The Golden Rules of Assisting
In our previous article, we shared top tips on how to go about securing work as a photographic assistant. Now that you’ve getting work, how do you go about building your reputation as a reliable and trustworthy assistant to ensure that you’re always in demand and always working? Veteran photographer Daniel Linnet shares the key elements of best practice as well as highlighting the biggest mistakes he sees assistants making, and how to avoid them.
Over the years, Daniel has worked with hundreds of assistants and he’s experienced the good, the bad, and the horrendous. “A number of years ago I had an assistant impressively strike out, not once, but three times! This particular assistant, over the course of a couple of jobs, managed to lock the keys in the car with all the gear inside just as we arrived for a shoot with a really tight schedule, later ended up putting my gear on an impressively large pile of dog poo, and finally ended up leaving equipment behind at a location.”
While common sense a critical ingredient in being a great assistant, the role comes with certain expectations, and until you’ve got sufficient experience under your belt, it doesn’t hurt to clarify just what those are prior to the shoot day. “
The assistant’s role can vary dramatically depending on the scope of the shoot, but commonly the assistant will be responsible for ensuring all the gear is set up safely and properly, ensuring smooth operation of lighting, managing the tethered workflow, schedule management, getting lunches, and generally seeking to ensure that the talent, client, and photographer have any specific needs met on set.
On bigger shoots with more than one assistant, roles are typically more defined and more specialised so as to avoid overlap. Daniel suggests making sure that before any shoot the photographer has briefed you on the project and made clear their expectations of you. “Good communication with the photographer is key,” he says. “And if you’re not sure of something, it’s always best to ask.”
The Golden Rules
Daniel has found that assistants that tend to stick to the 10 basic suggestions below are the ones that he’ll hire over and over again.
- Always be attentive to the photographer’s needs.
- Make a concerted effort to understand what the photographer is trying to achieve on a shoot.
- Always lay gear out in an organised manner for easy access.
- Never be heavy handed with equipment. If something doesn’t fit, then it’s probably not meant to be done that way.
- Ensure things are put back where they came from. Most photographers know where all the bits of their kit live, so don’t just stuff things into the first empty space you come across.
- Be seen, but not heard. If you’ve got any suggestions on the day, always discuss them directly with the photographer, and never with clients or other creatives. Remember, your job is to assist the photographer.
- Be organised and have a plan. For example, at the start of the shoot, set up a charging station and pop anything that needs charging on a trickle charge for use later on.
- Never leave equipment unattended in public areas. Often it takes less than a few seconds for things to go missing.
- Always check and double check that nothing is left behind on location or in a studio. You need to treat the photographer’s gear as though it’s your own. Count the number of bags you start with and make sure to check all of them off when repacking.
- Be helpful to all involved in the shoot. If you see someone who would benefit from your assistance, be sure to provide it as long as it’s not at the expense of the photographer’s process.
A critical function of the assistant is to be aware of safety aspects on set. Part of setting up the equipment is to ensure that it’s done safely and securely. Daniel says that a good assistant will always have safety at the forefront of their mind. When things go wrong on set because strict safety standards weren’t adhered to, not only can it derail a shoot entirely, but there might be injuries and the risk of legal action. For this reason, photographers tend to carry public liability insurance of around $20 million.
On set, Daniel says that it’s the assistant’s job to ensure that all light stands are weighted down with shot bags and double-checked for tightness once lights have been raised up. It’s also important to ensure that safety chains or cables are used for overhead lighting or soft boxes and that trip hazards are either removed or clearly marked out with red tape or witches’ hats, with cables taped down where they present a trip risk. Any liquids on the floor should be cleaned up immediately, and if tungsten lighting is used it’s important to ensure that items placed nearby are fire-retardant.
Know the gear
A good assistant should be comfortable working with a variety of lighting systems and cameras. Daniel suggests that if you’re working with a photographer for the first time, you’d be wise to check what equipment they’ll be using on the day. “If you’re not familiar with any of the items, make sure to take the time and do a bit of research in your own time, or ask if it’s feasible to pop by the studio prior to get hands-on. And, if you’re not sure about a bit of kit or how to set it up don’t be afraid to ask,” Daniel says. “On a shoot is not the time to learn the basic operation.”
Every assistant worth their salt has a great kit, and sometimes with something quite unexpected that one day totally saves a shoot. But every kit should contain the core basics: a variety of Gaffer tape (standard black as well as different colours for markers); basic tools (including a Leatherman or Swiss Army tool, screwdrivers, pliers); pens, markers, and paper; grey card or colour checker; spare AA & AAA batteries; plus, a variety of clips, clamps, spigots, and magic arms.
Depending on the shoot, Daniel says that spare tether cables, a light meter, and a USB power pack to charge phones and tablets can be invaluable, while for location shoots sunscreen and insect repellent can be life-savers.
Pearls of wisdom
As an assistant, you’re there to assist. “Never take over the shoot or start directing the models,” Daniel cautions. “Every photographer has their own way of achieving the desired result, so don’t cramp their style. If you happen to know a better way of doing something, let the photographer know directly and discreetly,” Daniel suggests. “Under no circumstances should you embarrass the photographer or undermine their credibility with the client or talent.”
For the assistant, there’s always something to be done. Daniel says that he likes assistants that take the initiative and ask for additional tasks once what’s been asked of them has been completed. If you find yourself standing around with nothing to do, especially towards the end of the shoot, start preparing unused equipment for the pack up, or a smooth transition to the next shot.
If you want to keep getting work as an assistant and not ruin your reputation, Daniel highlights three fundamental mistakes guaranteed to ensure you reduce your chance of ever getting called again. “You’re not on set to try and get clients, so sharing your portfolio or discussing work with the client is strictly off-limits,” Daniel says. “Another big no-no is taking photos on set. Unless you have express permission from the photographer, just don’t do it. And sharing any images on social media? Forget about it!” Finally, assistants should never be on their phones, unless requested by the photographer. “If you’re on the phone, then you’re probably not watching the lights or being aware of your surroundings, and that’s exactly when accidents tend to happen.”
Some final advice
All long-lasting working relationships are often built on more than just the work. “Remain proactive when it comes to keeping in touch, even outside the work/studio environment,” Daniel suggests. “A quick coffee on a free day is a great way to get to know the person better. Many of my long-term assistants have become lifelong friends as well.”
A great assistant should be a photographer’s right-hand person, and a confident and calming presence on a shoot as well as a reliable sounding board.
Kit essentials and nice-to-haves
The comprehensive list below was supplied by one of Daniel’s long-time assistants, Adam Hedgecoe (www.adamtheassistant.com.au).
Set of common cables, including iPhone/micro-USB cables, USB-C, etc.
Gaffer tape (thick black and thin colour)
Hex key set for tripod plates
Set of AA and AAA batteries
Philips head screwdriver
Portable USB battery
Supportive shoes (hiking shoes or work boots)
Tether cable for common cameras
Spare tripod plates for common heads
Mini screwdriver set
Super clamp and J-hook
Power board and extension cord
Colour checker card
Stanley knife for paper rolls
Lens/screen cleaning fluid
Spare memory cards
USB stick with common software installers on it
SSD with your name and address on it
Bunch of muesli bars
Brushes for camera cleaning
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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