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Making the Transition from Assistant to Photographer.

This piece was published earlier this year in an AoP book, as well as being a rough transcript of a talk I gave at the AoP gallery back in June. I’m reproducing it here because I think it may be relevant to a few people, and because I’m lazy! The title should be self-explanatory.

The Transition from Assistant to Photographer.

From both my experience and the experience of those around me, this is probably one of the hardest things in a photographer’s career – at least as difficult as setting up in business for yourself the first time. It’s as much a psychological as a practical problem, though to avoid rambling on forever, I’ve simply concentrated on the practical for this piece.

My own experience:

I worked as a freelance assistant for around 30 different photographers between 1998 and 2001. Within this number were around 10 for whom I worked very regularly over the 3 years, another 10 for whom I worked occasionally, and 10 who I only worked for once or twice. Alongside this I was lucky enough to secure some regular, small scale editorial commissions of my own, and as time progressed these became more and more frequent. I officially “retired” as an assistant at the end of May 2001, and the next week managed to shoot 6 editorial jobs in 4 days and make what for me at the time was a small fortune. I thought I had it made, and then the following Monday morning 2 of the magazines that were making up the bulk of my work closed at the same time, and I was almost back to square 1. Partly because of this, and partly because of psychological factors, it took me about another 18 months to properly leave assisting behind. Over this period assisting work still made up around 25% of my income. To an extent this was for financial reasons, but it was also due to my own failure at getting out and selling myself – I simply didn’t “see” myself as a photographer yet, and would take the easy money assisting offered, rather than face the consequences of having to get my portfolio out there and tout for work. For more insight into this problem, see the conclusion.

This situation eventually changed largely because I remembered what I was supposed to be doing – taking creative, interesting photos, and getting well paid for it, rather than trundling along quite happily at a subsistence level. I also took the plunge and invested in equipment and infrastructure, and I’ve always found that making any sort of commitment like this leads to a response from the market – usually because I’m able to present a more professional product to my clients.

Transition from assistant to photographer
Assisting in the Evening Standard

When to stop Assisting:

Only you will know, but here are a few things to bear in mind:
– has your learning curve levelled off? Do you feel as if you’re only going to learn more by shooting stuff yourself?
– are you already shooting some stuff yourself, therefore is assisting holding you back?
– are you getting bored and frustrated working for other photographers?

Things to do whilst assisting that will help the transition:

1. Keep shooting – keep interested, you need to move out of one state and into another, and this takes momentum. This is very important indeed – most friends of mine who got “stuck” in assisting did so because they forgot they were photographers, and simply never shot anything. Those of us that managed to make the jump were the ones who were shooting all the time. Take every opportunity that presents itself to shoot stuff – tests, small commissions, competitions, PR jobs and so forth.

2. Keep involved – stay in touch with people as you go along the assisting route, and take every opportunity to get out and sell yourself (without pissing off the photographer you’re working for) Always have a portfolio and web site where you can direct potentially interested parties to. Join the AoP and get involved – opportunities will come your way as a result of people you meet and are in touch with. Keep up with MUA’s, Stylists, Models etc, so that putting together a test shoot isn’t an impossibility, likewise stay on good terms with lighting/equipment hire companies, hire studios, and labs. You may well be able to call in favours when you want to shoot elaborate tests.
Likewise, stay in touch with people who may be able to offer you work in the future. Some photographers will be happy for you to show your portfolio to art directors they work with, though don’t take this for granted, and be careful of treading on photographer’s toes!

3. On the subject of portfolios, take every opportunity to show your work – even if you feel your portfolio isn’t the polished, expensive publication you want it to be. If you’re seeing an art director or similar, and they know your background, they won’t be expecting to see an advertising photographer’s portfolio, and will understand if your stuff looks lower budget. They may have smaller jobs that would suit you anyway. Don’t let the excuse of “my portfolio’s not ready” stop you from taking it out – he said with a certain air of “been there, done that”.

4. Start to take more responsibility. I’ll go into this in more detail below, but perhaps the biggest difference between an assistant and a photographer on the shoot is that of responsibility. It’s not exaggerating too much to say that as a photographer the buck stops with you, no matter what the problem is. As an assistant there are many areas which you can wash your hands of and not worry about. The sooner you start to take on more of the burden of looking after everything, the easier you’ll find the transition.
A good way to look at this area is to think in terms of being a problem solver rather than a problem creator. As a photographer, you will very soon get a reputation as a pain in the arse if every time something goes wrong you turn to the client and say “oh, that’s a bit crap, what do we do now?” You may have been lucky enough to work for some very patient photographers so far in your career as an assistant, who may have tolerated you making mistakes, and bringing them problems, but as a photographer this route is no longer open to you. The analogy here is with the military world, where all complaints go up through the chain of command, not the other way round. Since, as a photographer, you are pretty much in command, it’s not recommended that you gripe to the client about things, whilst at the same time you must be prepared to listen to gripes from your own assistant, from the model, from the make-up artist and so on.

