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HOW TO BECOME A PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT – PART ONE

So you want to be a photographers assistant?

There are many ways to become a photographer. Some people jump into the traditional Uni/TAFE model, whilst others self learn through on-line guides such as Creative Live and others head to the good old method of learning from the masters by being a underling. Each avenue has its benefits, yet I believe if you are serious about developing a career in photography then all paths lead to the ritual of becoming a assistant.  Through assisting will enter you into a world of agencies, art directors, talent, co-creators etc. Where you will constantly be humbled by interpersonal challenges and the creative process. Step one? Get in the door.

Over two posts I will share a way I developed to become a photography assistant in advertising. This post will explore the psychology of the advertising photography world and how to make the first steps into that world. The follow up post will cover gear you’re likely to use, what to expect on set and general etiquette.  Assisting in advertising is a personal journey that took me all across Australia for four years. Where I packed up everything, moved to Sydney, started cold calling and learnt to tactfully tucking away left over catering for dinner when money was low.

A philosophy of advertising: 

Firstly, you need to know the advertising photographers worldview.  The objective of the advertising photographer is to create imagery that represents a brand, product and or service in the best possible light to meet a target audience and inspire them to buy the product. The final clients ideal is to gain larger market share and turn about a larger profit. The author of Affluenza, David Hamilton, speaks about ways in which audiences have been persuaded by advertising over time.

“In one of histories best-known experiments Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov conditioned dogs by sounding a bell while presenting them with food. After the procedure has been repeated several times the dogs would being to salivate as soon as they heard the bell. Advertisers are well aware of the power of association.”

Meaning photographers link margarine, soft drinks, jeans and cars with the kinds of emotions people like to feel. You will be asked to help co-create beautifully stunning artwork to help companies sell something. To whom you lend your services is based upon your choice.

Bendigo Bank Advertising Photoography

Advertising Culture:

The community of advertising sometimes has a bad name for being money focused and churning through people. It is true that advertising photography is well paid and a lot of time is spent negotiating estimates. The community still consists of human beings working together to a goal. It is the final intent that matters. The advertising community is similar to any other cliche the art world, activism, music etc. A famous Sydney advertising photographer summarised it to me in a meeting as “ Max, you better choose. Are you an Advertising photographer or Fine Art photographer? Because one day you will date someone who runs a magazine, and bang work will start rolling in.” Yes, jobs for friends is a big deal and applies as much to assisting as to shooting. The large majority of work will come to you through your associations.

Finding/hunting the photographer for you:

Advertising photographers - screen shot
This is the stage where you get to research and find out whom you really want to work for.
  1. Ask your self which area of photography do you want to work in?
    1. Get really specific and distill down to a phrase. Don’t worry your not locked in for life.
    2. e.g. “I want to work in surreal narrative driven advertising.”
    3. e.g. “I want to work in high end European fashion.”
  2. Research the photographers in your area that you admire the most, even if they feel WAY out of your league, and create a list of them.
    1. If no photographer inspires you in your local area then research others in a city/country that you are willing to move to.
    2. Research their work and make notes about what you enjoy and why. This will be handy for when you meet with them.

Entering the jungle via the phone:

Advertising photography assistant phone use

When I was assisting in Sydney I developed a communication process that landed me gigs with Gary Heery, Juliet Taylor, Toby Burrows and plenty of others. Essentially, it all came down to the tenacity of love. By love, I mean calling photographers to meet face to face. And by tenacity, I mean all the time. The best approach for people to take you seriously is to call them directly and quickly tee up a opportunity to meet.

Yes, you can send out the email spam to heaps of photographers and the chances are one or two might bite. I suggest, take the risk, stumble graciously whilst your voice falters and say. “Hey I love your work, I have this experience and I’d love to buy you a coffee to talk about assisting and etc.”. People will love you. I called a top advertising photographer 16 times before he decided to meet up. When we meet he didn’t care to who I had worked for or my experience it was the tenacity of love that counted. When starting out it is your intent of dedication to the craft of the photography rather than how greatly you can wield a C-Stand.

