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HOW TO BECOME A PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT – PART TWO

Hello everyone, welcome to part two of “How to become a professional photography assistant – Oh shit, I’m on set!”. In the previous post we covered how to approach a photographer to assist up to the stages of landing your first assisting job. For those initial steps check out the post here. For the rest of us, continue on.

Let us slip right to where we left the last post – you had been offered a assisting gig. Get your pack on, ego radar out and muscles pumped because you are going to be a photography assistant. In this post I’ll share how to wrangle gear, software, hierarchies and what expectations a photographers will have of you.  Along with everyones favourite how NOT to get fired.

What a photographer wants in a assistant:

Max_Milne_Advertising_Photographer_Assistant-3
My bum on the Ladelle campaign shoot.

A photographers desires a assistant that can help facilitate a creative space. A creative space where the photographer makes the decisions and you help them become a reality. In a way –  your job is to be a protector of this creative space. So how do you do this? By handling all of the obstacles between the photographer and their creative freedom. You will need to be able to respond to situations appropriately. Sometimes actively, other times passively and be comfortable with taking directions. AKA (I’m not yelling at you, I’m just asking you to do something.)

As a photography assistant you will be switching between personal assistant, pack horse, lighting designer, coffee runner and more. I remember a time I had to nimbly speed a photographers 4WD through Melbourne’s back alleys, pick up the (Hassle)Blad left at the studio, drive back to the Park Hyatt, act cool and hand the camera to the photographer just as the captain of the Socceroo’s was coming out of hair and make up for the first shot. Be ready for the unknown.

A photographer expects a TOP assistant to:

  • Carry their gear
  • Edit photos faster than they can
  • Know about all variants of equipment so they are one step ahead
  • Have an extensive assisting kit
  • Be a bouncing board for ideas
  • Make them look good in front of client/agencies by presenting a united front
  • AND remembering peoples coffee orders

What you need, and need to know:

Photography Assistants kit
The assistants kit – my bag got all the sweets

So speaking about extensive assisting kits. Let us cover what is a kit that will help you save a photographers ass, and in-debt them to you for life. A.K.A. my (Hassle)Blad moment. The best thing about the assistant kit is you are building your own ultimate photographers tool kit. So, where to start? My first kit consisted of a roll of gaffer tape, a small loewepro bag, notes book and a phone and evolved to what is listed below.

BASIC:

  1. Stylus Black Camera tape
  2. Nashua Gaffer tape 
  3. Leatherman
  4. Grey card

IDEAL:

  1. Tapes:
    1. Stylus Black Camera tape – for using on fragile surfaces
    2. Nashua Gaffer tape  – for sticking everything down
    3. Hystick Masking tape – for marking on floors
    4. Electrical tape – anything electrical
  2. Clamps:
    1. 6 x medium spring clamps
    2. 3 x large spring clamps
    3. 3 x super clamp
  3. Tape and clamps holder
  4. Leatherman or equivalent
  5. Measuring tape
  6. Grey card 
  7. Electronic bits
    1. Spare tethering cable USB 2.0 and USB 3.0
    2. Backup SD and CF cards and external HDD
    3. Back up Eneloop AA and AAA rechargable batteries
    4. Smart phone
    5. Black Diamond head torch
    6. Sekonic light meter
  8. Lens cleaning cloth and dust removal blower
  9. Bag options:
    1. Lowepro 400 AW
    2. What ever fits all your and gear and is easy to access

**I am not affiliated by any companies and have just linked to products that I use and recommend. eBay usually has a better deal.

Equipment – heavy lifting:

Theresa Harrison second assisting on a Ladelle campaign
There is only so much I could say, and a lot you need learn through hands on experience. This comes from being on set with gear. Gear costs a shit ton, weighs a shit ton and involves hauling it over hills, just cause. Honestly, anyones first time attempt at a softbox will be hilarious for those watching, and feel like the rubix cube of fabric and metal rods for you. The more you get your hands on the gear the better. DO, DO, DO, DO learn from someone who knows what they are DOing. So you don’t kill yourself or the equipment. Ideally you will learn all of this from the one set ambassadors of patience – the first or second assistant.  If you can get your hands on gear to have a play with then I recommend learning how to do/use the below. And if not, then at least do some research so your recognise the equipment.
  1. Stands:
    1. Boom stands and counter weights
    2. C-Stands – in all there various compromised positions
    3. Manfrotto double wind ups
  2. Modifiers:
    1. How to tie a scrim to a frame
    2.  Setup a Octa/Softbox
  3. Lighting gear:
    1. Bowens
    2. Broncolor
    3. Profoto
  4. Cameras:
    1. Canon 5Ds
    2. Nikon D810
    3. Phase One
    4. Hasselblad
  5. Computers:
    1. Apple anything and everything.

Software – A monopoly:

It is a non-debate amongst the professional elite in advertising photography that they all use Capture One Pro. So, go out, get the trial, and pump some digital keyboard iron and learn it.It tethers up with all camera systems and is made by Phase One. That is the industry standard. Game set and match.

 Shit! I’m on set – what to do and what not to do:

Photo of me assisting on a Zac Stone on a Discount Universe shoot.

“Oh shit, I’m on set of my first assisting gig and I brought all the wrong stuff. And WTF is a c-stand? I doesn’t even look like a c.” My thoughts first time on set.

You have undertaken the hard yards, got your kit packed, street wised on the gear and are entering a professional advertising photography set for the first time. Gear being loaded, make up artists swishing, stylists plucking and the direction of the photographer surround you. Your job is to meet the photographer and find out what they need. Remember you are helping to maintain a open and flowing space for creativity. If you are second or third assistant I suggest you get to know the assistant above you and direct questions and suggestions to them. Remember, creative space for the photographer involves speaking with less people. This usually means one assistant is the photographers mouth piece to the other assistants. Yep, get used the hierarchy. Australian sets are a curious mix of self depreciating positivity mixed in with a casualness that shows up as real hard work. You’ll probably be either under or over whelmed by the amount to do. Just keep on your toes and be ready to go. Each photographer is different in the way they direct, ask, yell, invite or demand things from their crew. You will suss it out.  A word about confidence in your own opinion – AKA – wanting to give advice. There is a very fine line between landing a slam dunk and digging yourself a hole. For example, I was so sure I was right that on one shoot I moved the photographers tripod to ready for another shot, there were doing composite shots for VW, and boy did I cop a spray. Don’t be me, don’t be that person. A benefit you have as being a assistant is a unique perspective that no one else can see, and usually you are dreaming up ways you would shoot it ‘better’. You are being paid to get on board the vision of the photographer and wanting to make them look good. If you are prone to sharing your opinion trying parking your opinion for your first three shoots and get to be friends with your photographer. A old saying say goes “Friends before feedback.”

Things to do on set:

Max_Milne_Advertising_Photographer_Assistant-6
Theresa Harrison handling some propping on the Ladelle campaign.
  1. Always turning up 10 minutes before hand.
  2. Asking if you don’t know.
    1. Handling equipment.
    2. Computers.
    3. Cameras.
    4. Tethering.
  3. Let the client, photographer and agency go first in all realms.
  4. Be friendly.
  5. Get to know your fellow assistants, they may well become you collaborators for life.

Things NOT to do on set:

  1. Hand out your photography business card.
  2. Use your phone for non-shoot related things.
    1. And if you do, do it in private, like a toilet cubicle.
    2. OR ask the photographer/first assistant if it is okay.
  3. Be late. Without the best real excuse ever.
  4. Get all chatty with the client or art director.
  5. Give advice.
    1. Feel it out. Make the photographer look smart. Offer the ideas to them directly and discreetly.

That’s a wrap:

So you have done it, wrapped your first day on set and learnt a bunch of things. Get ready for more.  Your valuable tool is to take behind the scenes photos and send them to the photographer for Instagraming  and  social media it up with fellow assistants.

Finally a quote:

“When I hear, “People aren’t ready,” that’s like telling a person who is trying to swim, “Don’t jump in that water until you learn how to swim.” When actually you will never learn how to swim until you get in the water. People have to have an opportunity to develop themselves… “ Martin Luther King, Jr, 1957.

Jump into the assistant waters and giving yourself the opportunity to flow down stream – to the unknowns.  When you become a photographer recall that your roots were in assisting and someone gave you your first opportunity. Feed back into the community with love. These posts are my giving back and are just a guide – my map over the world of photography – please take what resonates with you,  forge your own way and let me know how it goes. Comments below are open to all forms of opinion and discussion.

Up in the next GOLD ADVICE FROM PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS – PAST AND PRESENT are mini interviews with current leading photography assistants Lindsey Fisette of Miss Bossy Boots and Ryan Creevey of Hell Studios.

Thanks in post to Theresa Harrison, Lindsey Fisette, Ryan Creevey, Tom Franks, Archie Barry and Cassandra Smith.

One Comment

  1. The absence of flowery language and complex analogies is refreshing for a post such as this. Often when I have researched “how to be a pro photographer” my search will come back with a bunch of articles and videos all telling me something like “All you have to do is this and this will happen!” – often leaving me feeling overwhelmed. You just tell, and show, us prospect-assistants what we need to know and what to do. The images and lists are clearly laid out and easy to apply. Thanks again!

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