Photographer’s Assistant Guide: Common Assistant Knowledge

Behind the scenes with Men's Health - Assistant Knowledge
A basic knowledge of studio equipment is essential for an assistant – this man clearly has no idea what a single wind-up stand is for….

You will often hear me repeat the caveat that all photographers are different, and yet I still think there is a broad range of technical skills that any and every assistant should know, regardless of who they are working for. In no particular order, here’s what I would consider basic assistant knowledge:

  • Software: Lightroom, Capture One, Adobe Bridge, a decent knowledge of Photoshop. The first three should be self-explanatory, but knowledge of Photoshop is a little vague. You won’t be expected to do high-end retouching for a photographer (unless you offer it as part of your services), but you should know some basic stuff such as image resizing, sharpening, layers etc.
  • Canon and Nikon DSLR’s. Don’t worry about knowing the ins and outs of every single model – just concentrate on the top end (single-figure EOS and Nikons, along with perhaps the Nikon D “hundreds”, and 5D mark whatevers) Above all make sure you know how to set them up correctly (white balance, ISO, and so on) and how to correct some of their more obscure settings.
  • Canon and Nikon Flashguns. More and more photographers (myself included) are using flashguns to either supplement their lighting rig or to replace it entirely, and knowledge of how the top end guns work (whichever number we’re now up to – SB5000 for Nikon, no idea for Canon) is very handy. Make sure you know how to set them manually and in various remote modes.
  • “Medium Format” digital cameras.  As with Canon and Nikon above, there’s no need to know every menu setting on every Hasselblad out there, but a good grounding in how they function is well advised.
  • Lighting: Elinchrom, Bowens, Profoto and Broncolor – in all cases both Monoblocs, packs/heads, and battery versions. There are several other types of lights out there, but these 4 are by far the most common, both in terms of ownership and rental kit. As before, you won’t be expected to know every last bit about every last piece of gear, just a good understanding of how to set them up and adjust power, plus what to look for when they go wrong. I’d also suggest you know at least a little about things like HMI’s, Tungsten lights, Kino Flo’s and Dedolights, but you’ll find they’re much less common.
  • Light Modifiers: Softboxes, brollies, Octabanks, Brieses, Parabolics, Polyboards, Chimeras, Scrims, Sunbounces, flags, lastolites, and so on. As before, you won’t need to know how every single softbox on the planet is put together, but you ought to have a good idea of the main principles of how to build, use and pack away lots of these things.
  • Basic Lighting setups. Tricky stuff here, as every photographer will light differently, and have slightly different tools to do the job with. As a bare minimum I suggest you know how to create a seamless background for shooting cut outs against, and how to balance flash light with ambient light.
  • A basic knowledge of video procedures. By this I don’t mean you have to know how to shoot video, master sound, and edit stuff, although such skills are very much in demand these days. What I mean is you need to understand the technical requirements of someone shooting video, namely keeping quiet, and not moving around near the camera and so on.
  • Basic workflow. This is generally covered in software knowledge above, but just make sure that you clearly understand the notion of workflow – getting the images from the camera to the client – and appreciate such things as archiving, different file formats, colour spaces and so on.
  • Basic Electrical safety. This is all covered in much more depth on my Calumet assistant training courses, but for those of you that haven’t been yet, make sure you know how much you can put through a 13 amp household mains, what Cee Form plugs are, and the different ways that flash and continuous lights draw power.
  • Stands, Grip and general studio equipment. Again, lots of this is covered in the course (bet you’re wishing you’d gone now aren’t you?), but being able to recognise various types of studio stands, rigging them safely and appropriately, along with being able to work with most studio gear (Super Clamps, magic arms, safety cables, boom arms, spigots, autopoles, single and double wind-ups – it’s a long list) will see you right.
  • Where things are in London – namely hire studios, retailers, Rental houses, Labs(!), retouching and post production houses. Obviously all this can be looked up on a map or via google, but it’s a distinct advantage knowing where things are in the first place, as it can save you lots of time. It’s also worth spending as much time as possible above ground when you first come to London, as the tube map can be very deceptive.

A sound knowledge of that little lot will get you off to a pretty good start with any photographer I reckon. If the photographer requires anything more specialist (you may come across “Strobe” flash in your travels – don’t TOUCH this without asking how to!) it should be taught as required. Go and get swotting up on that little list right now!


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

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *