Seven Lessons From Photo Assistants

28.03.2024

Starting out as a photo assistant can feel like a never-ending series of pit-falls and booby traps. We chatted with one anonymous individual who left his reliable career as an analyst at a big fashion house to pursue his dream of working in photography. Countless unanswered emails later, he describes his first year photo assisting as one of the most confusing, challenging periods of his adult life.

We asked a range of photo experts what their best advice would be for how to do your best on set. From maintaining good 'feng shui', to preparing a playlist, to avoiding crisps at the wrong moments, here’s what they said are the ultimate Do’s and Don’ts of photo assisting:

BE A VIBE

  • It's not the 90's anymore and people dont wanna hear shouting. So go about your work in a calm and focused way whilst remembering that everyone you work with is human too, we're not at war here!
  • Be friendly. Use your initiative, but don't be afraid to ask questions – and stay off your phone!
  • People don't necessarily hire someone just on qualifications alone. Teams want to take chances on new people. Skills, we can teach, but sometimes the question is actually – can I spend a week with you on set? Being a good person to be around cannot be overstated.
  • Having good tunes is actually a large part of the day.
  • Your other assistants might not tell you to stop chatting and finish your food but if they aren't around, then you shouldn't be either ;)
  • Be on time. Be able to read a room. Be able to adapt. Be willing.
  • Don’t be too eager. Don’t eat all the snacks. Be attentive. Be sexy ;) 😘

MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS

  • "Never look directly at the sun" was something I was taught with a smile and a wink from an experienced first assistant. As well as the obvious dangers of permanent damage to your eyes - the crucial tool for taking pics - it had a double meaning when it came to nudity on set. Maybe more dangerous than staring into the actual sun was getting caught ogling. Keep eyes away from danger!
  • If you're not making the model feel comfortable and safe on set, then you're potentially negatively affecting the photos. Whether it's making an effort to introduce yourself at a good moment off-set, just simple manners, a warm smile, or playing some nice music; it goes a long way.

DEVELOP A UNIFORM

  • Look clean, be organised. Think about the image.
  • Sounds naive, but always wear practical clothing. Something with lots of pockets, the more the better. Last summer I made the rookie mistake of wearing a dress to assist and it was not cute for lifting several scaff poles up and down gallery stairs.
  • Be stylish…but don’t be more stylish than the photographer if you want to get booked again.
  • Wear comfortable, suitable footwear. You spend most of the day on your feet and for long hours, so be kind to them.

HONESTY IS HELPFUL

  • If you don’t know how to use a piece of equipment, ask someone more experienced. Photo kit is expensive.
  • Clearly communicate your experience level to your colleagues. No one minds where you're at in your journey, we've all been beginners. But if you say you know how to do something and rush off to do it, and then the task isn't completed properly, it can be frustrating at best and dangerous at worst.

ALWAYS KEEP LEARNING

  • Try and learn at least a few names in the different departments. The assistants of other departments might be your future collaborators.
  • There’s nothing worse than a 1st who takes it out on the other assistants. And nobody likes a bitter 2nd who wasn’t picked to be 1st. Be nice to others and share knowledge.
  • When things go wrong and you start to get flustered... take a second, take a breath. It’s just photographs, the world isn’t going to end. People would rather everything was done with consideration than panic.
  • Always remember, it's a team effort. So if you are ever stuck, always be honest and ask for help if you need it. I still have to remind myself of this and I’ve been doing it for 5+ years!
  • Try to predict the photographer's next move or need, this is a big part of the game. When you’re new, feel out how you can be most useful to the team. There shouldn’t be any element of competition or blame when things go wrong. Help each other win.
  • Important things to remember when assisting: 1) ⁠it’s not your picture, ⁠⁠and 2) if you think you can do it better than the person you’re working for then why aren’t you?
  • Imagine it’s your shoot, you’re the photographer, allow that to help you think ahead, to be 15 steps ahead.

INVEST IN AND KNOW THE KIT

  • Learn how to use a light meter, and set up a C-Stand in the correct way.
  • Get yourself some work gloves, a multitool, some markers, and 1 inch gaffa tape.
  • Bring a phone charger and a portable battery. You never know how long the shoot will be and you never know where they will take you, especially when you are on the job as a second or third assistant. You might need it while you wait 5 hours for the video guys to finish.
  • Learn all the equipment and use rental house lists as a useful source.
  • Build yourself a kit and bring it every time, you might save the day.

KEEP IT CLEAN

  • Don’t touch cameras after eating crisps 😂
  • Deodorant is the real mvp! You need to lift your arms to do lights! And you can’t lift your arms if your pits are hella stinky! Facts!