7 Things to Help Establish Your Foundation as a Photo Assistant

Okay, here I am. Again. Back in sunny Los Angeles, ready once again to start writing up a storm on APhotoAssistant. Speaking of storms, right now I am watching an online webcam feed in Minneapolis on the U of M campus, where there are many students building snowmen and having snowball fights in the freshly fallen snow after the season’s first major snowstorm. It actually looks like they are having fun, but it is a cold reminder of why I travel to more temperate climes when winter rolls around. At least some people can tolerate the snow and cold. Well, I can tolerate it for the most part, since I lived there for most of my life. But, these days I just choose not to have to endure it for the five or six months that one is expected to deal with winter’s wrath in Minnesnowta.

Snow, anyway…

More and more these days, students and newbie photo assistants are asking me how to find work as a photo assistant. It’s usually along the lines of, “What am I doing wrong, because I just can’t find the assisting gigs I expected or want to do?” Or, it’s something like, “I’ve talked with so many photographers but, they all say they don’t have a lot of work right now, or that they already have a list of ten to fifteen assistants that they call when they have a shoot coming up. How will I ever get my foot in the door?”

The answer to these types of questions can be many, and usually a combination of reasons. But, the bottom line is that when you are starting out in the photo industry as a photo assistant, there is going to be a huge learning curve in just about everything you do. So, unless someone in your family, or a close friend is already established as a photographer or other creative in the industry, you will have a great deal of hard work in front of you to build your foundation as a photo assistant. The nice thing about this, though, is that once you’ve begun really digging in, you will build momentum and it will carry you through, and things will become easier and easier once you have really started to get your bearings.

I have taken a few moments to put the following list together to help assistants who have the gumption to put forth the effort that will help you establish your place in the pecking order of photo assisting with the photographers you want to work with. Bear in mind that there is no real secret formula to this process, only that if you do the footwork and approach every situation with common sense and a bit of creative resourcefulness and hard work, you can succeed and begin making progress.

Persistence – when you are beginning to call on photographers to introduce yourself to them, you must be persistent, but without being a pest. Sending an email every two to four weeks is probably a good time frame to work with. Mail promotional postcards to the studio with well produced images, graphics, and copy to help get you noticed even more. Yes, photographers still love print! Pick up the phone and call the studio, from time to time, stating your interest to meet with the photographer in the hopes of assisting them sometime in the near future. Find out if they have been receiving your emails and postcards. The goal is to stay in front of them and on their welcome mat, but never give them any reason to sweep you under the rug.

Attitude – always be positive with a can-do attitude! Be pleasant, calm, and maintain discretion when in the company of those you aspire to work with. You should maintain a professional demeanor at all times. Don’t be over-eager or talk too much. Be confident, honest, and always be teachable. Don’t ever think your way is the only way or the right way. Ultimately, your personality will match, or compliment, the photographer’s personality you wish to work with. Once you have worked with a few studios you will begin to know your place and what is appropriate in those relationships.

Hard Work – you will need to motivate yourself and work hard, keeping your goals in mind. You might spend hours upon hours researching photographers work on their websites. You will undoubtedly need to develop well thought out ways to market yourself with a website/blog, emails, postcards, portfolios, etc. You might have a regular day or night job and pull double-duty in order to get your feet under you, which will allow you to take the photography leap, full-time. Whatever your situation, stay focused, have fun, and make it happen.

Network – join, attend and get involved with your local APA and ASMP chapters. If there is not one close to you, find a camera club that will keep your creative juices flowing in ways other than just taking photos. Look for ways to be helpful and assist other photographers in the camera club. You could even start your own group like The Crew Group to share your time, resources, and gear with others to work on projects and build your portfolio. Get to know the sales and rental people at your local camera store and rental houses. Find online groups on Linkedin and other sites that provide resources and ideas that you can use. Participate in photo workshops and festivals as a volunteer to meet new photographers and expand your mojo. I still do this, and love it!

Continue Learning – always remain teachable. I like learning, but I also tend to be slow to change with changing times. Photography has taught me to be flexible and more open to adapting to new techniques and workflows. I find that by keeping my eyes and ears open, and my mouth shut, I can gain the trust of others and learn something from them. Research online for new gear, owners manuals, lighting set-ups, and tricks-of-the-trade. Take a lighting workshop or attend an Assistant Training Workshop.

Patience – is the follow-up to persistence. Allow the proper time for things to fall into place, especially when you are just starting out. When I had trouble getting assisting gigs at first, I took a full-time night job which allowed me the time to continue marketing and meeting photographers, little by little, until I could establish some good rapport with them. Everyone has their own pace. And, in our fast-paced world today, many opportunities are lost in the shuffle, or the right opportunities take longer to be discovered. Stay focused, and don’t be too discouraged when things don’t seem to happen quick enough.

Treat Photo Assisting as Your Business – because it is! When I started out I was pretty excited to be in business! I even started out using an assumed business name. But, as time wore on, I got lazy and a lot of administrative paperwork type stuff piled up on me. Thankfully, I got that worked out with help. Don’t be afraid to use a tax service or accountant. This will save you many headaches later on when you are too busy on set and don’t have the energy to stay on top of some of your administrative tasks. If you like doing this stuff yourself, go ahead and do it. But, remember to manage your time efficiently and balance your priorities. I try to schedule, hour-by-hour, my tasks when I am at my desk, so that I am at least making some progress on all the stuff that’s in the in box.

These are just some of the things that were going on, day-in and day-out, back when I started my photo assisting business. Of course, I still have to do a lot of this, even these days, but it’s second-nature to me, now. But, in the beginning, it can be a bit overwhelming and difficult to know if you are doing all the right things that will lead to getting some good work and starting to make an impression on the photography community. I remember always second-guessing myself and having doubts that would almost paralyze me. Then, I might have a good meeting with a photographer and get some work and things would be good. It can really be a roller-coaster ride, for sure!

The bottom-line is this: Be mindful of all these things, on a consistent basis, and show the photographers you want to work with that you are the real deal and deserve the opportunity you are asking for. Do your best to set your self up to get noticed. There’s a lot of competition, so you better suit up and show up. Otherwise, all your hard work and persistence is for nothing.

So, ask yourself… What would you have to do to walk into a studio for an interview and see one of your postcard mailers on the fridge?



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