A man I respect and admire like few on earth who has taught the arts for fifty years has said many times that the highest form of learning is teaching. With that in mind, I’m here to jot down a few things I’ve learned over my many years as a photographer (and as an assistant in my early days) in an effort to teach assistants some basics to propel them forward.
Let me first start by saying that assistants and aspiring photographers need to look beyond the immediate job and consider the long term implications of their work. In other words, how will the job you’re assisting on NOW help you in the future? Too often, in my opinion, assistants look at their jobs as menial work, something that they’re doing “just to get by” for now while they await their next job as a photographer. That’s the wrong mental approach and, believe me, the mental approach is as important, if not more, as any physical work you do. I know many, many working photographers who entered the business as an assistant. Assistants should approach any job as the single, most important job in the world and act as if it might be the last job they’re hired to do. That’s how I approach every shoot and it’s worked well for me. There are no “small jobs” for me. Each is approached with the same level of preparation and execution, from the multiple page layouts for international publications to the single portrait for a small non profit. A good assistant will have the same approach, beginning with preparation.
- Before ever showing up on the job, begin your preparation. Do you have a cell phone? Is the greeting professional or something typically heard on a frat house answering machine? How quickly do you return calls? This is all part of the preparation since you won’t stay busy if you’re not reachable. Prep work runs the gamut from answering calls promptly to understanding what the job will entail to ensuring that you have all of the necessary equipment to do the job well. A few things a good assistant will have on them: Pen, pencil, gaffer tape, multipurpose tool (such as a Leatherman), credit card and a pack to carry items. These are the most basic items that every shoot will likely require. Credit cards are necessary in the event you are asked to reserve/rent gear for the job, need to book travel arrangements and to cover your expenses on a job (it will also help you come tax season).
- Arrive a few minutes early to the job. You can always sit and drink coffee, listen to the radio or further prepare. NEVER be late. Account for traffic. Know where you are going. With GPS and live traffic feeds on the web, you have all the info at hand to avoid or minimize traffic delays. I can assure you that the last thing a photographer wants is to wait for their late assistant. The second-to-last thing a photographer wants is a phone call that you are going to be late.
- Dress appropriately. I can’t emphasize the importance of such a simple thing. Understand where the shoot will take place so that you can wear clothes that are appropriate for the venue. Dressing appropriately sends a clear message to the subject that we are professionals. This will lead to a better rapport with the subject (rapport can and often does lead to additional time for the shoot).
- Act appropriately. There is a difference between assisting on a portrait of surfers in Malibu and assisting on a portrait of the CEO for Bank of America. Act appropriately considering the venue and subjects.
- Turn off your phone. Let me repeat that: Turn OFF your phone. Unless we are in different locations during the shoot (which is rare), your phone should remain off. If it has to be on, then wait only until we are completely done with the shoot to check messages. It is beyond my realm of understanding when assistants routinely check messages, reply, tweet, post on Facebook etc.
- Anticipate what’s needed. Being proactive instead of reactive is something that sets apart great assistants from the mediocre ones. I recently had one assistant put a specialty lens on hold at a rental house in anticipation of my need. He figured that if I didn’t need it, then a quick phone call to release the reservation was easier than trying to get a lens at the last minute. That’s proactive. Having driving directions or an address to punch into the GPS is another example of being proactive.
- Know the equipment. If you’re booked to assist on a lighting assignment, don’t hesitate to ask what type of equipment will be used. If you’re not familiar with the gear, then either take the time to quickly learn the basics or tell the photographer in advance. Whatever you do, DON’T show up on the shoot with no idea how to operate the equipment. Same can be said about the cameras. Know how to load the cards and understand your role in downloading or organizing the take. Basic understanding of commonly used software such as Photo Mechanic, Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop and especially FTP programs like Transmit are necessary. You might not always need to perform such tasks, but you should know how. It’s a huge bonus as well to know about various audio and video gear since many photographers are now doing multimedia work.
- Take care in packing gear. When you’re done with the shoot, make sure to treat the breakdown and clean up of the shoot as importantly as the shoot itself. That means taking care when packing the equipment and assuring nothing is left behind. That’s the assistant’s responsibility. I know I like to take the time after a shoot to thank the subject and those who helped coordinate the shoot. I need my assistant to simultaneously break down the shoot.
- Paperwork. If you were responsible in obtaining rental gear then you are responsible for obtaining the necessary receipts for the photographer to submit for reimbursement. If you are asked to handle photo release forms, take the time to properly organize (by date, for example) and, if possible, make copies in case they are misplaced. Keep and provide all receipts for travel including rental cars, hotels, airfare and meals.
- Invoice in a professional manner. This goes back to preparation. If you want to be perceived as a top notch, professional in the photo industry, then take the time to create a professional invoice template. The invoice should include your name, business name, social security or taxpayer ID number and contact information. The form should have an area for Fees and an area for Expenses. Itemize your expenses and provide the necessary documentation. Do NOT send an invoice that just lists a total for expenses and no explanation. If the job covered several days, then break your fees down by days as well. By all means, submit your invoice in a timely manner.
There are many other ways to set yourself apart as an assistant. Perhaps some of my colleagues and visitors can suggest some here. Suffice it to say that if you at least follow the basic ten above, you’ll be on your way.