I can speak of with some authority about being a freelance assistant, as it was my livelihood for more than 3 years. From the minute I arrived in London in the summer of 1998, until I “retired” as an assistant late in 2001, I worked for nearly 30 different photographers on everything from location fashion shoots, to studio car shoots, to celebrity portraiture, to catalogue still lives and most points in between.
The biggest difference between a freelancer and the 2 types of assistant already discussed is the frequency of the work. Unless very well-established, most freelance assistants will be lucky to be working 3 days a week on average, although it’s likely that this average represents 7 days straight, then 9 days off, rather than a nice, repeatable pattern of, say, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. to reflect this unpredictability, a freelancers day rate tends to be higher, ranging from £80-£150 per day, with the average probably being around £100. I should point out that those rates have hardly gone up since the days when I was assisting! The hours, as with other types of assisting, can be terrible, if the photographer has got an early start, yours will usually be even earlier, as you’ll have to meet them before you set off anywhere!
Predictably, as a freelancer, you’re working for lots of different photographers, rather than one person all the time. This means you’ll develop a huge range of technical knowledge, along with an equally large range of knowledge about the industry, and a good range of contacts. The flipside is that you very rarely get called in on non-shoot days, so you won’t learn much about what goes into organising shoots and actually running a business.
It’s actually very common to end up working for the same photographers over and over again, in the natural way that people prefer to work with assistants they can trust and rely on, rather than take on somebody new every time. Across the 30 or so photographers I assisted, roughly 10 of them were for only a day or two, filling in when their normal guy couldn’t make it, another 10 were pretty consistent, but didn’t have much work on, and the last 10 made up the bulk of my work for 3 years, and would come back to me time and again.
The nature of the work is as varied as the photographers themselves. For some of the people I worked for I was nothing more than a tea-boy/receptionist/client fluffer, and for others I was responsible for booking the hire equipment, arranging travel, building and lighting the set, setting the exposure, looking after the film, breaking everything down afterwards – essentially everything other than taking the picture and art-directing. This variety is, in my experience, one of the best things about freelance assisting, as it means no two days are the same.
It’s possible that as a full time or studio assistant your legal status may be “self-employed” rather than employed, although that will vary depending on your employer. As a freelancer there’s effectively no option available other than self-employment, and this means you’ll need to learn some basic business skills right from the outset, and ideally, employ an accountant every year. It’s nothing to be worried about, and frankly, the Basic Business section of the website will tell you almost everything you’ll need to know for the first couple of years.
This post forms part of my Photographer’s Assistant guide. The other posts in the series are: