What I want from my assistants and how to make it worthwhile for everyone.
By Kirk Tuck
This is an excerpt from my third book (due out in Sept. 2009) called The Handbook of Commercial Photography. I'm posting it because I was asked by an assistant what I expected from them on a shoot and I thought it would be easier to give them a copy of this section. If you think it's helpful you are welcome to use it personally. I think it's great to let your assistants know what you expect and how to work. I know that it made my shoot a pleasure today (THANK YOU, THAO!).
Optimum Photographic Education. Assisting.
When it comes right down to it the best way to learn the profession is to assist or apprentice to a very good, very successful working photographer. If you are lucky you’ll learn through osmosis how to engineer the workflow of a good shoot, how to do or outsource the post production, the care and feeding of clients, how and what to bill and how do the vital and continuous job of marketing.
Don’t get me wrong. You should still read everything you can get your hands on, and every free moment should be spent working on technique and style, but there are some intangible things that you’ll only learn from “on the job” training that will be invaluable in your career.
In some European countries there are still apprenticeships wherein a person wishing to learn a trade, craft or profession actually pays to learn from a master in the field. Those days are long gone in the United States. The closest you’ll get to the valuable assistant relationship is to sign on as an assistant to a working photographer.
Assisting at the most basic level.
Here’s the truth about assisting working commercial photographers in the digital age: You are being hired to do the repetitive “grunt” work of the business. You aren’t being hired because you have a nice portfolio. You aren’t being hired because the photographer feels a need to mentor new photographers. You aren’t being hired to learn from the photographer (but if you pay attention you can’t help but learn a lot.….). You are being hired to make the job of photography easier and more efficient for the photographer!
The photographer rarely needs help deciding which lens to use or how to compose or expose a shot. You won’t be collaborating in an “executive” sense. What you will be doing a lot of is packing camera and lighting gear, light stands and cables into cases. You will be tasked with getting those cases from the studio to the car. From the car to the shooting location. Once you reach a location your task will be to unpack and set up the various pieces of equipment that the photographer has indicated he would like to use.
Once the lights are set up according to the photographer’s instructions and all of the props have been wrangled into place a good assistant will step back and wait for further instructions. After the shoot is completed the assistant will carefully pack all of the equipment back into the cases in the precise order prescribed by the photographer and will reverse the order of the paragraph above until all the gear is safely back in the studio and packed away.
It’s important to understand that the photographer is intent on the project at hand and will be planning, in his head, every step of the project before he walks in to begin the project. Until the shoot is over there is no “good” time to ask curiosity questions about photography. The appropriate time to ask questions is on the way back to the studio in the car.
Here is my list, garnered over twenty years, of the “do’s and don’t’s” of basic assisting for a commercial photographer:
1. You are on the job to make life easier on the photographer. Your mindset should be that of willing assistant. If that means running out for coffee, cleaning mud off extension cables, cleaning the windows on a location or holding up a reflector you should do it without hesitation or argument. Your need to learn always takes a back seat to your photographer’s needs.
2. Every photographer has their own way of packing gear to go on location or for storage in the studio. Ask the photographer about their preferences and be sure that everything goes back in its place when packing.
3. There is always a dress code. If you are shooting under the hot Texas sun on one of those 90% humidity days it will certainly be shorts and tee shirts. If you are shooting on a client location your clothes need to echo those of the workers at the location (In a corporate location an assistant might be in pressed Khakis and a Polo Shirt with a collar, at a wedding, the same assistant would probably be dressed in black dress pants, a white button down shirt and a nice pair of lace up shoes. If you are shooting hip hop artists you might be dressed in baggy jeans and track shoes). The point is not to dress down, not to dress like a war correspondent if you’ll be working at a medical practice and never to embarrass your photographer.
4. Be ready to “fall on a grenade” from time to time. If there is a big mess up and you know it’s not your fault it might be politically savvy to take the blame if doing so makes your photographer look good. Example: Your photographer asks you to plug a bunch of lights into one circuit while you are setting up for an executive shoot in a factory. Just as the marketing director shows up with the impatient executive in tow the circuit breaker trips for the outlet you’ve plugged the lights into. The tension rises and the marketing director looks annoyed. You might provide an out for the photographer by turning to him and saying, “Sorry about that. I’ll re-rout some of the lights and get those breakers back on for you.” Now he doesn’t look like a numbskull and if he’s a good person he’ll remember and reward your kindness.
5. Never take your eyes off the gear while you are on an uncontrolled location. When you are outside the studio working the photographer can’t keep his eye on the camera finder and his cases of gear at the same time. It’s your job to make sure that no acquisitive bystanders make off with souvenirs of his expensive gear. Both eyes on the gear, not on the attractive model. If there’s no hired security you are security.
