Is Photo Assisting for Everyone?

All Assistants Are Not Created Equal

Keep in mind that the “photographer’s assistant” is not an “assistant photographer.” An assistant photographer is often also called a second photographer, a backup shooter, and so forth. If you are working for a photographer and you have a camera in hand that will deliver images to the client, you’re an assistant photographer.

On the other hand, if you are unpacking gear, setting up lights, driving, getting food, making photos/video of the shoot in progress and/or the setup for the photographer’s use, holding an umbrella over the client’s head, pulling power, and so forth, then you are the photographer’s assistant.

Photoshelter posted a very helpful “Assisting Handbook” you may download here. It says that “Assisting is not for everyone. You need to have some vested interest in the photography industry, otherwise paying your dues as a photo assistant won’t be worth much. Whether you ultimately choose to take the assistant route or not, it is important to recognize your career goals. If you aspire to become a commercial photographer, assisting is probably a good idea. Conversely, if you aspire to be a photojournalist, you might be better served paying your dues as a newspaper intern.

No matter your chosen destination, assisting can provide a fantastic learning experience. Drew Gurian, first assistant to New York photographer Joe McNally, likens his experience as an assistant to getting paid to get a graduate degree while also getting to travel the world. Not everyone will have this particular experience assisting, but any professional photo assistant will tell you they have learned things on set that they were never taught in the classroom. As an assistant, you get great insight into the photography industry – how a professional set runs, client relationships, and all kinds of different technology and gear. If you develop a close relationship with a photographer, you may also have access to bids, finances, even smaller jobs the photographer cannot take on for whatever reason. Do a great job and you might find yourself with a lifelong mentor, or better yet a lifelong friend. Photography is a business of relationships; photo assisting is where you start building them. Did we mention you are getting paid the whole time, too? Although, truth be told, you probably will not be able to retire anytime soon on this income. You might even realize that you don’t actually want to be a photographer after all. No matter what you take out of it, photo assisting is a fantastic opportunity to study the industry and make money while you do it.”

Helpful organizations to join to meet photographers and learn about assisting: (student memberships available)
ASMP – American Society of Media Photographers, NORCAL Chapter
APA – American Photographic Arts, SF Chapter

CCSFer Maria del Rio assists and interns with Photographer Alex Farnum.

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