A very, very old polaroid of me in my assisting days. On a Sunday. With a hangover.
Unless you happen to be either phenomenally talented and/or well connected, working as an assistant photographer offers the best way into a career as a full-blown commercial photographer in your own right. The term “assistant” or “assistant photographer” can cover a multitude of sins, with the job description ranging from a glorified answer machine and dogsbody, to a highly specialised technical and sometimes creative consultant.
The job description of a photographer’s assistant can actually be summed up in one sentence, which makes a change on this site! The job of a photographer’s assistant is to allow the photographer to focus all their energies exclusively on taking the photograph. Within that simple phrase lurks all the complexities hinted at above!
Definitions: There are three main types of photographic assistant, full-time, freelance and studio. A full-time assistant works for just one photographer, a freelance for any number, though they will usually have a steady client base of 5-6 on whom they can depend on for regular work, and a studio assistant works full-time for a hire studio. The most obvious differences are in terms of income and types of work. Both full-time and studio assistants can expect a regular salary, and are likely to be working almost every day of the working week, and often weekends and evenings. Different photographers and studios will obviously have wildly varying rates, some may go so far as to offer paid holiday, whilst many will pay a bare subsistence wage. By contrast a freelance assistant has no guaranteed income whatsoever, but usually commands a much higher day rate than the other two.
Full time assisting
A full-time assistant, as the name implies, will be involved continually in the process of running one photographers’ business, and will almost certainly end up doing more than simply camera assisting, though this will be a very large portion of their job. They can sometimes be expected to run the office, take calls, book in hire equipment, studios, locations, models, liase with clients and agencies, maintain equipment, keep premises clean and tidy, and basically look after the business whilst the photographer concentrates on the job of taking photographs. The hours can be very long, and, since there is no photographic “union” the notion of overtime is something of a grey area.
The advantage to full-time work is that you get a much better idea than other assistants do as to how a photographic business is run, you can usually build up a good relationship with the photographer’s own clients – which can occasionally lead to small commissions, you can rely on a certain amount of money every month, and it’s not uncommon to get use of the photographers equipment and premises for your own use when business is quiet. On the downside the wages can often be low, the hours inhuman, and being tied to one photographer means that if you go on to become a freelance assistant, you may lack the breadth of experience necessary for dealing with other photographers.
A studio assistant will be resident in one hire studio, some of which employ up to 6 or 7. Once again you can expect a regular wage, although it is not likely to be very high. The nature of the work in studios is often more mundane than the other two disciplines, as a great deal of your time will be taken up with basic studio maintenance such as cleaning and repainting. You will be expected to know how to operate and sometimes maintain the studios lighting and camera equipment, as well as usually clearing up after the photographers have left the studio. Long hours are also likely, though they are usually covered in an overtime scheme, since any extra use of the studio will incur a charge, a portion of which is usually the assistants wage. You may well be expected to open up first thing in the morning, and close up last thing at night.
At first glance studio assisting may not seem like a very attractive option, particularly if you’ve just spent 3 years studying photography at degree level, but on closer inspection all sorts of opportunities appear. Firstly you have the ability to watch lots of different photographers at work, many of whom you’d probably never get the chance to see again. Now it may not be feasible to stand around at the back of the studio whilst they’re shooting (although it can sometimes happen!) but you should still be able to glean enough information about working methods to be able to build up a store of useful approaches for yourself. Secondly, the studios will not always be in use, and most studios will let their staff use them for free at weekends for example, for testing or other purposes, and this can be a very good way to build up work for your portfolio.
Duncan Nicholls – freelance photography assistant, and in no way camp. Ohh no, matron.
A freelance assistant is obviously much more independent than the other two, and conversely has no regular income to fall back on. The job description of a freelance is by necessity very broad, and also varies immensely from photographer to photographer. In my time I worked for people for whom I was nothing more than a tea boy and answer machine, right up to elaborate studio set-ups where I did everything short of actually pressing the shutter, as well as many places in between. Perhaps the main similarity between the other two is that you can expect the hours to be long – you should also be prepared to work weekends, and don’t be too alarmed if you have to get up very early some days (and I do mean early).
With most photographers you will simply be hired on a day by day basis, usually only on days when they’re shooting, but occasionally your presence may be required on pre or post-production days. A knowledge of a wide range of equipment is essential, as you may be handed a “hot potato” and asked to load/fix/unjam or fit something to it. Not many photographers will be happy to take time out of their busy shooting schedule to show you how to operate their cameras or lighting. Likewise it is very important to have an underlying knowledge of lighting set-ups, or more particularly, how you can get away with using less or lower powered lighting to reproduce something that was shot with 3 times the budget! You will almost certainly be responsible for film, if it’s still being used, in some cases from buying it through to collecting the processed images from the lab, with all the stages in between covered as well. Many photographers will expect you to be in charge of exposure, and ensuring that things remain consistent from shot to shot. Some photographers will also expect you to have a decent knowledge of workflow, so training on Lightroom or Capture One is a very good idea.
You may find yourself painting a set, or handling animals that have been brought in for a shoot, and you will make many, many cups of tea. You will be expected to know where all the labs, hire companies and suppliers are, and how to get to them in a hurry. A great number of these technical tasks are shared by a full-time assistant, the difference being that rather than simply learning how one photographer does things, you’ll need to deal with a number of different approaches. Over time you will develop a regular client base of photographers whom you’ll work for time and again, as well as some who you may only meet on one occasion, perhaps because their regular assistant is unavailable. As a guide, out of the roughly 30 photographers that I assisted over 3 1/2 years, approximately a third were for only a couple of days, another third were for a total of perhaps a couple of weeks across that time, and the last third were my regulars, who between them accounted for the lions’ share of work, in some cases over the entire 3 1/2 year period.
Pierre Maelzer, Freelance assistant, behaving like a gent by not ogling the model.
Clearly freelancing offers the best breadth of experience, and many would argue that it provides the best base to moving on to becoming an independent photographer, not least of which because it accustoms you to the notion of an irregular supply of work. The downside is not only the lack of a regular dependable income, but also the fact that depending on circumstances, you may not get much of an insight into the business side of things, as this is often dealt with on days when the photographer is not shooting. On a more positive note, you will still get a very good insight into the actual mechanics of how shoots are run, on both a technical and personnel level, since you will often be working as part of a larger team incorporating stylists, hair and make-up, clients, art directors, set builders, models and so on. It is also possible to use a photographers equipment or premises for personal or test work, and you may find that relationships you have built with fashion stylists or hair and make-up artists bear fruit in a similar way.
One last point – full-time positions are actually very rare, as only a minority of photographers choose to/can afford to keep someone employed full time. Likewise, every time a studio assisting job is advertised it tends to be deluged with applications in a very short space of time. Generally speaking the majority of assistants are freelance, and these days it’s not unheard of for them to keep up part time jobs as well as their main career, just to help pay the bills.