How to approach Photographers, and a small apology

So, I've been a bit quiet on the blog front lately. There was the Christmas thing obviously, and then the New Year's thing, and then things got really busy with work. And things are still really busy, plus I'm off to Dubai next week for an 8 day shoot.

I've always said I won't post stuff unless I've got something to say - you don't really want to hear about my daily life, but I will try and make a bit more effort to post regularly. Promise.

And now onto something that popped up last week, and has been nagging me for years - people emailing me looking for work/work experience/advice and so on.

I'm not a big name photographer, and yet I still get anywhere between 2 and 10 emails/phonecalls a week from assistants looking for work, students looking for work experience, people after advice generally and so on. I can discard around 60% of these emails/calls straight away for a whole host of reasons, and only a very small percentage of them actually get what they want out of me! Why?

First off, the simplest: people seeking advice. 9 times out of 10 I'll simply point them to this blog, and if the answer's not here I may possibly spend a little time either pointing them in the right direction or writing a quick email. I feel that the time I put into writing this blog, plus all the technical stuff on Flickr, removes me from any moral obligation to answer any cry for help I get!

Next, in order of complication, students seeking work experience. There are many similarities to assistants here, which I'll be covering in more detail below, but essentially most of the applications for work experience can be discarded off the bat because they're illegible, badly put together, and generally impenetrable and hard to decipher. Another common problem is that potential workies don't seem to grasp that I don't shoot 5 days a week, and that a lot of my work is comparatively last minute. Often they've been asked by their school or college to arrange work experience for a particular time, and it may well be that I just don't have much work on that corresponds. I will always explain this clearly and politely, as well as pointing out that I may have something for them in future. In almost every case I never hear from them again. This doesn't really demonstrate the level of motivation and commitment that is required to forge a career in photography, or even to be self-employed. I have even on one occasion had someone arrange to come on work experience, only for them to call me the night before and say that they couldn't make it as "their Dad wanted them to stay home and wait for a delivery".

Now comes the real meat - assistants who are looking for work. This lot makes up the majority of the emails I get, and as before I can answer most of them with a polite "Thanks, but no thanks". Here are some really common faults that I see in job application emails:
  1. Writing too much - as a photographer I want to know what use you'll be to me as an assistant. Therefore all I really need to hear about is what gear you're familiar with, what software you can use, who you've worked with in the past and so on.
  2. Including lots of photos. I'm not looking for another photographer! I need an assistant, I'll handle the piccies thanks. If we work together and get on well, I'll gladly go through your work and give you my opinion, but not in the first email.
  3. Including huge lengthy CV's. As 1, above, I'm only interested in relevant photographic experience. I couldn't care less if you used to drive a fork lift truck, or work in Tesco's. Sorry, but it's got no bearing on the role you're applying for. Likewise, listing every GCSE/A level and so on is a bit pointless - it's sufficient just to list how many you've got.
  4. Bad English skills. I appreciate this penalises people for whom English is a second language, but if I can barely read your email, you're not likely to even get your foot in the door. Plus, as I'm thinking ahead I'm wondering if you'll be able to respond to requests for things when we're working or whether it'll quickly dissolve into a bad pastiche of Fawlty Towers.
  5. Addressing your email "Dear Photographer". This should be obvious.
  6. Sending out a mass email to several photographers at once. Again - it should be obvious that this will not endear people to you.
  7. Trotting out standard phrases like "I work well in a team, but show individual ability as well". Do you really? I've never heard that before. Likewise, a glib "I really like your work" isn't as flattering as you might think!
  8. Pestering. There's a very fine line between staying in touch, and therefore keeping at the forefront of my mind when my usual assistant can't make it, and annoying the crap out of me with incessant emails and phone calls. There's no hard and fast rule here, but as a guideline, I'd say contacting someone every 6 weeks or so, just to "check in" is fine. Much more often and you do risk becoming annoying, less frequently, and the photographer is liable to forget who you are.
Hopefully that will help some people on their way, and with any luck reduce the number of completely useless emails I get. Ah well, I can dream can't I?

Labels: , ,


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.

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 Break:

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.


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.

Labels: , ,


Definitions of/Introduction to Photographic Assisting

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!


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.

Studio Assistants.

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.

Freelance Assistants.

Duncan Nicholls - freelance 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.

Labels: , ,