© Chris Birck
Assisting is a time-honored way of launching a career in the photo industry--as a photographer, of course, but also as a digital tech, studio manager, or producer. Photo assisting is competitive work, however, and the key to getting steady work as an assistant is to distinguish yourself on set from the start. We asked two photographers (both of them former assistants) and a studio producer for tips about how to break in as an assistant, and get called back over and over.
What interns and aspiring assistants often don't understand, says New York City photographer Jesse Dittmar, is that livelihoods and a lot of money are at stake on photo shoots. "It's not play time, it's not, hey, I get to meet all these cool celebrities," he says. "It's real work."
So act professional if you want to get hired (and re-hired), he advises. "Send professional e-mails and invoices, talk on the phone in a professional way. Treat every meeting like it's for a $50,000 job."
Therese Gietler, who is the producer at the Andy Batt's studio in Portland, Oregon, says assistants "have to have good phone skills and good e-mail skills" before she'll hire them, because those are good predictors of how they'll interact with clients on set.
"One [assistant] candidate answered his phone during the interview. I never hired the guy. He said, 'Oh, I gotta take this.' Really? It tells me you're going to answer the phone on set, too."
Gietler recounts another assistant who decided to take off his shoes in the middle of a shoot. "Andy had to go over and tell him to put his shoes back on," she says. "I have an assistant who fell asleep on set once. It reflected on us. It's hard to make people understand until they're in the same situation--if someone shows up late, they don't look bad. I look bad as a producer."
Los Angeles photographer Ari Michelson says he's often surprised (and put off) by the sense of entitlement of many aspiring photography assistants. "People are like, 'OK, I'll do you a favor, and [assist] on your shoot. How much are you going to pay me? Really? Whatever.'" If you want to work for top photographers on big jobs, he advises, consider yourself lucky and show an eagerness to work "because they can pick any other assistant" to replace you.
Mind the Pecking Order
Photographers usually have a chain of command on set to keep the shoot running smoothly. It's their way of delegating work and avoiding the endless distractions of small decisions and problems. "I post a crew list, in order of rank, so everyone understand what the pecking order is," Gietler says. "When you have a question or a problem, you don't go to Andy. You take it to the second or third assistant. And if they don't know the answer, they know [who to ask.]"
Focus On Your Work
"Your job is to do everything in your power to make the shoot easier, and help the photographer you're working for make the pictures better," Dittmar says. He goes on to explain that you can't do those things if you're on set taking pictures behind the scenes, posting to Instagram, texting your friends, flirting with models, looking over the client's shoulder, or engaging in any other tempting distractions. He says, "A lot of [young assistants] are looking more than doing, and that gets old quick."
Michelson says his first assistant "will go through third assistants like nobody's business" because so many novice assistants lack a work ethic. "You need that extra set of hands, but they're too busy looking through camera lens, or talking with the client, or flirting with stylist and models."
Stay Away from the Digital Tech
This is a special corollary to the "Focus On Your Work" rule. For young assistants, it is especially tempting to look over the digital tech's shoulder. "A lot of people want to see Polaroids and I was one of those guys. You see the lights around you, and you're like, 'Oh my god, what does that look like [in the picture]? It's a natural desire to have, especially if you're trying to learn," Dittmar says. "Looking over the digital tech's and the photographer's shoulders to make a decision about how to change the lighting--that's not your job. You're not working if you're looking at the images."
Shoots move quickly, especially editorial shoots, and there's no reason you shouldn't be doing something at all times while on set, Dittmar says. Equipment has to be set up, broken down, and packed away. Equipment cases and vehicles have to be organized.
"Learn the tasks," Dittmar advises. "Keep a check list of things that need to be done, then check it and double check it." And what if you're so new to the game that you don't yet know what all the tasks are? "Look to the first assistant and ask: What needs to be done? What can I do for you?" Dittmar says.
Working hard pays off, he says. "By the time I got onto Annie Leibovitz's set as a fourth assistant, I probably had put up and broken down a thousand [light] stands. I could do it automatically, and concentrate on what Annie was doing and learn, but it didn't look like [I was watching her]. Learn from photographers, and learn a lot, but make sure you're competent and that you're working for them."
Michelson says he earned his places as a regular assistant for a top lifestyle photographer by hustling on set. He'd assisted a couple of times without making a peep, and says "she barely knew who I was." The third time he assisted, she needed a ladder, "so I ran across the field, grabbed a ladder, ran back, and set it up," Michelson says. "She gave me that nod of approval." After that, he traveled all over the world with her as a regular assistant, and got much of his education from her.
Never Promote Yourself on Set
Showing your portfolio to a client on someone else's set is a cardinal sin. "I've seen assistants get tossed for talking about their work on set," says Dittmar. And it's not always the assistant who starts the conversation. Dittmar explains: "A lot of clients think the [assistants] are all photographers. They'll say, 'Oh, what kind of photography do you do?' Deflect it. If the photographer walks by and hears you having that conversation, they won't know who initiated it. If [a client] asks you about your work, you go, 'I'm a photographer, but today I'm working as an assistant for whoever.' Deflecting those conversations is a big skill."
Be Carful About Engaging Clients (and other non-crew)
Some photographers don't want their assistants interacting at all with clients. Others are OK with it, up to a point. Dittmar advises, "Be personable with the people who are paying the bills--the clients, the photographer, the agent of the photographer, anyone the photographer has a better relationship with than you do. But on set, it's always better safe than sorry, so don't engage [ie, initiate conversation with] those people unless you're sure it's OK."
Michelson says he doesn't mind if assistants on his set talk to clients. "I like everybody to get along like family," he says. But he expects them to be well-mannered, and not to socialize when the light is disappearing and there's still work to be done.
If You Think You Know More Than the Photographer, Hide It
"If you are on set as an assistant and your attitude is that that you know better than the photographer, it comes out in everything you do," Gietler says. The attitude quickly infects other crew. "It goes bad fast and the clients notice. The whole production just doesn't feel right. If clients are walking away with that feeling, then they don't have incentive to hire us again."
On the other hand, if you notice something wrong, or something about to go wrong, quietly notify the next person up the pecking order. Any decent photographer will thank you for it after the shoot, and remember who you are.
To learn more about assisting, check out the PDN's All-Star Assistant Guide at pdnonline.com/assistants.