Assisting 101

So, you want to assist on a photo shoot...

A.K.A. What to expect when you're assisting. I started assisting and second shooting three years ago, and there's a practice to it just as there is to photography. Good assistants are tough to find, and I've been really pleased with everyone that has assisted me. I even had a fellow photographer whose work I greatly respect assist me one time. That was humbling and exciting all at the same time. She was amazing as an assistant though. At the end of the day, you're a team, and as with any team, it works best if each person understands the position they're playing out on the court.

Let's start with the do's. You'd think some of these would be pretty obvious for any job, but they're worth mentioning if for no other reason than... well... common sense ain't so common.

  • Once you've been hired or otherwise booked, communicate with the photographer the day before to confirm call time, location, and any last minute adjustments. This is assuming you're not assisting the same person full time every day of the week. Even still. Confirmation is never a bad thing.
  • Show up 5-10 minutes early so that you can find a parking spot, get settled, get your bag out, and be ready to hit the ground running on time. Likely the first thing you'll be doing is unloading. You look pretty terrible if you show up and the photographer has already unloaded the whole enchilada.
  • If you're unsure what to wear, ask before hand. Some shoots are super casual, some you may need to wear khakis and a button down, or even a tie. (Or similarly appropriate for women, black pants and a blouse, etc.)
  • If it's your first time with a new photographer, pay attention to how he or she works, and try to anticipate what's going to happen next. If they review the back of camera with a loupe, be there with it ready when they need it. If they're getting lights setup, be there with the meter or at the light ready to adjust. If they are about to test the light, jump in as a test subject. The guy I consistently second shot for in Atlanta and I had our game down pat after a few runs at it. We have our routine tight to the point that we're thinking for one another. Call it bromantic or whatever, but when he asked me to assist, I knew we were going to rock that shoot.
  • Learn your way around a c-stand, grip head, baby pin, hi-boy, and light mounts. If you've never messed with one, watch some youtube videos or something. There's little worse unstable grip, except...
  • Know how to mount large modifiers. There's really nothing more frustrating than watching someone try to mount a softbox to a light on a stand, coming perilously close to the flash tube while thinking, "If this guy shatters that tube I'm out some money."
  • Know how to run a light meter. Not everyone you assist will use one, but learn the basics.
  • If it's assisting for a wedding, be sure of your role. Are you assisting or shooting?
  • If you're shooting, don't stand next to the primary guy and shoot the same lens. Shoot opposite focal length and a different angle. 

I mentioned a bag... so what's in it?

When I assist folks, I always, always, always bring an assistant's bag. It is my "grip bag" that I use for when I go out and shoot on location myself. In it I carry a variety of things that the photographer probably has, but if not, can be a lifesaver to have on set. What's in mine?

  • Roll of 2" gaff tape
  • Justin Clamps x4
  • Superclamp x4
  • Superclamp hook x4
  • Roscolux flash gel sample pack (these fit perfectly on a speedlight)
  • 2 stop white translucent trigrip
  • Light Meter
  • Gerber multitool
  • Joby gorilla pod
  • 2" spring clamp x4
  • Tums
  • Immodium AD 
  • Bandaids of various sizes
  • Advil
  • Rocket Blower

Now, you may be saying to yourself by now, "Shouldn't the photographer have all that junk?" Yup. I take that same bag with me when I shoot my own work. However, there have been times that I neglected to check it for a roll of gaff tape, and it would have been super amazingly awesome if my assistant had a roll. If I second shoot a wedding, obviously I take all my own gear based on the requirements of the assignment, but the "grip bag" always, always, always goes with me.

Last but not least, as an assistant, don't ever...

  • Sit down until the job is done
  • Hit on the talent or bridesmaids (ever. EVER.)
  • Market yourself or your own photography. You're an employee of the photographer and a representation of his/her brand, not yours.
  • Take photos, unless your boss has asked to take behind the scenes shots. When in doubt, don't. (Obviously this does not apply to second shooting a wedding)
  • Publicly announce that you're not sure how to operate something. Find a quiet time to talk to the photographer discreetly. You're part of his brand image for the day.

All of this varies somewhat too, from shoot to shoot, photographer to photographer. Some shoots are super informal, others are stress is on, no mistakes, get it right the first time or don't get it at all. That's a gut feeling kind of thing, but if you always, always, always assume you're supposed to be at your best, you'll never be ill prepared.