6. In the studio: Keep your eyes on the lights. If your photographer’s set up includes complex lighting set ups including hair lights, background lights and accent lights you’ll need to check constantly to make sure that all of the lights are firing as they should. Calmly tell the photographer if you detect a problem.
7. Assisting is a very physical job. You’ll be asked to corral heavy cases of gear up and down stairs, in an out of cars or trucks and onto carts. You might also be tasked with standing near the photographer with a full camera bag over your shoulder, ready to hand him the next lens or other accessory as needed. Make sure you are in good shape to handle this kind of activity. Get lots of aerobic exercise.
8. Don’t look at the models or portrait subjects while they’re being photographed. Here’s the reason: Most models and especially inexperienced subjects are always looking for direction and reassurance. All of the direction should come from one source, the person responsible for realizing the vision of the photo shoot. That person is the photographer. If you make eye contact with the sitter then their attention is split between you and the photographer causing them to shift attention and eye contact from the camera/photographer to you and then back again. It disrupts the rapport the photographer is working hard to build. When the real shooting begins it’s best to step behind a scrim and keep your eyes on the things the photographer can’t, such as whether all the light heads are firing or not. Whether the set is on fire and a host of other scenarios.
9. Don’t volunteer advice or opinions unless requested. All humans are remarkably suggestible. I remember to this day a photo shoot I did in Houston, Texas over twelve years ago. My favorite assistant was unavailable so I called up a rather well known assist who was highly recommended by several national level photographers. This assistant had worked all over the world for about ten years and had assisted several real photographic legends. I was setting up an environmental portrait in a board room and I asked him to set up light for me. I left the room to go and scout a second location. When I returned he had set up the lights in slightly different locations and had used different light modifiers than I would have used. He also had “just a few” suggestions to “make the shot better”.
I started a thought process that went something like this: “Well, I’ve always lit these kinds of shots with a bigger softbox and I’ve always placed my main light a lot further to one side, but I know that ”Bob” has worked for “so and so” from New York and “so and so” from London so maybe he’s reflecting the lighting he’s learned from those masters. Maybe I’m doing this all wrong.…….” Needless to say, my confidence was shot and I started second guessing myself at every turn. By the time we got back to Austin I was just hoping something would turn out on the film that my client would be able to use. Needless to say, even though he was a hard worker and knew the nuts and bolts of photography at least as well as I did I was never keen to use him again. I want people around me in the service of my vision, not for the extension of another photographer’s vision. If your photographer is in charge he will tell you exactly what he wants.
10. Never talk about the client’s business. Nothing will kill your relationship (and future referrals) with your photographer quicker than divulging the information you’ve learned about your photographer’s business to his clients or competitors. You may be standing around a factory waiting for a shot of an assembly line worker to happen when someone asks you a question about the photographer’s fee. You blurt out, “He’s really good! He’s charging $2,500 a day!!! That person may go back and tell everyone he works with on the assembly line, including the employee that your photographer just spent ten minutes convincing to be in the shot, and to sign a model release in exchange for a ”token” $10 modeling fee. All of a sudden he might not feel so well disposed about modeling for someone who charges more in a day than he might take home in a month.
If you want to learn all about your photographer’s best practices, as well as the little nuts and bolts that hold the business together, he’ll need to trust you to safeguard his confidences. It’s in your best interest to have a mutually trustworthy relationship.
11. Never show up late. Never. Call if it is unavoidable. Better yet show up early.
12. Get a good night’s sleep. The photographer is paying you for a certain level of performance. It’s not fair to them if you’ve been out drinking and dancing all night long and you stumble in for an early morning call exhausted and hung over.….
(photo: coffee cup.tif) (caption): Photographers want to work with someone who’s easy to get along with. If you bitch about going out to get coffee you’ll miss the whole point of assisting.
Getting the most out of the relationship: If your long term goal is to become a successful photographer and you’ve been lucky enough to start working with a good, established shooter you’ll want to make the most out of your experiences with him or her. Acknowledging that half the job description is taking care of the equipment you’ll need to make sure that you know how (and when) to operate all of the gear your photographer uses. Ask your photographer to show you how he packs his cameras, how he packs his lighting equipment and how everything works. If the equipment is new to you it might be good to make a list of the gear you’ll be shepherding and then go online and study the owner’s manuals.
I guarantee that your photographer would much rather take an hour or so to run you through the process than take a chance that you’ll inadvertently destroy an expensive piece of gear in the middle of an important assignment.