The Photographer's Assistant: Tips For Assisting on a Photo Shoot

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Many new photographers question how they can break into photography on a professional level when they have little to no experience with photo shoots. The best way to gain the knowledge and hands-on experience needed to conduct photo shoots of your own is to become a photographer’s assistant.


Above Image: On the shoot with a photography assistant Yann Bizeul

I have found my assistants to be invaluable help to me during my photo shoots, whether they are setting up my lights or sets, helping me remedy impromptu situations, capturing behind-the-scenes images and holding a reflector on my model. Almost anything can become a photo assistant’s task at any time before, during or after a photo shoot.

The Benefits of Being a Photographer’s Assistant

A photographer’s assistant gig can provide an immeasurable learning experience to a budding photographer while building their confidence in their skills for later conducting their own photo shoots. For small photo shoots, test shoots and TFP (time for prints) shoots, many photographers take on assistants that are savvy about camera gear, but who may lack experience with lighting equipment allowing an assistant the opportunity to learn on the fly.

Sometimes a photo assistant has the task of capturing behind-the-scenes photos. Model: Shoko Fujita Chelsea Jackson (left), and Dawn M. Wayand (right)

“I am able to achieve hands on learning from the instruction of the lead photographer down to just noticing things and throwing out suggestions that sometimes pan out in the shoot. It is so useful, especially since I may not have the expertise, yet, to execute the shots quickly, and well, but the idea might be solid in concept,” says photographer’s assistant, Chelsea Jackson. “You also have the benefit of working on a shoot, earning credentials to help verify you and you have far less stress (versus the lead photographer).”

Possible Expectations of a Photographer’s Assistant

A photo assistant must be a talented multitasker as their job can sometimes be very stressful, especially when a photographer relies heavily on an assistant to help pull together a photoshoot. Some of the photo assistant’s tasks may entail:

  • Arranging permits to shoot in permit-specific locations
  • Arranging catering for a photoshoot
  • Getting model releases executed
  • Carrying and transporting gear and equipment
  • Assembling modifiers
  • Setting up lights and adjusting their settings during a shoot
  • Testing and maintaining equipment
  • Building photoshoot sets
  • Changing backgrounds or seamless paper or setting up v-flats
  • Managing cords and wires to prevent tripping on them during a shoot
  • Being a second set of eyes for discovering problems with captured images while reviewing them on a screen if the photographer is tethering
  • Holding a light or a collapsible reflector
  • Anticipating problems and correcting them as soon as possible
  • Photo editing on the fly and
  • Shooting behind the scenes images on a photo shoot
Photo assistants are needed to hold a reflector on a subject. Model: Daria KomarkovaYann Bizeul (left), and Dawn M. Wayand (right)

A successful and desirable photography assistant usually demonstrates the following qualities and skills:

  • detail-oriented and can quickly solve problems
  • has a positive and enthusiastic attitude
  • possesses a certain degree of knowledge about photography gear and equipment (the level of knowledge accepted varies by photographer) and
  • a consistent, professional attitude as they will come into contact with a photographer’s many clients, vendors and other key people during the course of a photography project
Photo assistants can help create the set, in this case, by creating fog with a fog machine. Model: Deeksha ChawlaChelsea Jackson (left), and Dawn M. Wayand (right)

“Generally you want to be out of the way, but also, do not hesitate to ask if there is something you do not understand and that would get in the way of doing your job. Some photographers are also willing to hear your thoughts and ideas, so take advantage of that as well,” says photographer’s assistant, Yann Bizeul, who worked with me as a photography assistant for a year.

