Helpful advice on being an assistant

Guest post from Malcolm Birkett, great advice from a professional photographer on what makes a great assistant. Malcolm is a well established professional advertising, commercial and editorial photographer for over 20 years, working in Manchester – He’s hiring too!

You want to be an assistant?

Posted by malcolmbirkett on 03/11/2012

Over the years it’s fair to say I’ve worked with a number of assistants. Some good, some bad and some ugly.

As the industry changes, the role has to change as well which means tasks like loading 10×8 film in pitch black, stuffy darkrooms and fiddling over a 120 back trying to poke that bloody paper through the bloody spool while holding an umbrella for the photographer in the bloody rain AND keeping a bloody polaroid book up to speed are no longer required. And you try telling kids of today….!

However, good assistants are worth their weight in gold and I’m happy to say the majority of mine have been good. A few have been exceptional. The exceptional ones are now successful photographers in the own right.

The work I shoot is pretty varied – one week I’m shooting room sets in the studio, next I’m hanging off the side of a 120ft crane shooting a ship, a day retouching, then we’ll spend a couple of days on a location recce and so on…always busy, always pushing, always looking for a great angle or waiting for the light…! My assistants need to be motivated – one point I always make at interview is that, despite popular conceptions, being an assistant really isn’t glamorous (well, not all the time anyway) and it is hard work. In fact it’s really hard work – the hours can be unpredictable, there’s a lot of pressure sometimes, it’s physical (try carrying a strobe pack to the studio) and you have a lot of proverbial plates to keep spinning whilst keeping a smile on your face!

Of the assistants I’ve employed over the years, the most important qualities have been motivation and enthusiasm. I’m not that interested in fancy portfolios or prima donnas. Assistants who greet me with a smile and a great coffee in the morning, are organised and tidy to the brink of being obsessive, know when to give their opinion (and when not to) and are always asking to test or for my opinion on an idea they’ve come up with…they’re the kind of assistants I like.

A few tips if you want to make the grade

Shoot as much as you canyourself – practice using all available equipment and cultivate how you like to do things and slowly build up a folio and a nice set of reliable photo gear. Once you start thinking like a photographer you should become a better Assistant; able to anticipate and be a real asset.

Be reliable, discreet, loyal, unobtrusive but helpful and decisive when necessary. Being adaptable, easy-going and good company helps. Don’t underestimate how important good social skills are in being a good Assistant. Each photographer is different, some will prefer you to be gregarious and take the pressure off them with models and Clients etc. However, be aware that others may hate that! You need to read people and their needs pretty well.

Ask if you don’t know how to do something. Never just muddle along and then end up breaking a piece of equipment. Though not too many questions, or you will make the photographer nervous! If you can, ask someone else who might know an answer (other Assistants or people who work at the studio if it is a Hire place?).

Learn skills from everyone else connected to the shoot. Watch how they work as part of a team, how do they conduct themselves and use their skills? Be helpful to everyone; yes it is a nice way to be and it can lead to other contacts and work. Network and cultivate useful contacts yourself and make recommendations should someone come looking. What goes around comes around.

Keep good notes and contacts of anything you learn including lighting diagrams, etc. You think you will remember it all but you won’t.

Create an ideas and influences book. Read, visit and study other photographers. Come up with a shortlist of your favourites from the emerging to the worshipped. Analyse why you like them.

Never forget your main role is to support – you are all part of a team, don’t try and take over but a useful suggestion at the right time can be invaluable. Cultivate showing the right amount of initiative; don’t always be waiting to be told what to do.

Always be a little early, NEVER be late. If, for some reason, you will be late then phone ahead and let the photographer know. And NEVER turn up with a hangover!

Be available should the photographer need you, “busily hovering” is a very useful skill. If you go off to do a task then let the photographer know.

Dress to blend in, you’re a creative; you can be stylish but practical.

Be keen and able to drive a car and a van, try and have a clean license.

Keep your private life out of work, put your phone on silent & vibrate. When you are on a job, don’t take other work calls unless absolutely necessary. Try and make your calls back at a suitable moment if there is such a thing.

Don’t approach or show your own work to a Client on a job. If you fancy collaborating with a Model, Make-Up artist or Stylist then agree to meet up some other time. It might be nice to let the photographer know of your plans as they did put the two of you together in the first place and it could be better than them finding out from someone else.

Get feedback on your work, listen to advice, enter competitions & awards but always read the small print.

Above all else – love what you do and never lose your passion for photography and creating perfect images!

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