Advice for Photo Assistants: Chasing the Paper

- - Assistants

by Demetrius Fordham

After my guest post on general photo assisting tips, my inbox was flooded with suggestions and questions on different aspects of the industry. One of the themes that came up consistently in emails and comment threads was money: how photo assistants can ensure fair rates and timely payments, how to keep track of invoicing and billing, etc. While I don’t have all the answers, I’ve learned a thing or two about handling the money side of photo assisting, and have developed some guidelines and processes that have worked for me. Obviously, everybody goes about their business differently, so feel free to use this info as a jump-off point for further dialogue.

One: Ask the money questions up front

One of the most important things I’ve learned is to cut the bullshit and just ask the money questions right off the bat. You’re doing business, after all. Before you even accept the job, ask: What’s the day rate? Is there OT (overtime after ten hours)? Is the job advertising or commercial? (If money is being generated through the pictures that are being taken you should be compensated accordingly). Are the travel days paid? Also, get the billing details (are you invoicing the photographer, the photo agency or the production company?) up front, or at least before the job begins. That way, you can just seamlessly shoot off the invoice right after the shoot (I’ll talk more about this later). It sucks, but handling your business, literally, at the very beginning ensures that you’re not wasting brain space thinking about money on the day of, and that everyone’s on the same page. Payment-wise, anyway.

Two: Know your rates

In my experience, no matter how much money a company or publication has, many will still try to cut corners. You’ll also deal with photographers who’ll try to squeeze on rates. But if you know your rates, you’re less likely to get taken advantage of. For U.S. photo assistants, editorial (magazine) rates should be around $250 for a ten-hour day. It’s common to hear $200 or even $150 from some publications, and though this might have been fine in the 80s, there’s that pesky little thing called inflation. If you think your time and services are valuable, fight for that $250.

For advertising gigs, $350 for a ten-hour day is acceptable, but first assistants that work regularly for the same photographer can command day rates of $400 and upwards. Digital tech rates start at around $500 for a ten-hour day. While this might seem like a lot in comparison to the aforementioned assistant rates, the responsibility of organizing workflow and archiving and processing the entire shoot is worth that money. Also, after ten hours, time-and-a-half is the norm. Make sure you keep track of how many OT hours you’ve done so you can bill accurately and ensure you don’t get short-changed.

Three: Bill accurately, and ASAP

Bill directly after the job if possible, or within one day after. It goes without saying, but the sooner you bill, the sooner you get paid. (Also, this way the job is still fresh in everyone’s mind). Like I said earlier, it helps if you get all the billing details upfront.

A note on billing: the photo industry is not standardized and you can be confronted with a different system of billing and invoicing with each job. It’s important to find out whether you’re being treated as an independent contractor or an employee. If you’re an independent contractor, you’re treated as your own business and will be asked to provide a W9 form at the end of a job (I keep one scanned on my desktop, signed and ready to go, so it’s easy to attach to an email). You’ll later receive a 1099 form from your client, so you’ll be able to reconcile your taxes. Alternatively, you could be treated as a temporary employee: this comes with the added benefit of having your taxes already deducted from your “paycheck,” and instead of a 1099, you’ll get a W2. Just some things to note, which leads me to my next point.

Four: Get organized. OCD-like organized

Unless you’re one of the rare salaried assistants out there, then, like me, you’ve got to make this freelancing thing work for you. This means keeping your shop in order: scrupulously tracking all your outgoing invoices, monitoring what money you’ve received and what payments are still outstanding, etc. I use Blinkbid which I think is a pretty sweet billing program for photo assistants and photographers. It keeps track of all of the above and allows you to send email reminders when payments are due. Keeping everything organized will also allow you to keep an eye on your steady revenue stream (or lack thereof), which is crucial for freelancers like us.

Five: Chase that paper

Even if you’ve followed all the steps up until this point, the sad truth is that there’s no guarantee you’ll get paid when you want, even if you’re getting the rate you want. Often studios, locations and equipment rentals all get paid up front, so it boggles me why photographers and their assistants should wait – but that’s the reality. That said, don’t wait more than 30 days to get paid. If you’ve hit the three-week mark and still haven’t gotten your check, follow up with a quick email.

