In this blog, we like to look at some of the new and less conventional methods of earning money through photography. But that doesn’t mean we have anything against the traditional photography business.
It might be harder to get into — and most importantly, it might not suit everyone, especially part-timers — but the old-fashioned model of running a studio and pitching services to clients and buyers is still valid.
And the best way to get into that business is still to pay your dues and build up experience as an assistant. While college courses can teach you the theory, the techniques and even the marketing side of photography, nothing beats the familiarity that comes with being on a shoot, watching a professional and seeing how he or she takes the pictures and liaises with the client.
The good news is that while a resume and some photography experience might be useful when applying for a job as an assistant, neither is essential for all photographers. David Bean, a professional photographer and founder of both the Pro Corner and Assistants Wanted groups on Flickr, told us that he receives emails almost daily from people wanting to assist him, “even people out of state who will drive in to help out.” He tries to meet as many of them as possible before taking them on and is willing to work with people who are looking for their first job… with conditions.
“If they have little to no experience, I’ll have them work for free for awhile until they learn what they need to. I don’t feel bad doing this, as I’m giving them an education that is very valuable.”
Of course, some assistants might not agree with that. At least one contributor to a helpful thread on the APAnet forum (and reproduced on the American Society of Media Photographers’ website) wasn’t too pleased at the thought of lugging heavy equipment all day for no pay. But in practice, much of what makes a good assistant — the type that’s willing to learn and gets glowing references — isn’t the ability to carry lighting rigs but forward thinking and careful support.
“A good assistant is one who is dedicated to doing their part to make the shoot go as smoothly as possible,” says David. “This means paying attention to little details like marking the photographer’s water bottle so it won’t get confused with others. They also should try to anticipate the photographer’s needs ahead of time so they are ready for things even before they’re asked.”
The amount of income an assistant can reasonably expect to earn for these services (at least an experienced one) varies from location to location. According to David, an assistant in New York or Los Angeles can earn $250-$350 for a ten-hour day. In Nashville, where David shoots, that might drop to $150-$250. Interestingly though, David added that:
“[i]f the person also has skills as [a] digital tech, they can make $500 in some cases.”
That sounds like a good thing to learn before sending out the resumes and hitting the phones then. Because Photoshop skills can be picked up and practiced by yourself, spending time with a good manual or even a short course before an assistantship could be a sound investment and a useful way to make some extra money while you learn.
And if you know that photographers are paying extra for tech skills, it’s important to make sure that they’re highlighted in your resume and that you mention them in the follow-up phone call.
One of the most important assets that an assistant can bring to a photographer though can’t be learnt. According to David, personality is a vital part of whether a photographer and an assistant can work well together.
“Every photographer has different rules, but I like my assistants to communicate and engage the clients… Either way, a good assistant has proper social skills and won’t be loud, obnoxious or talk way too much.”
Of course, before you can enjoy the benefits of an assistantship, you first have to get the job. While sending resumes and emails, and cold-calling are all possible (provided you make clear that you know the photographer’s work and really want to work with them), Flickr has become a good place to scour for likely prospects. David found Ben Hancock, one of his best assistants on the site, and even if you can’t find an assistant wanted ad, you can gain a good understanding of the sort of photography you’ll be helping to create.
That’s important because while you will (usually) be earning as an assistant, the idea is to gain enough knowledge to be able to strike out on your own. The photographer will have demands for you but you should make sure your needs are met too.
“A photographer really needs to have a teacher’s heart even with an experienced assistant,” says David. “I try to make sure my assistants are learning and not just working. If they give me 100 percent, I have mp problem giving them back anything I can as far as knowledge [is concerned]. And sometimes, often an assistant will teach you a thing or two.”
When that happens, maybe you should charge the photographer.
Tell us about your experience as an assistant.
[tags] make money as a photo assistant, photo assistant, photography assistants [/tags]