Sometimes a photo assistant can become a prop in the image! Model: Shoko FujitaChelsea Jackson (left), and Dawn M. Wayand (right)

What to Ask Before Accepting a Photo Assistant Gig

It’s important to get on the same page with the person employing you, prior to accepting an assignment. Some questions you should ask include:

  1. “What is the date, time and location of the photo shoot and when am I expected to be there?” (It’s good to get more details about the location so that you can plan to bring any special items that may be necessary for a particular type of location (i.e. power adapters if a shoot is taking place abroad...)
  2. “What is considered a half day and full day?”
  3. “What are the rates for regular and overtime pay?”
  4. “How and when is payment for services tendered?”
  5. “Is there a specific dress code for the shoot?” (i.e. assisting on weddings might require more formal attire...)
  6. “What will be expected of me before, during and after the photo shoot?”

How a Photographer’s Assistant Prepares for a Photo Shoot

Every photographer’s assistant prepares for a photo shoot in a different way, however, some of the tasks that photo assistant Chelsea Jackson recommends prior to a photo shoot include:

  • Reading through the photographer’s and/or client’s concepts and instructions, then, spend some time searching the concepts for inspiration and to get a visual for what you might be dealing with
Behind the scenes of photographer sharing visual conceptsRobert Olsen
  • Confirm your role as the assistant - are there 2 of you - do you have different roles?
  • Confirm addresses and times of arrival
  • Look up the model to see what other work they may have done. Sometimes you need to be able to chat it up with the subject to help them relax. If this is a customer - then learn what you can about them and their likes. It can be a huge help to the lead photographer to sometimes have an assistant who can help with relaxing the client so they can focus on the shot and all of the elements. Think of the intangibles - that is what also makes a great assistant.
  • Remember you are there to learn, so bring a notebook and questions so you can make the most of this opportunity!
Photo assistant helping to build a set Model: Colleen CareriRobert Olsen (left), and Dawn M. Wayand (right)

What’s in the Typical Photo Assistant’s Gear Bag

Dawn M. Wayand

Other less obvious but handy things to include are:

  • A variety of mobile phone chargers
  • Notebooks, pens, pencils and permanent markers
  • Protective gear should inclement weather present itself unexpectedly
  • Small sewing kit
  • Small fan
  • Basic first-aid kit
  • A few music playlists via iPod, iPhone or to be streamed through Spotify or Pandora

“Charge EVERYTHING and bring a spare charger, memory card and battery as well as some light snacks and water, just in case,” recommends Chelsea Jackson.

Finding Photo Assistant Opportunities

Finding opportunities to assist on a photo shoot is not as hard as you might think. Below are a options for where to search for photography assistant gigs.

  1. Your school’s career service center. Sometimes photographers will post ads for assistant opportunities with photography students in mind.
  2. Networking events and parties. Attending these types of events, especially those where you know other photographers might attend may land you a conversation that leads to a job.
  3. Professional photographers’ organization memberships. Joining groups such as PPA (Professional Photographers of America), APA (American Photographic Artists), ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers), PSA (Photographic Society of America), Photo+ and/or others may provide job leads through their referral directories.
  4. Job search boards. Some job search boards such as Monster and Indeed may have listings for photo assisting opportunities from time to time

  1. LinkedIn. Connect with other photographers through LinkedIn and grow your network of opportunities for photo assisting gigs.
  2. Get referrals. Obtaining referrals from friends that may be photographers or assistants can be a plus in obtaining an assisting job.
  3. Meetup. Join photography Meetup groups and network over Meetup events.
  4. ModelMayhem. Create an account list your services and availability as a photographer’s assistant on websites like Model Mayhem. These assisting positions are sometimes collaborative and not paid but you can gain a great deal of experience and possibly referrals for paid work later on down the road.
When a hairstylist doesn’t show up, sometimes a multi-talented assistant steps in to help with the task. Model: Mao HanadRobert Olsen

Tying It All Together

“There are many ways you can produce a photo shoot,” says Bizeul. “You can try to learn to do it all on your own with basic equipment in a home studio environment, but having the opportunity to work with an experienced photographer and professional gear really gives you an idea of how important every element is during any stage of a photo shoot.”

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