Assisting for a photographer or videographer can be a rewarding experience filled with knowledge and new perspectives. An assistant often receives an insider's view into how a photographer runs a production, and gains networking opportunities that may not have been accessible before. However, being an effective assistant requires more than holding light stands or reflectors. Great attention to detail and a humble can-do attitude can ensure your return to set, and solidify your reputation as a reliable assistant. While every photographer varies, we will review some of my tips for proper etiquette for assistants, from a photographer's perspective.
As a photographer there are many aspects you want to know about any shoot, an assistant of any skill level would do well to know some of it. Since you will be working closely as the assistant, request to be kept abreast of that information. Some of these details can include: amount of models or subjects, amount of looks and wardrobe changes, set locations or changes, what the artistic goals are, length of the shoot, etc. The intention is to set the expectations for the shoot and also discuss important matters that you wish to delegate to your team. I suggest leveraging your assistant for help with time management, catering, setup, and teardown. However, as the assistant, it's important to verify what your photographer expects of you, so you can conform to their leadership style and not risk stepping on their toes.
Figure out together how much time you can afford to spend on each look. This will allow them to keep track while you are trying to get the shot nailed down. I prefer a gentle reminder of time remaining when we get close to the five-minute mark. Sometimes a shoot needs to go long, and most times you never get close to your maximum run time. Let them know this is possible and not to worry about the specifics. It is more important to give you the time remaining warning and let you as the photographer decide what is appropriate to nail down the shot.
For those shoots lasting four hours or longer, catering is a great way to build rapport with your team, as everyone likes to recharge and everyone needs a break, but often we get so wrapped up in the production. Let your assistant prioritize setting up and testing, but during downtime, leverage them for gathering catering requests. This can be accomplished by calling in an order, getting pizza delivered, or even just a quick run to the nearest cafe. Your team will greatly appreciate any efforts put into catering, so take advantage of it whenever your budget allows.
Know your Equipment
I am personally very specific about how I like my gear to be handled, and your assistant will need to know your specifications. I suggest you discuss setup and teardown with your assistant as early as possible. Even experienced assistants will need to know your preferences. Below are some of my particular instructions when it comes to handling of equipment that may be helpful for newer assistants.
Cables should be rolled separately rather than wrapped around the equipment they belong to, rolling them with the bends rather than against them will also prolong their lifespan as the copper wiring won’t have an opportunity to break and has less of a chance to fray or split.
Light stands and strobes should never be over-tightened, just snug enough not to slip while in use. Be careful to loosen the knobs before adjusting the equipment. Adjusting while your gear is tightened down will eventually lead to slipping equipment.
Cloth for diffusion material I prefer to fold along the creases, cloth for backdrops such as muslin I recommend bunching up and keeping in large bags. For all backdrops that will be extending out into the set I recommend taping down with gaffers tape so when team members walk on set they don’t risk tripping or tearing up the backdrop. Taping down power cables should also be considered for safety.
Don’t be afraid to delegate to your assistant during the shoot, it’s very easy to get into a “do it yourself” mentality because you know how the lighting should look, but it’s far more valuable to be able to continue to shoot while letting the assistant make minor adjustments. When you get comfortable with your assistant they may be able to read your needs and style to make adjustments while you are working.
Mind the Time
The bulk of what you will be minding is going to be how long changes take (wardrobe, hair, makeup) and how long the actual shoot should last. Whether you have input in the matter or not, you should at least be paying attention. If your photographer is comfortable with you gently reminding the team of the time, then do it. Otherwise this is more for your knowledge as an assistant.
The type of shoot often determines the amount of downtime. If the shoot is heavily styled with intricate makeup and hair looks, expect a hefty amount of downtime. Is it an outdoor swimsuit shoot? Then expect minimal downtime. Should you have additional time after completing your tasks, I suggest making yourself available to the rest of the team. Taking down drink or food orders, making runs for necessities, and socializing with the team can do wonders for your ability to network, which we will delve into further.
Socializing: Be Humble, Not Hungry
If there is downtime — talk to everyone. You are not just the photographer’s assistant, you are the set assistant. When not helping set up lights you may be needed to help with wardrobe, getting equipment for stylists, steaming garments, getting drinks for the team, and making sure everyone is comfortable. If you sit on the sidelines, others will notice and you won’t be able to effectively do your job. Socializing leads to networking for you and the team, and a happy team is willing to go the distance to get the shot. More than that, they will spread the word of their experience to others in the industry and start building on your reputation.
However, be aware of how you come across to the team, and respect the photographer you are working under. Some assistants make the mistake of being too ambitious and eager, and can come across as having an attitude of learning everything they can with the intention of becoming competition for the photographer. Respect your photographer as you are representing their brand on set, and inquire with them directly about contact details for some of the creative team you wish to connect with. Being an assistant can be a very rewarding job, but there needs to be trust if you expect the photographer to hire you for future productions.
Watch and Listen
Lastly, I can’t stress enough that you need to absorb your surroundings. For most assistants out there this is the true payment you receive for the job. You will gain the experience of how to run a shoot, the knowledge of lighting placement, using equipment you may not have otherwise had an opportunity to use, and an ear into the industry. You may also learn how a particular photographer prefers to do things, seeing areas of opportunity for the shoot and places where you can step in to improve the quality of the images. I strongly advocate proactivity on set, but run it by your photographer. I recommend having a set rule of consulting with the photographer when shooting, then look to make adjustments to perfect the quality.
Photographers have a myriad of details to think about, so you need to be minding the minutia. Areas I would typically focus on include: looking out for highlights/hotspots, making sure equipment is functioning appropriately, checking for heavily shadowed areas, and wardrobe and styling malfunctions. Flyaway hairs, for instance, are a big sticking point for photographers in editing, especially in studio. If there is a highlight, I typically power on the modeling lamp for the light I suspect to be responsible, adjust it so that it doesn’t cause spill over or flag it so that the highlight is out of the frame. If it's light through the trees, I pull out a scrim and shade the area. Shadows call for adjusting the angles of lights or discussing with the photographer to power on a second light or even just using a bounce card or reflector. But above all, make sure you are out of frame.
There is something intoxicating, exciting, and exhilarating when everyone is visibly enthusiastic when they are on set and the shoot is going smoothly. The model feels it and puts more into their work, the creative team goes that extra mile, and the photographer feels more confident. Aspire to reach this, and most will walk away feeling like they got their money’s worth.