Outside of crafting ideas for my own projects and clients, there’s the occasion where sometimes I’m not the primary photographer. Yes, I assist other photographers sometimes. It’s been a really great way for me to build my community and grow as a photographer. As a Photo Assistant, I see a perspective that a Lead often misses out on. I know because as a Lead Photographer on projects, my focus is to make sure I achieve all the shots needed on my shot list and often I get tunnel vision.
If you’re a new photographer looking to gain experience or to grow within your industry, I highly recommend assisting another photographer to grow a different perspective.
Some may not know this, but for around 4 years, I was an Administrative Assistant. My job was solely to make other peoples’ lives in the world place easier and to offer support. Blend that with my level of OCD and you have Assistant material.
Here are a few things I’ve learned over the last couple years when it comes to assisting in photography and what would make your time Assisting a lot easier:
Light stand and diffuser setups, tossing on a sandbag, prepping a camera for shoot and organizing bags in a safe and tidy manner is probably step one. Know that you’ll be lugging around bags as one of your key jobs.
You need to think 10 steps ahead
It took me a few shoots to really understand how I could be a great assistant. Anticipation is something that a great photographer has as a skill to capture the best moments. Translating this to Assisting means knowing what they’re thinking and what you could do to help before they even get there.
Your job is to make the Lead Photographer’s job easier
It should always be top of mind that you’re there to make their job easier. This might mean making sure they’ve thought about food and water. Nothing is worse than being hungry on set and having that slip your mind. It might mean having gaff tape on your belt (see below for a list of items that I carry with me) so that if say you’re doing a headshot session and you’re helping with finding the right spot for subjects to stand,
A Great Assistants tool belt
It really depends on the type of job and style of photography and how your photographer works. But having a small tool belt on you at all times makes life a little less hectic for you! I’ve assisted where we’re shooting within 1 location inside a house but found myself running back and forth to grab lenses and items constantly which is not ideal. If you can keep things like spare batteries and go-to lenses on your belt, this is a great way to limit your back and forth. I’ll include a list of items that I keep in my belt and the types of bags and belts I bring with me on shoots.
You’re also a creative partner in a sense
While assisting may not necessarily require your creative brain to be “on”, sometimes the lead photographer leans on me for advice. You see things from a different perspective and they want to work with you for a reason, because you’re a creative too and offer your own view on things on a shoot. While you shouldn’t all of a sudden assume creative lead, you can offer ideas to help who you’re assisting. We all get nervous on shoots because we fear freezing and not getting creative shots. Sharing your creative input on the side makes you an asset on the job.
Attention to detail is key
A lot of the time, I’m asked to watch for details of a setup. I help move things like furniture, decorations and just make sure that thinks like crinkles in pillows are gone. If it’s a portrait, I look for details in hair that I know will add to post if not fixed. Simple things like helping adjust someone’s shirt (with their permission of course!) and hair can not only make the model feel special and looked after, but also cut down on editing time on your photographer.
On another level of attention to detail can sometimes be pointing out (with discretion of course) when your lead photographer might look a bit disheveled and reminding them to dab some sweat off their forehead or to take a breath. I’m quite candid with the people I work with when pointing these out but it comes with time working with them and understanding their personality.
You may need to hold babies and puppies (Just sayin’)
I’ve been passed babies, played with puppies and helped pose cats (which by the way is not easy. Try telling a cat what to do – not happening. Some extra creativity and treats may be required)
Get your Social skills on
I am by nature, a shy person. I am quiet and prefer to listen rather than speak. But as an Assistant, you need to forget all that, be bold and speak out sometimes. I often find myself chatting with executives while my Lead is working with another client or having to help pose a group and getting them engaged. Being able to fall into place with the client’s vibe is key to offering a great experience for them.
Know the gear
I shoot with Canon and Fuji but assist photographers who use Nikon. While most set ups are similar, there are minor differences between brands that you should familiarize yourself with. Did you know Nikon back caps rotate counterclockwise to lock? I found this out the hard way and dropped a few back caps on my first couple of days. At least it wasn’t the lens. It took a few weeks to finally remember which lenses were what and where each item was stored in my lead’s bag. Knowing the focal lengths and what they’re using helps with knowing what is in the scene. Is it wide? Is it long? Do I need to move anything that my lead did not notice? Am I in the shot!?