Realistically though, payment can sometimes take over 30 days. I’m not going to lie: that’s annoying as hell. In these cases, if it’s a client I’ve worked with before and I know are truly trying to get me paid, I’ll let it slide with weekly friendly reminders until I get my money. This typically works, and I’ll usually get paid a couple of weeks outside the initial 30-day mark. Should it take any longer than that, I strongly suggest you sign up for Square. It’s a smartphone app/device that allows you to accept credit card payments, which will give the photographer, production company or agency the ability to pay you while buying them time (ideally with the money they receive from their client, by the time their bill is due. But that’s not really your problem). Any longer than 60 days and I’ve known assistants take the matter to small claims court – also the route I would take, but thankfully, I haven’t been in that situation.

If you have any more tips or questions on how to handle money, invoicing and billing, or finances in general as a photo assistant, feel free to comment below or get discussion flowing on the Photo Assistants’ Association Facebook page.

There Are 35 Comments On This Article.

  1. As a point of reference:
    The day rate for a First Assistant in NYC. in 1986 was $175.00 payment end of the day.
    So don’t let anyone tell you that $175.00 is a going rate 27 years later cause it’s not.
    And payment from photographer is still end of day. Anyone telling you they pay you Net 30 or when they get paid is a pretty good indication that they are not financially solvent and should be avoided. This based on past lessons learned.

    It should also be noted that Experienced Lighting Technicians which is the new position for extremely experienced photo assistants get around $1600.00 a day plus expenses.

    James Sullivan
    1prophoto.com
    1procrew.com

      • Every assistant runs their business the way they see fit.
        And makes the choice to either except the payment terms of the photographer or decides to have the the client (photographer) pay invoices per the assistants terms.
        We are all free to decide whether to take a job or to decline it if we do not like the day rate or the terms pf payment.

        I recommend assistants get a PayPal account and send invoices that way.
        Increase your day rate to cover the 3% Paypal fee.
        This way there is no reason to wait to get paid.

        Assistants are in the business to make money, NOT to provide charity or to carry a photographer.
        When you go into B&H to buy something the money is off your credit card before you hit the door.
        When you rent from Calumet that rentals fee too is off of your credit card before you get out the door.
        SO WHY then should the lowest paid and hardest working people on the photo production crew have to wait to get paid.
        If a photographer can’t afford to pay his assistants then he should not hire them and do the heavy lifting (and lighting) themselves.

        • Shane Kislack

          I agree with the concept whole heartedly. However, it’s easier said than done when you are trying to make a living. I didn’t post that to be contrary necessarily…just to manage expectations. The industry is so flooded with people that want “in”, that they’ll make this sacrifice. So if you are the one asking for end of day payment…you may not get called back. It’s a big industry…but it’s also a very small industry.

          I was on a 4 day shoot recently where I incurred some expenses and had a few days with OT…I can’t imagine trying to do the accounting on the spot and not forget anything.

          I also want to bring up another point, especially about fringe benefits. Two scenarios: 1, I’ve made agreements with close photographers that I can use equipment when they don’t need it. Then I’ll cut them a break on travel days or when they do pro bono. Works out great for both parties. 2. I was on a 5 day shoot in NYC (I’m an out of towner, NYC is still special to me) and two days open in the middle. The photographer treated me first class along with himself on our days off, taking me to a ball game and a broadway show.

          I think the point is, make the deal you can live with.

        • I don’t know live in the US so maybe it’s different there but where I live I can rent lighting from a rental place or have film processed at the lab and then get them send me a bill that is payable within 30 days. I think that is pretty common practice in most areas of business.
          The reasoning behind it, I think, is that most people who run a business have a specific day scheduled each month where they sit down and pay all their bills instead of paying each one when it arrives.

    • Sorry, its a great thought.

      But I do not know anyone that continually gets paid same day. Big or small production level.

      The only stories I hear is that in NYC this still happens, sometimes.

      I’m totally fine with net 30, but get grumpy anything past that.

      • In order to get paid at the end of the day, You need to ask for it.
        And if they say no then you need to have the conviction to walk away from that job.
        Truth is that if a photographer really wants to work with you and your skills they will pay, unless they are simply looking for a body to be on set.
        Again, if they want you they will pay.

