Some wedding photographers work without an assistant; others say they can’t do their job effectively without one. How do you decide if or when you need an assistant? If the wedding is elaborate, has an enormous guest list, is spread out geographically in terms of the ceremony and the reception or if it requires special lighting for formal on-location portraits or is a signature event that will be covered in the local press, you're sure to ace your job with a competent assistant backing you up.
Typically, an assistant helps to transport equipment and set up lights, acts as a “voice-activated light stand” or key grip, a set dresser and prop person. An assistant can also act as a wardrobe assistant, adjusting the groom’s boutonnière or the drape of the bride’s dress, inevitably as a wrangler who gets people together for important shots, and an organizer who keeps the photographer on schedule. Assistants typically change batteries, keep track of memory cards and make sure that all equipment is ready and available for the photographer. Those who are capable of more are often used as back-up shooters.
What skills should a wedding photo assistant bring to the wedding? Certainly, a basic knowledge of photography and lighting is essential. You also need a person who can work amicably with you in a subordinate capacity, make a positive impression and can interact with and direct people in a respectful, cordial manner at all times. Organizational skills to keep you on your timetable, a driver’s license and experience with packing and transporting delicate equipment are big pluses. If you expect your assistant to take photographs, by all means check out their portfolio beforehand, since their images will be part of your package. An ideal assistant would be an experienced or aspiring wedding photographer who can take direction, but pro shooters with other specialties, students taking photography courses and serious photo enthusiasts with a knowledge of cameras and lighting are also good choices.
Generally you’ll need to supply everything your assistant needs for the job, with the possible exception of a camera, lens, flash units and tripod, if your assistant is an experienced photographer who’ll be a back-up shooter. Here’s a list of suggested assistant’s gear.
1. Back-up batteries for cameras, flash units, meters, etc.
2. Boompole for hair light
3. Extra cables. Be sure to include a PC sync cable just in case your wireless system acts up.
4. Memory Card Wallet. It’s handy for storing, protecting and organizing fresh and used memory cards. Example: Tamrac MXS5369 Wallet 8.
5. Camera/lens-cleaning blower. They’re travel safe and environmentally friendly. Example: Giottos Rocket Air Blower
6. Color Gels. They provide a quick, easy way to add warm, cool or color accents to main, fill and auxiliary light sources. Example: Rosco Strobist 55-Piece Filter Kit.
7. Gaffer Tape. Genuine gaffer tape is amazing stuff, and far better than any duct or electrical tape for heavy-duty uses like securing cables to walls, etc. It also leaves no adhesive residue behind. Example: Permacel/Shurtape P-672 Professional Gaffer Tape.
8. Leatherman tool. This multiple-use tool is great for unexpected setup glitches, adjustments and repairs on the fly. Example: Leatherman Wave Tool with Leather Case.
9. ExpoDisc, Color Checker, Gray Card. They’re for quickly setting cameras’ color balance to get consistent, accurate color in any light, and to calibrate cameras. Examples: ExpoDisc and X-Rite ColorChecker Passport.
10. Remote or Cable releases. They’re necessary to ensure sharp shots when shooting tripod mounted long exposures, especially with telephoto lenses. With electric/electronic releases, be sure they’re compatible with your and your assistant’s cameras.
11. Camera/Flash Bracket. They put the light source high enough above the lens axis to eliminate red-eye and harsh shadows, throwing the latter behind the subject. Some have a rotating platform for convenient vertical shooting and the best ones integrate camera and flash into a well-balanced, ergonomic unit. Example: Custom Brackets Digital Pro-M Camera Rotating Bracket Kit.
12. Off-camera TTL sync cable. Great to have as a backup to wireless and built-in slave triggers when using dedicated flash units off camera.
13. Power strip and power cables. Many locations don’t have enough sockets, and they aren’t always where you want them. Packing extra power cables and extension cords is always a good idea, especially when you and your assistant are shooting at an unfamiliar venue.
14. Universal Cold Shoe Adapter. Attach them to a light stand, tripod or monopod via the standard 1/4"-20 thread and you can mount any accessory with a standard slide-in shoe mount, including moonlights, speed lights, floodlights and spotlights, and point them in the right direction. Example: Vello Universal Accessory Shoe Mount.
15. Notebook computer. Essential for on-location downloads and image evaluation, possible on-location editing, and another popular option among today’s savvy wedding shooters—a slideshow of the ceremony during the cocktail hour. A 17” laptop computer can sometimes double as a display in lieu of a big screen for an intimate crowd.
16. Posing stool. Often used in portrait studios, their height is easily adjustable over a wide range and they’re great for wedding portraits, too, because the subject can be turned easily without changing his/her pose. Example: Impact Posing Stool.
17. Ladder/Hand Truck. A ladder is handy to have for adjusting draperies, windows, etc. that are too high to reach, and one that doubles as a hand cart makes it easier to get equipment cases and large items where you want them without a struggle. Example: Travel Smart LadderKart combination stepladder and hand cart.
Typically, assistants shoot candid pictures of the reception and set up and take shots from different angles than the primary photographer, such as shooting the aisle procession from the rear or getting overall shots of the ceremony from the balcony. It’s a role that varies, depending on the creativity, talent, experience of the assistant and the needs of the photographer. If your assistant will function as a second shooter, he/she doesn't necessarily require a full pro setup, but the equipment will vary based on the scope of their assignment. Here are some suggestions.
1. Prosumer camera. A full-frame DSLR is ideal, and there are now a number of models available that are aimed at serious enthusiasts as well as pros, such as the Canon EOS 6D. However, upper-tier APS-C-format DSLRs are also excellent choices. It’s a plus if the assistant’s camera uses the same lens system as yours so you can share lenses, but it’s not essential.
2. Reliable wide-to-moderate telephoto zoom lens. Those with an f/2.8 or faster maximum aperture are preferred for low-light shooting and creating pictorial effects, but the focal-length range is the critical element.
3. Fast prime lens for indoor and available light shots. Medium telephotos in the 85-105mm focal-length range and f/1.4-2.0 aperture range are ideal for single or double portraits. For general photojournalistic coverage, a 35mm or 50mm f/1.4 or f/2.0 lens is a good choice.
4. Batteries. It’s crucial to have fully charged back-up batteries for cameras and flash units—and make sure to pack the camera’s battery charger just in case. Also bring along a smart charger for rechargeable AA cells. Example: Sanyo Eneloop AA NiMH 4-Pack with AC Charger.
5. Memory. High capacity, high-speed memory cards are best for wedding photography, especially when shooting action or video. Bring more than you need.
6. A backpack or holster helps keep your assistant’s hands free, enabling him or her to carry or hold gear while serving as the second shooter. Example: Spider Camera Holster SpiderPro Single Camera System.
7. Tripod. If your main tripod is medium sized, have your assistant carry a monopod or a compact, lightweight travel tripod that can be pressed into service when needed. Example: Oben ACM-2400L 4-Section Aluminum Self-Standing Monopod.
Now that you have a better idea of what a wedding photographer’s assistant does, and what they need to do their job, should you hire one for your next wedding assignment? That depends largely on the specifics of the job; however, if you’ve never tried using an assistant before, you may discover that having a good one helps you do a better job and enhances your efficiency. In that case, it’s surely money well spent.
For more information on how to equip your photo assistant for a wedding shoot, speak with a sales professional at the B&H SuperStore in New York, on the phone at 1-800-606-6969 or via Live Chat.