At this stage you are making the calls:

  1. Call the big leaguers and line up a time to have drinks and chats .
    1. Ask if they have any other leads for you to follow up.
    2. They may put you in contact with their agents.
  2. Only after doing the above do you search out assisting opportunities outside your target selection (woot market research)
    1.  Because you will have a good chance of landing 2nd or 3rd assistant gigs with top photographers more so than with photographers that only have one assistant.
    2. And why start with where you don’t want to work?
  3. Extras:
    1. If you need extra cash, find some other assisting work.
    2. Always keep shooting.

The simple script I used all the time to get straight to the point:

“Hello, my name is Max Milne. I’m a photographers assistant based in Melbourne.
I have two years experience assisting in Australia and am looking for photographers
to assist in Melbourne. When can I buy you a coffee to chat about the possibilities?”

How to price yourself:

In Australia geography and job type determine the amount of cash you will be paid. Usually your photographer will take a cut of your rate so don’t be offended if this occurs. Food should always covered by the photographer or client on the day. Also, you maybe asked to do test days. It is your choice to say yes or no, if you are just beginning I’d say yes to all opportunities.

Here is a general ball park figure for assisting rates in Australia per day

  • First assistant is between $200-$350 – averaging $250.
  • Second assistant is between $200-$250 – averaging $200.
  • Third assistant is between $150-$250 – averaging $200.
  • Digital operator is between $250-$500 – averaging $400.
  • If you travel out of state then the photographer will cover your expenses.

Example assistant CV:

Max Milne Advertising Photography Assistant

The first date.

All plans have been laid for you to meet a photographer at a local cafe. You are dressing minimally to impress. You arrive EARLY and order a drink. On the table is your portfolio, a copy of your assisting CV and rate card. In walks the photographer, eyes meet, heart flutters, this is what you have always dreamt of – a conversation with a master. Hands shake, voice trembles. Eventually you realise they are human. You wax lyrically as to why you admire their work. You want to assist them, not just anyone. They offer you a job coming up next week. A test, not paid, yet a opportunity. They leave and you take notes. It is your first time and you feel amazing. You congratulate yourself for taking the risk.

Now in reality there are probably more coffee catch ups than offers and more waiting than getting a gig right away. So be patient with your self and remember to keep on stumbling gracefully. As with dating, it gets easier as it goes along. You become more experienced, discover your ability to communicate and what a photographer needs to be satisfied.

Go out and get started making those calls and research those photographers you love and remember this when contacting photographers:

  1. They are forgetful and bombarded with e-mail requests for assistants.
  2. They want to know what you can actually do – don’t fudge your experience.
  3. They rely of word of mouth, a lot.
In the next post, to be titled “Shit! I’m on set.”,  I’ll share about what it is like to assist on a advertising set along with the gear you will encounter and learn to use on the way.
What has been your experiences of assisting? Any questions you have regarding assisting please ask below in the comments.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, I posted this to RMIT BA Photo page, hope thats cool. There isn’t enough information out there for those starting out so its great that you have taken the time. Cheers

    • maxm1 maxm1

      Thanks Phoebe! Great news. Yep, I’ll be doing another post in the next month. Feel free to ask any questions. All about the community feeling. M

  2. Really enjoying your blog posts! This is brilliant for all the newcomers to the industry. Thanks!

  3. maxm1 maxm1

    All comments from Facebook –
    Lucille Loveday
    ” Great idea!”
    15 May at 12:00

    Dan A’Vard
    “Great post Max. Thanks for being awesome.”
    15 May at 12:13

    Tanuki Futago
    “Thank u for this post!”
    15 May at 16:13

    Sam Hoff
    “Max your one of my favourites.”

    Ryan Creevey
    “This should be considered as valuable as gold to any assistant trying to break the advertising photography world. Nice one Max!”
    15 May at 18:09

    Thomas Franks
    “This is literally the only sound piece of advice that’s ever been shared on melbourne creative network – nice one Max!”
    15 May at 19:15

  4. A very human approach. The information you have provided is realistic, in-depth and achievable. The way you lay out the do’s and don’t as well as providing a template CV is fantastic – thank you!

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