorum. If you’re a second or third assistant, address it with the first immediately and defer to his judgment. This chain of command applies to just about every situation, but some sets are more casual. In most cases, play it safe and assume that everything goes through the first.
This leads us to our next point: Know the roles of everyone on set. You’re the photographer’s assistant. Great. Got one down. 10 to go. Who’s that lady in the corner? Judging by all of the brushes and pigments it’s safe to say she’s the make up artist. Easy. But what about the random person on the laptop over in the lounge? What about the kid carrying a pile of furniture pads in the background? There are all sorts of people who can be around, and if you’re unaware of the difference between the hair stylist and the prop stylist, you could find yourself messing the shoot up instead of helping it to go more smoothly. This could be an entire article on its own, but key people to know are the client, producer, wardrobe stylist, hair stylist, make up, and occasionally prop stylist. Each person I’ve mentioned is a department head on photo shoots, and should be treated accordingly. It’s like a microcosm of the film industry, and each department is responsible for a key part of the shoot. If you’re on some really high end stuff, you might end up addressing the wardrobe stylist’s assistant with concerns versus the stylist himself. But most of the time you can speak with any of these people directly and avoid any hierarchal concerns. It should be noted that you should never discuss any creative concerns with anyone without consulting the photographer first. For the record, photo assistants are more or less the equivalent of grip electric and camera assistants on film sets.
Be close by. Just because you got all of the lights set up and your exposure set doesn’t mean that you can go wander off and pick your nose somewhere. Your job is to be exceptionally available for the photographer whether he knows he needs you or not. On more than one occasion I’ve had to sit on the floor behind someone and act as a human pillow so they can shoot from a lying down position. Glamorous? Nope. Endearing? Yep. If the person who is essentially paying your bills has to look around for you more than once when he needs you, he’ll be understandably frustrated. Don’t give anyone a reason not to hire you back.
Watch the strobes! If you’re on set or location and using flash, make sure that the damn things are firing! Nothing makes you look worse than the strobes not going off and you not noticing. Chances are, while the photographer is shooting, you won’t be off building another set. Redeem that time by paying attention to everything you can on the active set and everyone will be better off.
Keep an eye on the exposure. When working with a digital tech this is pretty easy, and he’ll keep an eye on it too. But if you’re shooting to card, it’s really a great idea to check the camera settings as often as you can to make sure the photographer hasn’t accidentally bumped something and messed the whole thing up. This could be considered a technical aspect of photo assisting, but in my mind it’s a matter of consideration. Part of being a great assistant is making sure the photographer doesn’t look bad, and if something starts looking wonky, it’s good to know why and be able to correct it quickly.
If someone has to be the bad guy, make sure it isn’t you. Let’s say hypothetically that the client, hair, make up, wardrobe and the art director are all crowding around the photographer. Most people, including me, hate that. But as one wise man pointed out to me, one day those might be your clients, and the last thing you want to give them is a bad memory of you kicking them off of your set or making them move. That’s what producers are for. Go quietly mention to your producer that the photographer needs more space, and they will be able to handle the situation. You look like a billion bucks, and the photographer gets his space.
Know when to shut up. Being friendly is one thing, but nobody likes the guy who keeps carrying on all day. Gauge your crew and audience, but discretion being the better part of valor it’s often wise to keep your mouth shut. If you have to crack jokes, do it with the other assistants privately. Furthermore, don’t say stupid stuff in front of the client. They are where the money comes from, and chances are they don’t need to hear about how drunk you got the other day, or how good so-and-so is in bed.
Stuff Not to Do:
Stand directly in the talent’s eye line. If you don’t know what an eye line is, think about it for a second and you’ll figure it out. It’s not uncommon for celebrity personalities to be convinced that they are very important people, not unlike royalty. As such, they often prefer that you don’t look them in the eye, or touch them. Is this totally ridiculous? Yes. Do you still have to know it? Absolutely. The practical reality is that photographers need to have a connection with their subjects and it becomes increasingly difficult the bigger the crew is. As a result, it’s not unfair to limit the amount of interaction that you have that detracts from their connection. Not a hard and fast rule, to be sure. The key is to remember that the shoot isn’t about you, it’s about you making it go as smoothly as possible so the images look amazing. If someone is going to be high maintenance, that’s their prerogative. That’s why they are the talent, and you are the assistant. Want to change it? Get famous and then be nice to people. Until then, roll with the punches.
Don’t stand in front of the lights. I’ve been on shoots where a less than seasoned individual wasn’t paying attention and ended up blocking the lights. This should be a no-brainer, but it needs to be said. Photography is ABOUT light. Blocking it is bad form.
Don’t hit on the talent. For that matter, don’t hit on anyone. This isn’t high school. It isn’t college, or the bar, or a dating site. I don’t even care if you happen to be on a job WITH someone you’re ALREADY DATING. If you’re on set with me, be professional to everyone.
When crossing in front of the camera, let the photographer know. With digital it’s less life-threatening to burn a few frames, but if you’re shooting film, someone’s going to be mad that they just wasted valuable chrome just for a nice view of the back of your head. Wait for a good moment, then call out, “CROSSING!” before you go for a stroll and make everyone’s life easier.
The rushing-to-eat-first-maneuver is a move that I’ve seen a few people master. It’s less common at a certain level of this game, but some silly people still feel like they need to hustle up and grab catering as soon as it arrives. There are often a lot of hungry people on set, and just because you’ve been lugging C-stands around all day doesn’t mean that you’re more important than everyone else. Being courteous enough to let others go first is not only polite, it’s good business. I make it a personal policy not to ever eat before my photographer does. If nothing else it shows him that you’re conscientious and considerate, and often you’ll get waved on to grab your grub anyway. On a similar note, if you’re fortunate enough to have craft services on set, don’t be the vulture posted up shoveling snacks into your face. Grab a granola bar, and get back on set in case someone needs you.
Don’t pretend to know what everything is if you don’t. There’s always going to be some weird piece of grip equipment or light that you’ve never seen before. Being the person sent to the equipment room for a butt plug and coming back with an actual butt plug will get you in trouble. There are a million slang names for things, and there’s no shame in not knowing. ASK. If someone tells you then need the tall boy or the high roller, they aren’t expecting you to grab a big can of pabst out of your bag and hit the casino. People will appreciate your up front honesty more than you disappearing for 10 minutes to go look up what they are talking about and coming back with something that’s probably wrong. Believe me, someone asked me for a pineapple once and I wandered around the studio for half an hour before I found out he wanted a Hasselblad lens. Sometimes people make up their own names for things and if you’re too concerned with looking like you know what you’re doing, you might end up looking dumb. (Thanks to the homie Adam Rindy for reminding me of this one)
Finally, I’d like to quote my friend, photographer and 10 year assisting veteran Daniel Bergeron, who said this:
“Check your ego at the door, and know your role. Some sets are level playing fields, some are strictly delegated. Size it up immediately, and do your job, as appropriate. Some days, your opinion matters, and some days you are just a pack mule. Either way you are getting paid.”
Justin Sullivan is a rad freelance photographer in Los Angeles. He assists for a variety of advertising and editorial shooters in between hustling his butt off launching his own career. He likes sharks, getting awesome, and riding bikes. Good people like him. Bad people don’t like him.