5. Start paying close attention to the photographers you assist whose work and style you want to emulate. This is particularly relevant if you’ve started to get a bit jaded and cynical – try and look at the way they’re working with a fresh pair of eyes, and try and take in the whole picture. Watch how they deal with a difficult client, how they come up with ideas, how they organise things and so on. It may be that the photographer you are working for doesn’t set a very good example in this respect, in which case just note that down as well, and resolve to do things differently when it’s your turn.

6. Save every penny you can. There’s no chance that you’ll be well off as an assistant, and you may already have put lots of personal plans on hold due to financial constraints. However, building a small cushion of cash is very useful indeed when it comes to making the jump. The overheads of working as a snapper rather than as an assistant are much larger, and as has been mentioned before – you’ll be bearing the responsibility for paying for things. Of course, you won’t get the money back from the client any day soon, so you’ll need to bear that in mind as well.

Making the Transition:

There seem to be 2 general approaches:

1. The traditional approach – shoot a big plush portfolio and start at roughly the level of the photographers you’ve been assisting. Very good for those who have a clear vision and can get it across well in the portfolio. Once the initial start up phase is over it offers much higher creative and financial returns than the 2nd approach.
However, this involves quite a lot of selling – you’ll need to take the portfolio out a lot, and if this is not your bag you may need to find another method, or get an agent (which is a whole other discussion) The nature of the work means that at least to begin with you’ll probably only be shooting once or twice a month – this in itself can be very off-putting, and financially it’s a proper roller-coaster. You’ll move from assistants wages of £100 a day to suddenly having to play with a budget of thousands, and you’ll need an understanding bank – expect to go very overdrawn very soon.

2. The slow steady approach (mine). Build up gradually, low-level editorial, PR, commercial work. Roughly double the money of assisting to begin with, but in some ways can feel like a bit of a come down after you’ve been assisting on large scale shoots with 10 crew – suddenly your own work is just you and a camera bag. This approach offers a very good learning curve if you’ve never really shot stuff for yourself before, the type of work will be good and varied, expect a diverse range of shoots, and it’s initially quite cool to have work in print. This is also a very effective way to build confidence in yourself as a photographer – as you steadily take on bigger and bigger work, you never quite feel you’re operating outside your reach. Beware, though, of the glass ceiling – if you’re seen as the jack-of-all-trades snapper who shoots the office party, they’re not likely to give you the cover of the magazine or a big advertising job. Financially it’s a bit more secure than going out looking for advertising work, as it tends to be a few hundred quid a few times a week, rather than a few grand every 6 weeks. Much easier to put a portfolio together – expectations aren’t quite so high, can be knocked together for less production budget and therefore quicker.
A slight variation on this approach is to work for a photographer who lets you take some smaller jobs from them, and build your work up this way. Obviously this is highly dependant on the photographers you work with, as not everyone is prepared to work like this, and it involves a certain degree of trust. I was lucky enough to benefit from this very early in my career, as were a couple of close friends of mine, and it can be essential to building both your career and your confidence, which brings me neatly to my final point.

Confidence.

By the time you feel ready to move on from assisting, it’s likely that you’ll feel quite confident and full of yourself. You’ve probably been working on some large-scale stuff, with a big budget, lots of equipment, several crew, and are starting to feel that you can handle anything that comes your way. There is, however, one big difference between assisting and shooting and it’s responsibility. As an assistant you’ll have had quite a bit of responsibility, though this varies from photographer to photographer, but no matter how much or how little you’ve had, the ultimate responsibility for producing the finished image and bringing everything together resides with the photographer, and on a whole host of areas you’re able to pass the buck as an assistant.
Of course, this changes once you start shooting in your own right – if something goes wrong there’s no-one to turn to and ask for help, plus some of the more esoteric aspects of the shoot have now landed in your lap. Could you handle a cantankerous or difficult subject, particularly a celebrity? Are you able to placate a demanding client, and fulfil what they think they want, whilst at the same time guiding them towards the results they actually need? Can you take it in your stride when the model hasn’t slept, moans about the studio, and several key pieces of equipment break down at once? These problems, and thousands more like them, may have passed you by as an assistant, but they will crop up all too often once you shoot your own stuff, and ultimately, the responsibility for dealing with them is yours.
Coping with this is obvious really. Just like any other area of your life, the way to build confidence is to try and develop gradually, and see progress as a series of discrete steps rather than an occasional giant leap. Maybe 5% of assistants are confident enough to walk out of assisting and straight into high-level advertising/commercial work. The vast majority of people are better served by taking it one step at a time – and those steps begin whilst you’re still assisting.


This post forms part of my Photographer’s Assistant guide. The other posts in the series are:

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