  2. On the west coast, LA in particular, rates can sometimes be truly abysmal for assistants (literally below poverty level, but that’s mostly because of the Hollywood effect). Here in SD I expect to pay at least $25/hr, minimum 4 hours (for all of the hours they work, not just on set) for an assistant who can handle things like a pro. If it’s a decent production, then I can also bill and pay accordingly. I am very happy to pay by check or credit card swipe at the end of the day. No problem. It’s actually much easier for me that way. Besides, an assistant fee is not going to break my bank account, and I want any good assistant to be very happy when I call.

    Also, definitely get the Square, (or I use the new Paypal swipe). They work GREAT and I use them to add on services all the time, right there on the shoot. You can too.

    I see absolutely no reason that a good assistant should not expect at least partial, (if not full) payment the same day (in advance even, if you are not totally comfortable). Unless you already have a good relationship, and a history of timely payment, that’s just smart business.

  3. If the very first words from an assistant were about the money, I would strike he or she from my call list. I pay top rates but I expect an assistant to want to know about the shoot, how they help, to think through the possibilities and add input.

    I use the APA payroll service. The assistant fills out a couple of documents and the money is in their account usually within 48 hours. APA Payroll also covers that assistant for Workers Comp.

    Try that end of day payment requirement in California and you can be on the hook big time for a full-time employee and related fines and taxes.

    There is some solid advice in this article, but it is also adversarial and does not take into account regional differences.

    I lost a very nice annual report shoot in the Midwest because I quoted a fair rate for the assistants. The other photographer bidding for the job paid his assistant less than the going rate. He got the job and I received a phone call from the client a week after the shoot.

    Guess what: I re-shot the job because the guys assistants were unprofessional and happened to leave a much needed piece of gear behind in the photographer’s studio. I don’t know, but to me, it would seem pretty simple to check list your gear and double check your cases to make sure they included your strobe heads.

    Penny wise and very pound foolish.

    California

    • Bruce, I think it’s a given that the assistant ask the details about the shoot itself but I think the point is to ask about the money too at the beginning. Many new assistants like myself at one point will shy away from asking those questions and as a result have gotten less than what I should have and what Id anticipated

  4. I’m an assistant in larger city in the Midwest and I would say the going rates here are comparable to those Demetrius stated, at least for an assistant with some experience. If I was just starting to assist, I would charge less.

    Demetrius, or anyone with an opinion on this, I’m wondering about your feelings on weekend shoots and night shoots. Do you charge more when you work on the weekend or overnight? And if so, how much? It seems to me like every photographer and assistant has a different system when it comes to billing nights/weekends.

    And what about travel days? Again, whether to charge or not, and how much, seems to vary quite a bit from person to person. Is there a standard?

    Thanks for the great post Demetrius!

    • Every day traveling is a day you can’t be assisting someone else or working on your own career. I always charged a full day for travel unless I was really tight with the guy and there were other fringe benefits.

      • Thanks for the reply Shane. I agree with you, if I wasn’t traveling I could be potential working a full day with someone else, and then I get to go home to my family at the end of the night. However, I’ve heard people offer a half day, or even nothing on a travel day. Just wondering if others have encountered this. I think a full day is fair though. And like you said, for the right photographer (someone that pays me on time and treats me well) or the right situation, I can be a flexible.

  5. Good article all around. My experience as a commercial photographer in LA for 10 years:

    Those rates are accurate, at least in big cities. D- overnights and weekends don’t get special treatment. That would be half the jobs we do. Travel days are usually the full rate, but I often ask for a 1/2 day rate if the budget is less than ideal. I see that as asking a favor, and it will depend on the rest of the job- is it enough days to make up the favor, etc.

    I have been called by the State of CA on the employee / IC question. The bottom line- do not pay individuals, only pay companies. A company has a business license and insurance. Many full-time, experienced assistants will meet this test, and for the rest of them, I use the APA payroll service. Many guys gripe about taxes taken out immediately, but they actually end up paying about 8% less taxes, because the employer (me) pays half the employment tax (I think I got the terms right). For me, the downside is I am paying 21% more for my crew, which I don’t mind at all, unless I lose a bid because my crew costs were 21% higher than Johnny Cutcorners.

    The rate should be discussed right after the scope of the job is discussed. Agreed, it shouldn’t be the very very first question. But it is a better question than “what time is lunch?”

