So you’re an assistant…

Once or twice a month, I get an email from a photographer’s assistant who would like to work for me. And if you’re reading this, then you just might be an assistant yourself. Great! This blog entry is for you.

I’ve been meaning to write about assisting for quite some time. It’s been on my mind, and a couple of experiences I had not too long ago pushed it to the top of my To Do list. But more on that later. First, a little background.

Like most photographers, I started out as an assistant, and I did that for nearly six years. In my last year of college, I had the opportunity to work as a full-time assistant for one of the largest studios in Orlando, Florida. Not that I touched a camera in the first few weeks, mind you. Instead, I worked on the studio itself, since the company recently had landed a large contract. I spent my time painting, spackling, sweeping and mopping. Lots of mopping. And making the occasional bagel run for the crew.

Eventually, the real assisting began. It was a great experience, one that I still draw from. After about a year, however, the studio’s massive contract expired. They let me go, and I went out to freelance.

As most of you know, freelancing is a tough way to make a living. I did fairly well for about eight months of the year, but then I had to find a “real” job to support me for the remaining four months. A little luck did come my way; I started working for a very successful Florida-based marine photographer. Each year from May to October, I got to travel with the photographer and his crew, working first as a grip and later as an assistant on boat shoots. After three years, I was offered a full-time position. And boy, did I learn a lot in those years — about photography, boating and working my ass off, of course, but also about how to work with different personalities and how to build a successful team.

In 10 years since I started my own business, I’ve hired a bunch of assistants from all around the country for a variety of shoots. Some assistants were great, some were just OK, and a couple were ridiculously bad. So I’ve devised three simple rules for assistants to live by. These three are the most important rules while on a shoot, they are equally important, and if you break any one of them, you not only will never work with me again, but you might get sent home on the spot. Here they are:

• Do not oversleep
• Do not screw the client
• Do not lie to me (about oversleeping, screwing the client or anything else)

Simple, right? Funny thing is, one assistant of mine broke all three rules on a two-week yacht project. She found herself on a plane home the next day. Oops.

Another issue that troubles me greatly is the need some assistants feel to overstate their abilities. Here’s the thing: I would rather work with someone who doesn’t have experience than someone who tells me he or she is fully capable of doing the job, and then I find out too late that the person is drowning. Not only can that compromise the work, it causes me to scramble at the 11th hour and possibly even blow a deadline. For example: Someone contacted me this fall, wanting to work as an assistant and as a digital tech. I’d just finished a major shoot and was looking forward to developing a relationship with someone who could work on post-production. After he successfully completed an interview and a sample image, I took him up on his offer, sending him a batch of images to retouch, color correct and convert. Unfortunately, when the images were returned to me, I found out that the color was off on one third, another third hadn’t been dusted, and the final third hadn’t been done at all. This was 10 hours prior to my FedEx deadline for shipping out hard drives to my client. After a marathon work session, I was able to deliver complete, high-quality images to my client as promised; however, my relationship with the new support person came to a quick end.

The bottom line: If your experience has been limited to your own personal portfolio shoots or maybe a small project here or there, don’t tell me you have the experience to work on a international advertising campaign for a Fortune 500 company. Chances are, it’s not going to work out well for either one of us.

What will get you hired for a shoot? For starters, our personalities need to be a good fit. Typical shoot days are very long, we work our butts off, and on some shoots, the stress levels are enormous. If you’re not easy to work with, that will add to the stress. So: smile easily, be approachable, play nicely with others, have a keen willingness to learn and accept constructive criticism gracefully.

Second, you must be willing to work longer and harder than me. I’m not saying you’ll have to, but that’s the attitude you’ll need to bring to the shoot. No matter what it takes, the outcome of the shoot is the only thing that matters. Next, please understand that I will never ask you to do something that I haven’t done myself. No matter what the task is, I’ve been there, done that. Many, many times.

And finally, leave your business cards and your ego at home. You are not there to schmooze with the client. If you have a suggestion, I welcome your input, but it’s not appropriate to bypass me and go directly to the client. You’re here to learn and gain experience, not build your own business. This all should be common sense, and if I had my way, these things would be taught in photography programs everywhere. Unfortunately, they are not.

But hey, if this all sounds acceptable to you, and if your idea of fun is flying backward in a helicopter 6 feet off the water while trying to spot 10-foot-high channel markers (trust me, it happens), send me an email. We don’t do that everyday, but we usually do have a great time shooting whatever we’re asked to shoot. I’ve always said that I’ll do this for as long as I am having fun, and so far, I’m still having a blast. So feel free to contact me! I’d be happy to look at your work.

Cheers!

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