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Photographer’s Assistant Guide: Anecdotal Evidence

Hotel hallway
Carting equipment about the place is a huge part of being an assistant. A hotel trolley can be a godsend, as can a sympathetic and helpful art director!

A couple of posts ago I promised I’d share some anecdotal evidence of “assistant etiquette”, namely how not to do things. Well, here are a few tales that should illustrate some of my points. I’ve used no names, but the people involved will know who they are.

Carrying lots of equipment, and doing mundane tasks:

It can be easy to forget, particularly after completing a degree in photography, that as an assistant you’re going to have to do a lot of fetching and carrying, and a lot of mundane jobs. Unfortunately, heaving heavy gear around is very much part of the job. I live in a first floor flat in South London, fairly central as far as the whole of London goes, but still south of the river. Part of an assistants job, in my opinion, is to arrive at my place before we set off and help me load the car or taxi with all my gear. There are 2 flights of stairs, and anything up to 15 bits of gear, some of which weigh around 20KG. A second pair of hands obviously speeds this process up enormously, besides saving my back.

I had someone on work experience a couple of years ago for a shoot I was doing near Old Street in north London. She turned up on time, helped me load the cab, and was generally very bright and attentive all day. At the end of the shoot we loaded the cab that was to take me home, and once it was full she said “thanks for the day, I live round the corner, so I’ll be off now.” I’m aware it will make me sound like a heartless bastard, but I’m not that bothered where you live – your working day as an assistant begins and ends at my place, and if that’s the other side of town to you, then I’m afraid that’s just shitty luck. I could go on for hours about how early I had to get up as an assistant to work for people who were based on the other side of town, often getting there to find that we were actually shooting way back East again. That’s just how it goes when you’re at the bottom of the food chain.

Timekeeping:

Timekeeping is so vital in a freelance industry like photography. Without wanting to over emphasise our importance, shoots don’t tend to start until the photographer gets there, and if the event is already going on, then arriving late may mean you’ve missed the crucial moment. Being late as an assistant is close to unforgivable, yet I’ve been kept waiting by assistants and work experience folk far too many times.

For what it’s worth, it’s usually work experience monkeys who are worse, including my 2 “favourites” last year. The first was supposed to turn up at about 7.15, there was no sign of him so I set off alone, and when I arrived on location at 8 am, I got a garbled text message from him saying that he’d arrived at the station near where I live (I’m on location across London by now) and was lost and had opted to go home. I texted back immediately to point out that if he was at the station he was probably about 20 minutes travel from where I was now, and that he should get a shift on and get over here. No response. I found out later that his iphone battery had gone dead. Marvellous.

The second was half an hour late getting to me in the morning. For some unknown reason he’d decided to drive in from out of town, so had got caught in the typical heavy traffic. He then called me a total of 5 times in half an hour to find where I live. I have a personal rule about that, as, in my opinion, if you’re unable to find somewhere like a large block of flats without help, you’re not going to to be much use on a job. To top it all he then managed to damage one of my lights during the shoot, thereby complying to my “3 strikes and you’re out” code, and I’ve not called him since.

Studio Assisting
Assisting can be a lonely job…

Always admit your mistakes:

Way back in the day there were a handful of us who had left college at the same time and come to London to work as assistants. One night we all met up for a drink, and were, predictably comparing notes on various photographers and shoots. One of our number seemed to want to get something off his chest, and confessed to us that he’d made a cock up earlier in the day on a shoot, but was pretty sure that he’d got away with it. Apparently he’d been loading film on a high-pressure shoot on a rooftop with a certain celebrity, when one of the only three rolls the photographer shot spilled out of his hands and was irretrievably fogged – ruined beyond use essentially. He seemed quite relieved he’d done this, and not been spotted, whereas we were all aghast that he hadn’t admitted his mistake immediately. In these digital days this may not seem quite such an issue, but when shooting film the photographer wouldn’t know about this mistake until the next morning, and they’d be expecting 3 usable rolls back from the lab rather than 2 and a very fogged one. Suffice to say once he saw our point he began to turn slowly whiter and whiter…..

Assisting Zanna - Anecdotal evidence
Aaaah, isn’t he sweet….

Not showing initiative, and not making the Photographer look stupid:

I had someone on work experience last year, and the shoot was on location for one of my regular clients, shooting in a large gym. The lighting I used was very consistent, being made up of a front light through a softbox and a pair of back lights. All of these were flashguns on small stands, so no cables to worry about, and very easy to move around. We shot in perhaps 10 different spots around the gym, and each time the lighting had to be moved. I would move the key light, and ask the workie to grab the back lights. Even though the lighting was consistent, I not only had to ask him to pick them up every time, but also tell him where to put them, as he kept leaving them lying around and wandering off to talk to people. Having to be asked to do the same job over and over again doesn’t demonstrate a great deal of initiative, nor an ability to learn on the job!

The same chap also made a point at the end of the shoot of handing his business cards to everyone on the shoot – the editor of the magazine, the journalist, the PR rep, the athlete we were photographing, and I commend him for his initiative in this regard. However, I also think he’s a complete idiot (so did everyone else in case you were wondering) as he way overstepped his mark whilst on work experience. There’s no doubt that as you become more experienced as an assistant, get to know photographers and clients well, that you’ll be presented with further opportunities for work, as well as being able to shoot your own stuff, but not on your first day, and not whilst you’re still on work experience. What will happen if you’re too pushy early on is that you’ll make the photographer look a prat, and make everyone else think you’re a pushy sod who doesn’t know his place.

Not Being on the alert all the time:

Assisting Ian McKell
Looking nonchalant on an early assisting job.

On a shoot a few years back I was using one of my regular assistants and was shooting some book covers – fairly simple beauty shots as I recall. As I was shooting there was myself, obviously behind the camera, the model, on set and doing her thing, the Make-Up artist, very close to my eyeline, and watching for stray hairs etc, the stylist, again very close to my eyeline and watching for what the clothes are doing, the client, sitting very comfortably on the sofa, enjoying a day out of the office and surveying everything, and sitting next to her with his feet up, comfy as anything, was my assistant. Now, I’m going to sound like a slave driver here, but as an assistant you’re not being paid to sit on your arse all day. Even on a low maintenance shoot like this one an assistant should still be active and monitoring what’s going on. You can be checking that all the flashes are firing, that the photographer hasn’t knocked the settings on the camera, that the files are coming in to the computer OK, even going round and asking who wants a cup of tea, just not loafing about.

A good display of initiative:

I thought it would be a bit more positive to end on a good note, rather than one of admonishment, so here goes.

The polar opposite of sitting on your arse all day and waiting for things to happen is demonstrating good initiative. I had a friend who was a keen amateur photographer come and did some work experience a few years back on a 2 day studio shoot. He had no formal training in photography, just a desire to learn, and he even took the time off work. The shoot was very complicated as I recall, with several different setups to be built, and some very technically precise work involving compositing together the same shot across 2 days. At some point on the first day I was backing out of the set, turned to my workie and asked for the wide angle zoom, which he duly handed over. Half way through day 2 I was backing out of set, and before the words could leave my lips the zoom appeared over my shoulder. Neat, and a perfect example of reading a situation and reacting to it, rather than just letting things happen to you.

So, there you have it, some real world examples of assistant behaviour. All true, and all probably still happening on a shoot near you. Maybe with a little encouragement we can start to stamp this sort of behaviour out, but I suspect not!


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

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