How To Land Work as an Assistant
Working as an assistant provides quite possibly the best foundation for a career as a professional photographer. Not only do you get to work closely with a professional and learn all their tricks of the trade, but, if you’re lucky, you’ll also have a mentor who can help guide you through the early stages of your career.
Veteran commercial and portrait photographer Daniel Linnet started his career over two decades ago, shooting everything from weddings in the early days to high-end automotive and conceptual portraiture. During that time, he has worked with countless assistants along the way, both from his base in Sydney as well as on national and international assignments. He shares his top tips on how to get work as an assistant and building strong and beneficial relationships.
Depending where in the world you live, being a photographic assistant can be either a full-time occupation and career, like in the USA, or a stepping stone to launching yourself into the world of professional photography. But, the first decision you need to make is whether assisting is for you. “Assisting is definitely not for everyone,” Daniel says, “but every budding photographer should try it at least a few times and see if it’s their thing. They’ve got absolutely nothing to lose.” He says that the experience can go a very long way in terms of helping you gain a solid understanding of the industry and how it works, even if you’re already comfortable with the equipment and lighting side of things. “Seeing how other photographers structure a shoot and communicate with their subjects or how they approach each assignment offers valuable insights into the industry. It doesn’t matter how many YouTube videos you watch; you can’t beat the experience.”
So, how do you go about becoming an assistant? Well, the very first step requires you working out which photographers you want to work with, and choosing the photographers who are right for you is crucial. When compiling an initial list, Daniel suggests always starting with those whose work you admire.
Picking up the phone to cold call a photographer may not be the best approach for initial contact. There’s a really good chance they’re in the middle of a shoot and distracting them is not likely to be in your best interests. One of the most effective strategies, according to Daniel, is a personalized e-mail with an introduction and an offer of services.
Another approach is to contact photographer reps and producers. Further down the track once you’ve got a little experience under your belt, you might want to consider putting your name on an assistants’ register. Often hire studio have them, so they’re typically a good place to start.
However, Daniel says that he’s had mixed results with registers as, from his experience, they can sometimes be out of date. “Registers can get your name and experience out there if a photographer is specifically searching last minute, but I would generally only use them as a last resort. Typically, I prefer a referral as nothing beats a word-of-mouth recommendation.”
Because so much work in the industry comes about via referrals, it’s important to build meaningful relationships with other assistants. Not only will you learn much from their experience, for larger projects where a second or even third assistant are required, it’s typically the main assistant who picks their team.
Hallmarks of a great assistant
A great assistant can work wonders helping a shoot come off as smoothly as possible, making everything easier for the photographer, allowing them to concentrate on the creative aspects of what’s required and freeing them up to engage with the subject/s and the client.
Below, Daniel shares some of the critical qualities.
- Being personable. “I like my shoots to be a relaxed, enjoyable experience for all involved, so a relaxed personality is important to me. Working with someone I get on with always makes the experience much easier, especially on away or multi-day assignments.”
- Technical proficiency. “If you’re working with a photographer for the first time and you’re unfamiliar with the gear or lighting equipment they use, speak up well in advance and ask if it’s possible to get a quick run-through before shoot day.”
- Punctuality and reliability. “Crucial if you want to thrive in business.”
- A strong work ethic. “I’m pretty hands-on with my shoots and I like my assistants to work at least as hard as I do.”
- The ability to stay focused on the project. “So many things can go wrong at any time. The assistant needs to keep track of multiple elements on set and have the ability to quickly troubleshoot problems quickly.”
- Ability to work independently. “A good assistant has the confidence to show initiative without always sitting around and waiting to be told what to do.”
- Being engaged. “I like my assistants to be interested in and invested in the outcome of each shoot they’re part of. It’s a team effort, after all.”
- Caring about the gear. “I need an assistant to take care of my equipment as though it’s their own. Even hire equipment needs to be treated with care, as the condition it is returned in reflects on the photographer.”
- Confidence. “We’re all human, and sometimes a photographer can miss something on set because they’re highly focused on the subject. Once a working relationship has been established, an assistant should highlight any issues they notice, but always in a discreet and professional manner.”
Show me the money
When it comes knowing what fees to charge, it’s worth noting that different sorts of assignments typically have a range of “common” rates. For example, assisting for a full-day editorial shoot might pay $350 to $450, while assisting for an advertising shoot might be in the range of $500 to $650.
An experienced digital operator can earn anywhere up to $1,000 for the day, but would typically be expected to come equipped with all the gear to manage a smooth tethered workflow (monitors, cables, laptop, and hard drives). It’s worth chatting with other assistants, and always be sure to ask about the budget during initial conversations about a shoot.
So, should you ever work for free? Daniel says that if you’re just starting out and you really want to develop a working relationship with a specific photographer, then there’s nothing wrong with offering them an introductory try-before-you-buy rate. “But don’t make a habit of it, and make it very clear that it is a one-off,” he suggests. “If a photographer is doing personal work, there’s often no budget, and that’s always a great time to earn some brownie points.”
Is assisting right for you?
Being an assistant not only gives you valuable insights into the business and technical aspects of professional photography, it’s also a great way to earn a living, knowing full-well that the knowledge and relationships you’re building will help you further down the track when you go out on your own.
“I always like my assistants to walk away from each and every shoot with a positive experience, some new knowledge, and a greater respect for the photographic process,” Daniel says.
Sydney commercial photography by award winning photographer Daniel Linnet. Specialising in commercial, advertising, people & lifestyle, auto, and art photography. Daniel approaches every job as a personal project, bringing an infusion of skill and passion in equal measure.
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