Guest post by Demetrius Fordham
Like many young, aspiring photographers I thought I’d move to New York from Colorado and start reeling in the ad campaigns, editorials and magazine covers. That was six years ago. And while I’ve shot some cool editorials and ad campaigns here and there, photo assisting is still my bread and butter, like many other photographers I know.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I’ve found it’s a steady way of earning some decent cash in the photo industry while building up my portfolio. It can help you get your bearings in the highly competitive business of commercial and editorial photography, help you build your network and allow you to work alongside some excellent photographers. Plus, it’s a great “first step” in deciding whether or not you actually want to pursue a career in photography (4am call times are not for everyone and you’ll find that out pretty quick).
So if you’ve decided that you want to foray into the crazy world of photo assisting, whether it’s to earn some money or your photo stripes or both, here are a few tips I’ve learned on how to succeed as a photo assistant, thanks to my six years of assisting photographers like Sheila Metzer, Finely MacKay and Doug Menuez.
One: Forget pricey photo schools
Yeah, you heard me. Ditch those photo schools and programs you’d drop thousands on to allegedly “learn the ropes” and just get out there. Technical expertise is taught best on the job. So go out and get yourself one: go to your local photography rental house with an equipment room, or hit up photography studios. (In big cities like New York and Los Angeles, there are literally hundreds). These are great places to learn the ins and outs of lighting, digital and the latest professional camera gear. Slog it out long enough at these places and you’ll meet like-minded photo assistants and photographers that you’ll find can be some of your best resources. Which leads me to my next tip.
Two: Network with other photo assistants
I got my first photo assisting gig through another photo assistant who I’d met at a studio where I’d been putting in some hours. See, photographers will often ask the first assistant to pick his second and third assistants. So if you have some good contacts in the industry, it’s safe to say that you’ll also get some decent and regular work. I’ve learned that a network of a few solid photo assisting buddies goes a long way. And it goes without saying that when you start to book your own photo assisting gigs (or better yet, your own shooting gigs) you’ll throw a bone their way, too.
Insider tip: If there’s a particular photographer you want to assist for, then do some casual research. Look them up on LinkedIn or Facebook (Photo Assistants Association on Facebook) and find out who their studio managers or first assistants are (these guys are the ones who do the freelance assistant hiring). Chances are, you’ll have a common friend or two. Go buy them a drink. Everyone likes a free drink.
Three: Get on the radar of production companies
Contact production companies that specialize in photo shoots, tell them you’re a photo assistant and you’d like to be placed on their assistant’s list. After some vetting on their end, you’ll be placed in a database. It’s sounds overly simple, but from personal experience there is a lot of work that comes directly from production companies. Why? Because photographers are lazy. They don’t want to worry about minutae and trust their producers to handle all of the logistics of a photo shoot. This will bode well for you.
Four: Check your ego at the door
Seriously. ‘Assist’ is the key word. You are the photo assistant, not the photographer (you’ll have your time soon enough). In the meantime, learn how to respect someone else’s shoot and follow instructions. This includes checking your cellphone at the door. Don’t answer your phone on set, don’t Instagram, Facebook or text. This is not your set. This is surprisingly hard for some photo assistants to learn.
Five: Do your homework
Research your photographer. Go online and find out their style of photography, the kinds of lighting and camera they use, and ask other assistants they’ve worked with about their digital workflow. As you continue to work with the same photographers, you’ll begin to anticipate their moves and requests before they ask you: but before you get to that point, it pays to do some research.
Go out and get some of the basic tools you’ll need on set. The more you work, the bigger your kit will grow, especially if you’re working on the digital end of things – assorted cables, cube taps, tape, tools will quickly fill your kit bag – but in the meantime, get yourself some set gloves, and a multi-tool, like a leather man. Trust me.
Before you go on set, make sure you’re an expert at your equipment. Ensure you know how every piece of equipment works, and if you don’t know, ask. Small mistakes can cost time and therefore money – remember you’re there to help speed the process along, not hinder it.
Have an eye for detail: little things like double-checking the photographer’s camera to make sure it’s set to .raw and not .jpeg. Take note of where power settings are on flash packs. Have small reflectors, nets and other light-shaping tools on hand at all times to accommodate subtle light changes as needed.
Six: Learn and remember
Though it’s easy to get caught up in the fine details of the job, it’s also important to actively take stock of the things you learn as an assistant – from the business of making a production work, to how to achieve certain lighting, to adopting techniques for creating certain types of images – so that you can apply them to your own shoots one day. You learn so much about the business and technical side of the industry just by being around sets all day, and this knowledge will serve you well.
Seven: The photographer is always right
Know this, and you’ll keep getting hired.