My Thoughts on Photo Assisting

I was speaking to my friend who has assisted me on a couple of shoots; one editorial, one wedding. He is trying to break in to the industry by assisting other photographers, but is currently working as a cook to pay for photography school. School, he admits, isn’t teaching him all that much. No surprise there. As many of us have discovered, whatever your vocation, we learn much more by ‘doing’ rather than absorbing information in a classroom setting. I understand that this is a generalization (I wouldn’t suggest an aspiring brain surgeon to drop out of med school and know that some photography programs are excellent and have graduated many talented photographers), but for certain skills, there’s no better way to learn than to jump right and get your feet wet. Photography is a perfect example.

I know of many people that have spent a lot of money on photography programs only to graduate with no sense of direction and end up working at the photo booth at WalMart – not that there’s anything wrong with this per se, but I doubt any Karsh hopeful is aspiring to coax smiles from crying children while sporting a clown nose in a studio stuck between McDonalds and the XXXL clothing section. My point is rather cliche but true – School can teach you some skills but it rarely, if ever, teaches you how to prepare for the real working world or how to effectively ‘sell yourself’ to prospective employers. That’s the thing you gotta learn in the real world – something I too am always learning.

My conversation with my friend had me asking a few questions of my own: What is it that I look for in an assistant? Why have I chosen certain assistants over others? What skills are important to me and why? For me, it comes down to these points:

An assistant must bring something to the table other than an eagerness to learn, ‘break into the industry’, and help out. Though enthusiasm is important, it can’t end there. There has to be something special that they can offer: To me the 3 most important things are creative input, technical solutions, and high functioning social skills. That is what I find the most helpful – not just a willingness to carry gear and adjust lights when I need it done. For example, say I’m on a corporate shoot for a C.E.O. who needs a few portraits made in her office and around the building in which she works. What I’m going to be concentrating on is a) locations to photograph b) lighting possibilities c) arranging the frame d) keeping a good rapport with my client. I need to know that my assistant is also thinking about all those things too. Getting a good shot should be (almost) equally important to the assistant as it is to me and my client. Simply standing by and observing or waiting until your name is called is not what I call helpful. What is helpful in this situation is someone who speaks up and mentions, for example, “I saw this excellent area outside the building that would make a sweet frame – here’s a pic I snapped with my phone”, or someone who offers, “There’s no outlet in that room, but noticed one across the hall” … 

Beyond technical knowledge, a valuable assistant may be able to conceptualize or have ideas to bring to the table to make the shot(s) more special. When I’m in a pinch and trying to keep the energy level of my subject high, or need to take 10 minutes to scope out locations, a second shadow following me around isn’t much help unless we can have a discussion about how to solve creative problems we’re faced with (because as I’ve come to notice, 95% of on-location shoots involve lots of on-the-fly problem solving with regards to light, shadow, and backgrounds). My girlfriend and photo-assistant Justyna is great in these situations not necessarily because of her technical knowledge of strobes or F-Stops, but for her acute sense for the final image. She offers lots of creative ideas, excellent clothing styling skills, brings lots of props (to engagement sessions), is a voracious sponge for creative blogs, fashion editorials and ad campaigns and in turn is able to offer a cornucopia of ideas and references. This is invaluable to me and allows me to concentrate on the technical aspects of the job and the report with my clients. 

A previous assistant of mine named Nick Leadlay, is a 6’3” walking encyclopedia of technical knowledge for cameras, lighting gear, software, and lots more. When it comes to exploring solutions for light, gear, or by simply setting up strobes and modifiers with efficiency and self-motivation, he’s the guy to go to. He is also very enthusiastic about photography, and is a chatterbox with a friendly demeanor which is great for keeping the mood light on set.  He’s currently working as a professional assistant in Toronto for commercial photographers and works also as a retouch artist. He never went to school for photography, but like me, trolled through photo forums online, participated in discussions, learned about key concepts and built on them through a desire to improve and become well-versed in as many areas of photography as possible.

As a parting thought to aspiring assistants I might ask:

What do you bring to the table?

What can you offer? Why do you want to assist anyway?

Where do you see yourself going with photography? 

Who are your mentors?

*What strikes me as very odd are those who want to get into fashion photography but have no idea who this or that designer is, has no idea who top models are, or has no idea who their favorite fashion photographer is*

And lastly, something that usually throws me for a curve – When I receive phone calls or emails from aspiring assistants offering their services for free (disclosure: sometimes I do ask my assistants to work for free when it’s a creative or there is zero budget but for them to offer a free service doesn’t sit well with me). I would quite honestly rather pay someone to provide solutions and participate with confidence and enthusiasm. When I hear “I will work for free” I really hear, “I can’t offer you anything”. Obviously there will always be exceptions, but as a general rule, I tend to steer clear.

Until the next post amigos…


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