    • Jeff, thanks for your response to my questions.
      And I definitely agree with you about discussing rates early. It is much better than a photographer or assistant being surprised, and possibly upset, later. If I a call from someone who doesn’t know my rates, I usually get the job details and then ask, “Are you okay with____?”. I feel that leaves it open for a discussion if need be.

  6. “do not pay individuals, only pay companies.”

    That’s really good advice.

    Yes, you can definitely get in trouble with labor laws if you do not keep your ducks in a row. The scariest part is that the laws (here in CA at least) are shockingly arbitrary and convoluted by definition, and not consistent across the various government agencies that enforce the laws.

    Here’s a link, just for fun:

    http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/faq_independentcontractor.htm

    Jeff put it very well. If you are even remotely unsure, it’s pretty easy to pay someone as an employee through an online service that handles everything, including the paycheck and the transfer of funds. You can do it for anyone you pay to do anything, even domestic help and babysitters.

    I’m pretty sure though that most assistants actually don’t want to work as employees. They make less money. Following the advice to register, get a business license, get insured, and become a real business (even just a one person sole proprietor business), and then behave like a real business, is the most valuable piece of advice here. It does everyone justice, across the board.

  7. Thanks Nathan. But how does an employee make less money? I know it *feels* like less money, because you get that paycheck minus 30% or whatever in taxes, but it’s the same taxes you’d pay in April anyway. Actually less, like I said, because the employer pays part of the taxes. And you could still deduct things like travel expenses, equipment purchase, meals, etc, right? I’d love to know if there’s something I’m missing here!

  8. I don’t live or work in CA, but I’ve always kept track of how much I pay any individuals for Federal Tax purposes. Anyone over $600 and you need to report the income. A TON of stock photo agencies were screwing that one up for years, many still do…

  9. hm…i´d ay the rate of the assistant depends on the job…same as my rate is also, lets say `flexable ´…if an assistant would ask for more than 250€ i wouldn´t take him…

    i pay my assistants full travel days, they get a proper meal and a break, they stay in teh same hotel and fly the same class i do and i pay my assistants when i got paid by the client…i´m not a bank…if i rent equipment or buy equipment ( in germany ) i get an invoice wich has to be paid within 30 days…thats the business i´d say!

    • I guess the question is what do you do if the client doesn’t pay within 30 days? Do you make the assistant wait for his payment? After the 30 days period the rental place doesn’t care whether or not your client has paid you. They just want their money. Same with assistants.

      • If the photographer is smart, they have a written contract and take them to court. He’ll have to eat the expenses himself until he wins some kind of payment if any.

  10. Been Tech’ing in NYC with huge and emerging photographers for years. I’ve seen everything. Most of the advice here sated is spot on but I will say there is a serious pinch happening. Some studios are charging the client te full tech rate of $500 but only paying the tech $300-$350. Many photographers expect the half day rate for travel days. I remember the day it was $350 minimum or full rate of the budget was as job level for travel days. Then and now if you have to power up that computer, it’s a working tech day. Charge full day rate no questions asked. Travel days are stressfull enough and we all do enough lugging of gear, checking and double checking of it to earn that half to full rate but if we are expected to actually start Tech’ing and assuming the responsibility of managing the workflow of the shoot that earns a full rate.
    I definitely agree with the advice that flexibility of rates is subject to what you need and what you get in return. If you need the work and happen to nOT be working on that day, take the low paying studio gig. If they are booking you in advance fight for a better rate. If you work with someone often and they wanna pay you the minimum ask about something in exchange like using their awesome camera to test with.

    This industry is hard enough and the last thing any of us need is cannibalization of rates from desperate or uninformed people taking jobs for well below standard rates. That reinforces the practice and hurts everyone’s paycheck.

    Last thought…keep the community building going. This career path is so perilous we need to work together to keep the standards sustainable.

    First time reading this but no where close to the first time preaching this.

    Keep up the good work and the good fight people.

    • Digitech, thanks for the great advice. I just wanted to chime in here, because I am one of those who said that I am flexible. I just want to be more specific with my message so I don’t miss construe what I was originally trying to say.

