Since photographers can always use great assistants, I thought I’d interview my main first assistant, Justin and share some tips on what makes a good assistant, and a little on how to get started in the world of assisting. I will say, when hiring first assistants the biggest thing I look for is attitude, a can-do, hard working, figure it out attitude. Assistants who are excited to work with you, have the technical knowledge and experience to figure out what what works best for the light I want in the location that we’re shooting. This takes an attitude to go with the flow. Lighting on a big Advertising production is like a puzzle you have to put together under a time line, which can be high pressure. Having the right attitude is key to everything flowing smoothly. Here are some thoughts from an experience first assistant:
NO: What photographers have you worked for?
Justin: In order to be more informative and give better stories, I’d prefer to keep the names of the photographers anonymous. But, my background is from the perspective of a photo school graduate now working as a LA based photo assistant on advertising, editorial, and catalog jobs for the past six years. Subject wise, I work mostly in the realm of lifestyle, fashion, car and music photography.
I have worked with the whole gamut: cultural icon photographers like Dewey Nicks, shooters larger than their subjects, all the way down to assisting for assistants doing tests. (Which isn’t that low, I’d say assisting on playboy shoots is probably the lowest. The hours are usually 10am till 2am, and the rate sucks but they think they are doing you a solid by getting to see a naked woman all day…. oh, and there isn’t any crafty so always have a cliff bar or two in your car while you are cutting your teeth in the first few years of assisting.)
NO: How did you get started assisting?
Justin: I got my start assisting in a rather bizarre way. I had interned for a huge photographer which wasn’t a waste of time but wasn’t a way to move up, because on that level, interns are seen as janitors and that’s it. If you kiss ass then you are just an ass-kissing intern, your best bet in that situation is just to take notes about how they conduct business and on-set etiquette.
So back when Flash was cool, I managed to learn enough of it to make websites, which I used to stay afloat while interning for a guy who was starting a digital tech company. He knew that I wanted to assist and one day asked if I would work for $100/day and I jumped at the chance. The photographer from that job ended up calling me again for work because he saw how hard I worked and how excited I was to be there.
NO: How did you learn to light?
Justin: A lot of people I know credit assisting with 100% of their lighting knowledge, but they went to different schools than I. I think if you learn 100% on the job then you only end up using the lights that the photographers you work for use…. This is how you get a lot of shooters who only know what a beauty dish with an Elinchrome looks like. I’m fortunately or unfortunately in what I call the “Ferrari student loan” club, and fortunately my super dry technical school in California taught me about 80% theory wise of what I use today. Assisting teaches you the tricks of the trade and special ways to manipulate and create new and different things.
NO: What do you think is the best way to start out as an assistant first of all in a big market like LA or NY?
Justin: I can’t really speak for NY because it is a completely different atmosphere, but would think the general idea is similar to LA. The best way to start in LA is if you know the gear and want to show people you can work hard, work for nothing as an assistant (NOT a PA or intern.) Do the free thing only a few times and you’ll eventually meet some good guys you click with. All the guys I know would be very glad to help a new guy learn the ropes if he works hard and listens well.
If you don’t know the gear then intern until you do, or pay way too much for school like I did. Processing Tri-X by hand is fun.
NO: What qualities do you think are necessary to have as an assistant?
Justin: Qualities to have as an assistant, can seem obvious like knowing the gear, how to use it, knowing who does what on set, and showing up on time. Other key factors that could be overlooked are being able to work in a team, listening to others, and the ability to lead if necessary. A big factor that helped me get noticed as an assistant is having a positive attitude towards the job. I really enjoy lighting so every job has very fun elements and it has helped me stand out from assistants who are unenthusiastic.
NO: As a First assistant, what do you do for and with the photographer?
Justin: Part of the nature of freelance is that you are doing something different every day. The location and subjects can change but even if you are constantly hired as a 1st assistant, the job description can change dramatically. Jobs vary based on the photographer and the actual job/subject of the shoot as well as the type of photography. You’ll develop your own rapport with each photographer you work with. My favorite shooters are those who articulate what they want without a heavy technical way because it allows me to be creative with what I use to achieve their desired effect. Lighting is just like Photoshop, there are 3 brilliant ways to do a similar thing.
NO: How do you choose your second and third assistants?
Justin: Choosing a second and third assistant is a pleasure because you can bring on people you know work well together. On an ideal job, I would base my calls around the following order: personality match with the photographer, skill level, availability, then a new guy who works hard.
NO: What is the craziest job you’ve worked on?
Justin: There are a lot of jobs that have been crazy, from 26-hour days to not being fed for 13 hours. It seems a lot of crazy jobs happen when you are starting out and “cutting your teeth,” which is really a good thing. Everyone has his or her “job from hell” but mine was the first time I ever got $300 for a rate. It was a flat rate but I didn’t care because I was young and thought I was rich. It was also a 20-day job for a clothing company that was big in the ‘80s with a photographer from Germany. Her 1st assistant was flying with her so I was going to be the 2nd and in charge of the equipment. Well the guy who got me the job was renting them the equipment so I walked into this spot where he had already sold the producers on his gear and all his equipment was garbage. For example, the 7Bs never held a charge. The 1st assistant from Germany was barely a notch above an intern and just stood around to hold the photographers cameras. The producers were a gang of 4 and all together they did the work of about half a producer, so EVERYTHING was a mess. On top of that, the photographer wished she was Ellen Von Unwerth but was NOT and she really just seemed to be a spoiled rich kid, and would run around with two cameras, hold the motor drive on one till it hit the buffer, then switch cameras, hit the buffer on the other and then switch. We had 3 digital techs quit on this job. Oh… and one day we were shooting at the Rosylin in Downtown LA, in the heat of August, and the drug addicts who lived in the building where throwing things out their windows from 8 stories up. Floor fans, needles and miscellaneous low income apartment clutter were smashing next to the area where we were loading in and out. After dodging objects all day, a PA got a bucket of piss dumped on him.
Looking back there were a million things wrong with the entire job but I was too green to see a lot of them and I hadn’t learned the ways of solving the issues I did see. I can still hear that photographer screaming at people in my memory…
NO: What advice can you give to people wanting to break in?
Justin: Part one, work for free as an assistant on one or two jobs because no one will turn down a free set of hands to help out. This way you can meet some assistants and if you click with them, then you have the beginnings of a network. Don’t work for free for more than two jobs. Then don’t work for a cut rate after the first 3-4 months. You’ll still be the cheap and very green guy, but you’ll be a great 3rd on Ad jobs and 2nd on editorials if you work hard.
Part two. The tricks of the trade can be learned. Hard work pays off but if you are difficult to work with you might as well not try to be a photo assistant because the job is just as much about photography as it is working with people and matching personalities. People like to work with their friends and/or people like themselves. Your people skills totally dictate who hires you and who hires you back.
Part three. Have your life set up so you will be ready for the random schedule that is freelance. Be prepared to work so many weekends that you’ll learn to enjoy your free days as “weekends” during the week. Also be prepared to miss your girlfriends birthday, you’ll probably work on most of your birthdays too, and out of all the concert tickets you buy you’ll end up giving over half the tickets away to friends because you will be on a job. If you can do all of that then throw yourself into the fire because you are ready to be a photo assistant.