Today our featured pro Russell Smith talks about the things that make assistants great, including tips on what to look out for.

They say that you are only as successful as the people you surround yourself with!

For a photographer working in the commercial space, an assistant is invaluable and a great assistant is like gold and should be cherished.

I have worked with quiet a few assistants in my career as a photographer and think there are some common characteristics between those that have been superb and memorable.

• A positive attitude and an enthusiasm for the job. It is so important that the photographer and assistant connect and have a good understanding.
• An assistant that has a good knowledge of the equipment and what it does.
• To take initiative and can anticipate and be one step ahead, if he sees the photographer needs more height then they are there extending the tripod legs or have the ladder ready.
• An assistant that is willing to work hard, with a can-do attitude and solves problems, sometimes in little time.
• Often on set there are stylists, clients, art directors, wardrobe and models. A good assistant is a team player and understands that they are not the stars of the show but to help out where they can and to be polite and make conversation when appropriate. An assistant is a little like a waiter in a restaurant, when people go out and eat, they are not there to be entertained by the waiter unless prompted by the patron. A good assistant in many ways is invisible but when needed is there.
• An assistant that enjoys lighting and finding solutions to get the desired effect. Often I will know what I want to achieve but rely on my assistant to make it happen. This also allows the assistant to have the latitude to be creative and bring their experience to the table.
• It is very important that your assistant is available. I sometimes will arrange shoots, if deadline allows, around my assistants timetable. Besides the relationship that is built over time, your assistant gets to know how you like to light. It is more effort on big shoots to work with someone new then arrange to work with your tried and tested.

Two of my ex assistants and now photographers, Lionel Henshaw and Sheldon Moultrie, have very kindly shared some of their insights from both their perspectives as assistants and what photographers are looking for in a good assistant.

Lionel: A good assistant should share the same goal as the photographer and help him to achieve this goal. They should try and take on as much work as possible to alleviate stress on the photographer from what they should be focusing on, namely achieving the end creative result and freeing up their time to spend energy with the models and clients.

Some of those duties include:

• The physical aspect, checking, carrying, setting up and packing away, of the equipment.
• If the assistant is a digital assistant, then managing the image transfers, backing up and even at times making adjustments to the images. This is dependent on the photographer’s requests.

Sheldon: After school I jumped into a four-year degree studying commercial photography, hoping I’d come through the other end a pro. Around my third year in college I began assisting, and this is where the real learning began.

Assisting is absolutely vital for any aspiring photographer, especially those looking to make a career out of it. You quickly learn that technical aspect of taking pictures (which is super important) is only part of the game.

Assisting got front row tickets to the whole process of what it takes to make a photo shoot a success. Watching the photographer interact and negotiate ideas with clients, art directors, stylists, models and make-up artists is gold, not to mention that you get to interact with, and befriend these people yourself.

Lionel: A good assistant also needs to very importantly follow the ‘orders’ of photographers even when they think they may have a better solution or idea.

This is for two reasons; firstly because the photographer has a better understanding of what they want as they are the directors of the shoot. And secondly out of respect to the photographer and their experience.

Sheldon: I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some very talented, and generous people.

I cannot think of one photographer that has not hooked me up in some way, either through discounted photography gear, using their lighting/studio, and even passing on some clients. Having said that, I firmly believe that to get, you need to give.

Here are a few ways to do that:
1. Show up early, at least 10min, being reliable is no.1
2. Be pro-active – This can be as simple as taping a cord to the floor so the photographer doesn’t trip over it, or offering the team coffee.
3. Go the extra mile – wash the dishes, clean the floor, hard work and a good attitude go a long way!

Here are a few things to watch out for:
1. Pay attention, don’t act disinterested by dabbling on your cellphone too much.
2. If you want to hack off a photographer, tell them how to make the picture better. You’re there to assist and learn, full stop!
3. Be intuitive, if you see the photographer doesn’t talk much, don’t ask them a million questions. Learn to read the different personality types, and respond accordingly.

Tips for those looking to assist a pro:
I have some tips for aspiring assistants, even though it is good to develop a long lasting relationship with a photographer, it is important for you to learn different working styles and techniques by working with different photographers. Otherwise you will end up only using the equipment that the photographer you work for uses.

When trying to break in, you need to do some jobs for free! Get a foot in, make contacts, learn about the equipment, and develop a rapport with the photographer. Only offer a few jobs free of charge and then start charging. Most photographers won’t say no to an extra free hand and if you gel then the chances are strong that you will be invited back again.

The freelance life can be unstable, make sure you have other photographers on your books to keep it busy if your photographer hits a quiet spell.

Assistants are working towards one day making it on their own. Once they feel confident in their knowledge of lighting and have done a little networking, it is time to fly from the nest! This is the inevitable reality. Often the money can be difficult to give up and for many reasons it seems impossible but the assistant must know when to leave. And the photographer has to let go!

Post written by Russell Smith. Originally appeared on his blog.


Russell Smith’s Advice For Assistants

  1. I have worked with Sheldon before and learned not only from the photographer we were both assisting but from Sheldon as well.

    I assisted Flat Art Studios for my in service training for 3 months and assisting after and during formal training is essential.

    Glad to see the CPUT students are making their mark

    1. Hi there, the assistant’s wage is set by the photographer and usually depends on the job itself. A Rough estimate will be around R300 or R350 per day, but if the shoot is high-budget, this rate may be higher. Additionally, a full-time first assistant might earn a salary, although this also depends on the photographer and the type of shoots he does.

Leave a Reply