Take a Class to Become an Assistant

Photography: Gripnerd

Assistantships can pave the way to a career in photography but do you need to complete a boot camp just to help a photographer?

Photographers looking to take their first steps as professionals often use assistantships to build experience. Helping working professionals by carrying equipment, setting up lights or even taking shots as a second shooter puts them in the studio and at events, lets them see how a photography business works and gives them the kind of familiarity with rigs, lenses and people that no photography class can ever teach. According to James Sullivan, a 22-year photography veteran, photographers who have been assistants:

“are better at lighting, have better production skills, are better able to produce the images that their clients are hiring them for,  are better at dealing with clients and their crew, and are more secure with the knowledge of their own abilities and thus have the ability to instantly transition between the technical and the creative during a shoot.”

But Sullivan doesn’t just recommend that aspiring photographers knock on photographers’ doors and ask if they need any help. The former assistant who went on to become a lighting technician, producer and photographer/director teaches a boot camp that trains people who want to become assistants.

Teaching Assistants Isn’t a Photographer’s Job

The two-day workshops, which cost $425 (or $475 for late registrants) cover flash and color temperature meters, flags and nets, soft boxes and light modifiers, studio strobes and light stands, as well as the photographer’s kit and marketing techniques. The class also tries to teach problem-solving, an activity that accounts for 80 percent of what a photographer does, says Sullivan.

Most participants are students at photography schools and people who have never assisted but can include experienced photographers too.

“I’ve also had photo school teachers attend who had Masters degrees in photography but had no idea how to use studio strobes or meter or color correct and were expected to teach a studio lighting course at their respective schools,” says Sullivan.

James Sullivan’s Tips for Assistants

  • Give 200 percent every day.  If you’re not willing to work flat out, others are.
  • Be aware. Watch everything, listen, pay attention, learn to have the problem solved in your head before it appears on set.
  • Work for many different types of photographers.

The boot camp contains plenty of valuable information for photographers but it’s knowledge that many assistants might feel they’re entitled to receive from the studio in return for their low-paid labor. The aim of assistantships has always been to learn and build experience rather than make money; the education for which Sullivan is charging several hundred dollars many assistants would expect to receive in lieu of better pay.

Sullivan himself would dispute that.

“Quite frankly,” he says, “it’s not a photographers job to pay someone to be a photo assistant and also teach them those skills during the course of a photo shoot.”

To judge by the demand for the workshops, photographers may be agreeing with him. Sullivan has trained more than 1,500 students in the eleven years he has been teaching the course,  and the boot camp itself developed both in response to requests from photographers across the country and as a result of discussions with equipment rental companies.

“At the time the rental companies and photographers were experiencing greater than normal equipment breakages and damages caused by people calling themselves ‘Photo Assistants’ but having no real world experience or skills,” Sullivan explained. “The photo schools just were not training their graduates for the real world.”

The problem isn’t just in the photo schools though. According to Sullivan, one of the reasons that a boot camp for photo assistants has become necessary is the absence of highly skilled individuals on set available to pass on their knowledge to assistants. Since 9/11, he says, a large number of people who used to be photo assistants have either left the industry or become photographers while budgets that once used to allow for half a dozen crew members now only allow for one or two specialists who bring skills that the photographer knows will make his or her job easier.

The Right Assistantships for the Right Careers

Looking at James Sullivan’s boot camp, its demand and the knowledge that it offers, it’s easy to conclude that the idea of an assistantship as a place learn a trade and supplement class-based learning with hands-on experience is dead.  Assistants should be working for their photographers, not expecting their photographers to teach them.

But that’s only true of some types of assistantships. There is still plenty of demand for assistants and no sign that event photographers and portrait studios have less need of a second pair of hands to carry equipment — or a lower willingness to explain why they’re using one lighting set-up over another or show an assistant how to put it together.

Participants in Sullivan’s workshops extend beyond students and the odd professor to include photographers from what Sullivan calls “smaller markets” who have never worked in a photo rental studio, used studio strobes or set up some of the continuous lights sources taught during the workshop. His alumni include people who have worked with Annie Leibovitz, Christopher Michaud and Gregory Heisler — top photographers used to working on complex shoots with large budgets. The benefit of taking the boot camp, says Sullivan, isn’t necessarily the knowledge that would allow an assistant to set up their own studio but the opportunity to work with famous photographers, sometimes for “big money.” Even that though, warns Sullivan, depends on an assistant’s personality, their drive and their willingness to give as much as they can.

It is still possible — even recommended — to begin a photography career with time as an assistant. But the kind of assistantship you do will depend on the kind of photographer you eventually want to become with the knowledge you pick up. If you want to photograph nuptials, then a practicing wedding photographer will be willing to show you the ropes.

Correction: In the original version of this post, we misidentified James Sullivan as William Sullivan. We have also changed a couple of sentences to better reflect Mr Sullivan’s views

One comment for this post.

  1. Sean Said:

    Hey, I took James photo assistant boot camp a few years ago, and then added myself to his photo production database over at http://www.1procrew.com
    It was the best thing I could have done for myself and for getting more work.
    James 'tell it like it is' style may not appeal to everyone but his honesty is very refreshing in an industry that lives behind smoke and mirrors.

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