Clients never see the work that goes into creating the pictures they’re buying. They don’t think about the factors that photographers have to consider as they choose between different lenses, decide where to point the lights or plan the composition. They don’t have to figure out how keep a model, fed, watered and happy during a long shoot or remember to pack a spare battery in case the one they’re using dies sooner than expected.
And neither do many photographers. Whether a photographer is shooting for fun or planning a paid set-up, the focus is always on the picture: how it will look, the style of the image, the story it will tell. The details — where to stick the tape, how to get the stain off the floor and how to stop passers-by from walking into the shot – all tend to be ignored. Until you start setting up and realize that you have to troubleshoot a thousand little problems before you can even get the camera on the tripod. It’s often those things that an assistant can push out of the way, allowing the photographer to focus on the real value he brings to the job: his vision of the picture and the skills that allow him to create it.
“A good assistant is one who is dedicated to doing their part to make the shoot go as smoothly as possible. 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.”
Assistants Do Gorilla Work
That makes an assistant sound a little like a nurse to a photographer who acts a bit like a doctor. (Although the photographer’s take-home pay won’t look like the doctor’s, and the doctor is unlikely to get his water bottle labeled.) Toss in the gorilla work — lugging heavy lighting equipment and boxes of gear from place to place – and it’s pretty clear that most of what an assistant will be doing for the photographer is the small stuff that takes a lot of time and energy, but not a great deal of skill, and contributes little directly to the final set of images.
That doesn’t always have to be the case though. Personality is also important, says David. While photographers will demand different things from their assistants, some will want their helpers to talk to the client, keeping him out of their hair while they get on with the shoot. Large studios might even have a team of assistants with different levels of experience. Contact with the client could be reserved for the number one assistant while the number four, in his first year at photography school, gets to sweep the floor and coil up the cables. Those conversations are a more responsible duty; they demand decent social skills, a certain amount of confidence and perhaps the ability to talk cameras and deal with any concerns the client might have about the way the shoot is progressing.
But when photographers demand that assistants have at least some photographic knowledge, it seems a shame to use them only to move boxes and keep buyers entertained. Many photographic assistants will have pretty sharp image editing skills, a benefit that not only enables the photographer to avoid having to remove noise and whiten eyes himself. It also lets the assistant charge more money. Assistants who are as handy with the mouse as they are with the gaffer tape and can double as digital tech help can as much as double the — admittedly meager — pay they’re charging.
Who Is the Best Assistant?
Even that though might miss the most valuable contribution that an assistant can bring to a photographer. When someone chooses to make themselves available to a studio it’s usually because they’re looking to learn photography. The education they receive at the elbow of an established professional is part of the pay. It’s certainly the reason that the cash payments are so small, and over a lifetime of earnings should actually be worth a large amount of money. But those assistants will already know something about photography. They’ll have ideas of their own and approaches to a shoot that might be at least as good as that of the photographer – even if they don’t always have the technical skills to pull it off. When Popular Photography asked six photography experts to name the best photo assistants in an unscientific survey, the results brought out helpers whose images were every bit as good as those produced by seasoned pros. The assistants might not have as broad a range of ideas as do the photographers they’re helping. They might not yet have all of the technical skills they’ll need to build a photography business. But they’re also not going to be stuck in their ways, will be willing to try new ideas and have the energy needed to push through a challenging shoot.
The main idea behind assistantships is that they allow rising photographers to gain hands-on experience, work alongside a professional and see how the images are actually created. They also allow the photographers to skip the boring, sweaty work and concentrate on the interesting, creative, technical stuff. But letting the education flow in only one direction can mean getting less from an assistant that you should.
“A photographer really needs to have a teacher’s heart even with an experienced assistant,” says David Bean. If they give me 100 percent, no I have problem giving them back anything I can as far as knowledge. And sometimes, often an assistant will teach you a thing or two.”
Of course, there is a one more that an assistant can do for you, especially if you’re doing everything you should be doing as a mentor: he can give you competition.