      I am flexible but only for those that are great to work for, pay on time, and give me a lot of work. One-third of my income last year came from one single photographer. Another photographer I work for gives me great business advice, and I value that. Both guys are great to work for, and always pay on time (net 30). If they need something extra – half rate travel, working late without OT pay, maybe helping out on a test – then I am usually happy to do it. It is rare that they would ask, but sometimes they do, and I’m okay giving a little extra if can help out a lot. The great working relationship has to be there though. With new clients or photographers that don’t call me as much, I won’t negotiate my rate. I’m running a business, or trying to anyway.

      “…keep the community building going. This career path is so perilous we need to work together to keep the standards sustainable.”

      Absolutely, thanks for stating that.

  11. I assist in LA, and yes the rates listed here are fairly accurate. Although I would never take less than $250 for editorial, and usually get $300. Rarely get over $350 for advertizing. I ALWAYS talk about day rate and overtime during the first conversation with the photographer, although usually at the end.

    I will say that the idea of getting paid the day of the shoot just simply isn’t realistic. About one out of 10 photogs pay on the spot, and usually it is a smaller editorial photographer. With certain car photographers, or department store productions, payments can take up to 90 days. I could hold my breath and not accept those terms all I want, but I would lose about 90% of my work. That being said, 90% of my guys pay in less than a month.

    I would also point out that these rates haven’t changed in over 15 years, from what I’ve been told. Editorial jobs, where you get $250 often with no overtime, very few if any breaks, and 10 or 11 hour days, are very taxing. Considering you get no benefits, no job security, no guaranteed work days, inconsistent hours, etc… it’s not great pay. Unionized crews in the movie industry are treated and paid far better.

    • Brnadon said: I would also point out that these rates haven’t changed in over 15 years, from what I’ve been told. Editorial jobs, where you get $250 often with no overtime, very few if any breaks, and 10 or 11 hour days, are very taxing.

      Editorial day rates for most shooters have not changed either. I shoot for a nationally known culture and lifestyle magazine and the day rate is $500.00. I can bill for just about any expense, but the creative fee is stuck at $500.00.

  12. I forgot to mention this in my earlier post. I’m now requiring clients to pay any other people / studios directly instead of me paying them and getting reimbursed later. If they balk at that idea (it’s in the written agreement), then you should assume they probably aren’t financially solvent, or at least on shaky ground, and look for another client.

    • You’re making your assistants bill your client? Wow, that’s terrible.

      If you’re accruing significant outlays up front, you should get an advance from your client.

        • I think you’ve misunderstood – the client agrees to pay any third parties directly, this is mostly for for big expenses like studio rentals etc… I also have payment turn around time set to net 15 days max to protect third parties from getting strung out waiting for payment, but in reality none of my clients wait that long to pay third parties. I have a sneaking suspicion you’re not a photographer who’s ever had to deal with being the guy everyone expects to shoulder all the financial risks of a shoot, even if you get some money up front, you’re still the one everyone expects to be the sole risk taker. Last but not least, I actually do have clients… My last shoot, the client paid all third parties DAY OF. The checks were on set ready to go the morning of, why? Because I made it happen. Just because I’m not the one paying doesn’t mean I can’t exert the forces required to protect the crew and myself for that matter.

          • When we accrue significant costs (say, over $500), the client pays an advance. I don’t burden them with suppliers, exception being talent as the talent agency has their own contractual needs. I don’t know why everyone would expect you to shoulder the upfront costs, no contractor works that way.

  13. I’ve been paid EOD once,

    What do you guys/gals think about half-day gigs with half-day rates? Its not like I could book the other half of the day…

    I currently do it, but the minute its past 5 hours I charge a day rate.

    All l can say is, don’t be a dick. Pay on time without being asked to.

    It all comes back to what I said in the other post, photogs that had a good stint as an assistant treat their assistants better. The ones that did, generally pay me on time, every time.

    And don’t be a douche and pay half a pay check because you got half the production cost in advance.

  14. As a photographer who hires assistants, let me make it clear that you will have to be damned good to get the kind of rates quoted. I have a select few assistants who have proven to be extraordinarily dependable, but I’ve also worked with many useless ones where it would have been better had they not been there at all.

    As with photographers, assistants are two a penny these days, so my advice to those starting out is to do your homework and offer an intelligent assisting service that delivers real value. Make sure you present yourself and represent the photographer to the highest standard – if you’re dependable, smart and hardworking, you will be valued. We all have our favourite assistants and there is a reason why: they are worth every penny – but they are very rare.