Steven Brokaw Photography

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A Photo Assistant - Should I Get One?

Funny, not sure if I was alert to the issue, but this week I've read several articles the subject of photo assistants. It's also been a subject during several conversations.  It's a simple question, but one that can make a photographer's life easier, or more challenging.  I've had several photoshoots with an assistant.  I've had mixed luck.  A couple of times it's been wow and a couple of times painful.    

It got me thinking about what makes a good photography assistant and needed skills.  I decided to put pencil to paper to list what I would want in an assistant. Also, if someone is thinking about being an assistant what are some things you should consider.  Here are some skills to have, attributes & jobs to be done that I think would make a good assistant.  No particular order:

  • Help setup.  Normally, I go into the studio the night before, or the day of a shoot and spend an hour or so setting up the studio based on the mood board.  This involves setting up backgrounds, moving light stands around, setting up lights, testing lights, setting up my cameras, etc., etc.  This is more important for location shoots.  At least in the studio I know where everything is and I have a lay of the land.  Not so on location.
  • Location scout. I sometimes need to shoot outside of the studio.  Finding a location that meets the mood board can be challenging.  One of the tasks of an assistant would be to use time, social media, contacts to help find locations in line with the mood board or theme.
  • Studio breakdown - the reverse of setup.  I'm a neatnik.  Everything has it's place and way it should be put away.  The problem is that I'm usually beat after a shoot, so it's nice to have help taking things down.  This is normally quiet time, so don't expect me to talk a lot during breakdown.
  • Behind the scenes photos & videos.  I love BTS shots.  It gives the viewers a sense of how things come together.  I normally do them, but am not consistent.  I do however, try to take Polaroids which is a hoot.  Camera & video skills is a plus.
  • Helper during the shoot - hold reflectors, scrims, bounce boards, fans, move lights around, hold a grey card, meter lights, etc. Also, adjusting / fixing clothing, holding cloth, moving props, etc. This is HUGE on most shoots and currently limits me.  
  • Monitor the shoot.  When I'm shooting, I'm blocking everything else out, and therefore I miss things.  An assistant could tell me if the light doesn't fire, helps manage the time (i.e. "hey Steve, time to move to the next look"), answers questions by others, helps chimp, watches the model's mood & posing, etc.
  • Keeps notes.  If it's a fashion shoot the assistant keeps notes of the clothing / brand (or assists the fashion stylist with this task).  Writes down the lighting setup, sketches out the layout, makes notes of the cosmetics being used, the looks, everyone's contact information, makes sure the model releases are singed, etc.  I'm big at taking notes, but don't have time to write everything down.
  • A foodie.  Takes care and makes sure everyone gets water, coffee, snacks, etc.  
  • Quasi digitech - if I'm shooting tethered, monitors the tether.
  • Someone who networks & is part of the team - I like to talk during a shoot, during makeup, between looks, etc.  I would think anyone who assists needs to have the same style.  Talks to the creative team (when it's appropriate...sometimes a creative team needs to be left alone to work), networks, keeps alert to their needs, calls out breaks, jumps in an helps others as needed.
  • Helps other creatives during a shoot.  As mentioned an assistant needs to be ready to help the entire creative team, not just the photographer.  It can be as simple as being able to go into the changing room to help the model or the stylist.  Maybe the makeup artist needs some space cleared out to setup or the hair stylist needs a stool.  Things like this.
  • Interprets the mood board and makes me better.  A  good assistant needs to be able to look at a mood board or the concept and help turn it into the right lighting, and setup.  Someone who I can bounce ideas off of and can give creative ideas / solutions.
  • Willing to play 2nd shooter on occasions - there have been times I've wanted someone else to help shoot.  This is mainly when there are several lighting setups or a large group.  It can also be helpful for head shots & portraits to compliment and add to the editorial shoot.

Sounds like lots to do, and it is.  The challenge is that you are probably going to be doing this for little if no money.  This is like an unpaid internship in many cases. 

What are some of the characteristics I would look for in an assistant.  Ask any photographer and I'm sure there would be many of the same characteristics or variations on these themes.

  1. Not a creep.  This isn't a dating service or a chance to see partially dressed men or woman.  Nothing throws the vibe of a shoot off more than having someone on set or an assistant that is giving off bad vibes. 
  2. Has a base level to moderate level set of skills.  There will be on the job training, but it is super helpful if an assistant can come to a shoot with skills.  A model who is getting into photography, another photographer, a student, etc.  The more skills the better, but be careful not to overshadow the photographer.  Remember this is my house.
  3. Has time available.  I normally plan out my shoots in advance, but that varies.  I'm sure other photographers are the same way.  An assistant needs to be available at different times.
  4. Has some physical strength.  Ever try to move a c-stand with a 1200 WS studio strobe, a modifier, and sandbags without wheels.  If you have, you know what I mean.  Equipment can be heavy and cumbersome.
  5. Doesn't create drama, but can deal with it.  Do I really need to give more than this.
  6. Knows how to hold a conversation.  I love to talk and I love to discuss all types of things. Most people do, so having someone who can talk & hold a conversation is great.
  7. Doesn't take themselves too seriously & keeps their ego in check.  Photography even in a town this size has it's personalities and egos.  Don't add to it, but be able to smile through it.  Another trait is that they don't let big egos bother them.
  8. Has a sense of business and urgency.  You know, on time, understands basic business skills, knows when it's time to relax and when it's time to bust ass.  
  9. Can deal with skin.  Although I primarily shoot beauty & fashion there is occassionally skin showing in the studio.  Between clothing changes, clothing malfunctions, a specific editorial look, etc. you will see both male and female skin.  You've got to be comfortable with this, AND not make the model uncomfortable.  If given permission you need to be able to enter the changing room to help out without getting red, being a creep or getting shy.  Seriously, if you can't handle a guy in his underwear or a gal without a top, then you're in the wrong game.
  10. Reliable.  There is NOTHING worse than to put your trust in someone and then have the not come through.  This goes along with # 8, but also doesn't overcommit.  If you don't know how to do something then its best to tell the photographer right away.

Sounds easy?  It can be awesome and challenging.  It can be a great job to be an assistant.  These are just my thoughts and what I would want in an assistant.  I'm sure there are 100's of other requirements or suggestions but this is my list.

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