Also known as:
- Photographer’s (or Photographic) assistant
- First/Second/Third Assistant
What does an Assisting Photographer do?
An Assisting Photographer (or more simply an ‘Assistant’) provides invaluable support to the Photographer’s role. The work is simply referred to as ‘assisting’ and can involve a similar range of activity to that which the Photographer does: Setting up and taking down equipment; fetching and carrying gear to and from the workplace; helping with the shoot itself; downloading/backing up digital image files; taking readings of the light intensity (‘light metering’) and other manual activity.
The role can come with real responsibility as an Assistant will sometimes also act as a client or customer liaison and ensure that the client or customer is happy and not in need of anything. They will find out who the key people are on a shoot and can act as a go-between for them and the Photographer.
They will often make sure that the Photographer has the correct tools for the job to hand (like the most appropriate camera/lens and choice of lighting) and, depending on the level of experience they have, may take responsibility for selecting some equipment to use on the shoot in the first instance.
There may be more than one Assistant working for the same Photographer and in this scenario, they may be referred to as ‘First Assistant’, ‘Second Assistant’ and so on, to illustrate the hierarchy. In these situations, the First Assistant will often take responsibility for the others and may delegate tasks and keep an overview on the work being done. Multiple assistants on one shoot are usually found on big productions, where lots of people are involved.
Some Assistant roles are permanent jobs, but the bulk of opportunities are freelance – i.e., you will be self-employed and be responsible for finding your own assisting work.
What’s an Assisting Photographer good at?
- Creativity: It’s useful, but not essential, to be visually creative as you are supporting the Photographer in their role and having an understanding of what makes a good picture can help.
- Understanding people: Photography, at some point, will always be about the relationships you have with others, so being able to empathise and get along with people, whether they’re your employer, your team or your Photographer’s clients or customers, is important, as is your ability to stand up for your own views but to be discreet in doing so – you are there to help the Photographer and help them shine.
- Technical knowledge: Photographers often concentrate on the creative ideas and problem-solving aspects of the shoot, so you need to have a good grasp of the tech (cameras, lenses, lighting equipment and computer hardware/software) will allow you to support the Photographer’s role to the best of your ability.
- Collaboration: Being able to work well with others is vital where you all contribute something to the work in hand.
- Organisation: You’ll need to be disciplined and able to prioritise and sometimes delegate tasks. You’ll need to be able to motivate yourself and work on your own from time-to-time with little guidance from the Photographer.
What are the tools of the trade?
As an Assisting Photographer, you are not normally required to have any specialist equipment with you as all that is provided by the Photographer (or production team). However, good Assistants carry their own basic tool-kit to support what they do and this can be stuff like rolls of gaffer (or ‘duct’) tape (black and white), scissors, multi-tool, clips, gloves, even their own grey card (in case the Photographer forgets/loses/damages theirs). There are no formal rules as to what an Assistant might have as their tool-kit and it’s a good way to make a ‘USP’ for yourself by being inventive and thoughtful in what you might have in yours.
It can help a great deal if you have good working knowledge of software programs like Photoshop, Lightroom and Capture One, for example, as Photographers use these a lot and you can take over some aspects of managing the production of work.
Who does an Assisting Photographer work with?
You’ll work mainly with Photographers and sometimes with other Assistants, depending on the scale and size of the job in hand.
How do I become an Assisting Photographer?
Firstly, some people use the role of an Assistant to prepare them for being a Photographer, so they see it as a stepping stone to that position. Others see the role of Assistant as an end-point in itself and plenty of people have made good careers out of being an Assistant.
Secondly, as with becoming a Photographer, there are many different routes into the industry –
At school or college:
Learning traditional drawing & painting instead of or as well as photography can help with some of the creative aspects, but many come into the industry from other backgrounds as well. Many places offer photography courses at GCSE and A-level and other FE levels and it’s worth considering courses that combine film/video with photography as well.
There are also specialist training courses run by companies like Adobe and Phase One, that offer ‘certification’ in the use of their products and can help with your chances of being employed.
There are a great many places that offer Photography as a degree course, either on its own or mixed with film-making or another creative discipline. If you want to go to University, bear in mind that it is worth studying relevant A-levels or Highers and that these courses are usually very popular.
This popularity translates into lots of graduates looking to become Assistants and/or Photographers each year, so make sure you have additional, complementary skills (like video production, perhaps) that can give you a competitive advantage.
Remember too that study at HE level is not just about skills and qualification, it is as much about the experience of doing that with a whole bunch of others and making life-long friends and memories.
Straight to Industry:
You do not need any formal qualifications to be an Assistant. Of course, studying Photography or another visual art-form can teach you many things, but experience can teach you as much sometimes and if you have the opportunity to go for a job with an established photographer, then why not! Remember though that most Photographers will want their Assistant to have some understanding of photography but many will be prepared to offer training on the job.
There are some permanent jobs in photographers’ studios as assistants and there are jobs in large commercial e-commerce (‘e-comm’) studios run by companies like Asos, Next, Argos and Amazon. Sometimes these jobs will require some qualifications, but not always – check and do your research before you decide which route you’ll take.
Jobs for Assistants are more difficult to find – You may see ads in National and regional press for the larger, e-comm studios. Linked-In (and to a certain extent Twitter) can be good for the e-comm type stuff mentioned above, so keep your eyes open and get friends and family to help look too. Word-of-mouth is probably the most effective means of getting yourself in the right place at the right time, but that means you need to be able to interact, socialise and build your own networks if you want access to a great many of these opportunities.
Do I need to make a Portfolio?:
If you want to assist because you want to become a Photographer later, then you will need to think about starting to build your own portfolio. A portfolio is the visual expression of you as a photographer so it will have your best creative work in and give the people you show it to, an insight in to what makes you tick, what you like, what style you have, how you approach things. A portfolio is fluid – it never stands still and you should look to make the practice of shooting new work a regular one. It’s great discipline and keeps you fresh and can help motivate yourself too. There are loads of options for what a portfolio should look like (print?... or digital?... or both? Prints in boxes or in a printed book…?) so think about what best represents you – and feel free to change it later on down the line.
If you see assisting work as a career choice in itself, then a portfolio is less important. What does count is good to expert knowledge of the various software packages that the industry uses
It’s important to have excitement for what you do as it’s a competitive field, and keeping tabs on what’s happening in the sector you’re interested in (fashion? advertising still life? cars?) is really useful in influencing your own work and enabling you to able to discuss and chat about these things when you meet people and network.
Join photography groups on social media platforms – there are loads on Facebook, for example - interact with others, especially photographers – there’s loads of free opportunities out there for mixing with like-minded people. Set up your own social media accounts and plan when and what you post, carefully. Look at work that inspires you and be aware of what photographers are shooting and stay curious.