Another helpful thing to know is how to tether a camera to Lightroom or Capture One. Familiarize yourself with this set up in case your photographer needs you to watch their laptop during takes.
On to my favourite part, what is in my toolbelt? Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time and money on bags. There’s something about the sense of security that sparks joy when it comes to having everything ready on you at all times. Perhaps I’m a bit weird.
There are a few types of bags that I’ve used on set to assist as well as lead and here are my favourites:
I bought this bag while looking for a fanny pack that I could use on the day to day. I wanted something to hold a small camera but also be able to hold a small tripod on the outside. Because Moment makes bags for photography – specifically their phone lenses, there is a dedicated padded pocket for this. I myself don’t own any Moment lenses but use this upper pocket for spare batteries. The bag is compressible when empty and expandable to a decent size.
I got a Shoot Sac after a friend raved about it for photographing weddings and while I haven’t used this bag myself on weddings, I’ve discovered that this is a great assisting bag. It fits my own personal belongings like a small water bottle, wallet and keys as well as is meant for holding lenses. This is great if your photographer changes lenses often. Having 1-2 spare lenses on you makes it a lot easier than running to and from their bag. The great thing about this bag is it’s made of Neoprene (the same material as wet suits) giving it a nice padded feature.
This bag is attached to my regular waist belt sometimes on light shoots that don’t require a lot of of a heavy lift. It’s great for storing small items like business cards, batteries, pens and some cash just in case and slips easily into a backpack when you’re not using it. On occasion I’ve slipped a small Fuji lens into it but it doesn’t close all the way when it’s packed too full so just be careful. Peak Design makes amazing products so this is another great way to keep small items on you.
This bag has been my go to when I lead but hasn’t quite caught on as an assisting bag just yet just because it’s a bit bulky for assisting in my opinion. It is my favourite bag for shooting with because it’s rigid and keeps my small Fuji lenses protected and I love the upper zipper pocket for batteries, business cards and my pen. I put my memory card case in the flat pocket on the front and it’s got a built-in velcro strap which is great for hanging gaf tape. The only issue with this bag is that the zippers are LOUD. I’ve gaf taped mine so now it’s quiet. Otherwise, love this bag.
This is by far the best investment I’ve ever made. I’m a small person so lugging around a ton of gear isn’t the most ideal as most things are larger than I. I’m all for being productive and finding the most efficient way to do things so buying this cart was a huge help on me and the people I assist. I’m also all about being able to squish all these items nicely into my car or closet. We don’t have a ton of space and are on the road to minimizing the amount of -stuff- we have. This cart folds up flat – even the wheels tuck in. Is this a must have? No, you can carry bags over your shoulders. Do I regret this purchase? Absolutely not!
What do I bring with me?
Once again, every job is different and every photographer shoots differently. Being able to adapt to each shoot and style is key. Here are items that I bring with me:
- Small backpack (with only necessities if I’m not shooting, water bottle, coffee mug, wallet, snacks), this gets stored with all the main gear
- Hip Pack/Waist Pack
- Leatherman or Multitool
- Tissue Paper
- Band Aids
- Microfibre lens cloth
- Vitamin C
- Gaff tape (I find I always end up using this for marking spots for talent or even very quick fixes that require tape)
- Allen key
- Blotting paper
- Sanitary Pad (Yes, even if you’re a guy, having one of these if a client is in a pinch makes you a life saver)
- Saje Peppermint Halo (Great if you have a headache)
- Bluetooth speaker (Especially if the type of shoot you’re on is quiet and a long day – this breaks the silence and makes for a much more enjoyable time)
Not pictured here but I think also important to have:
- Deodorant stick
- Safety Pins
- Small notebook
- Business cards of the person you’re working for
Summing it all up
At the end of the day, it took me working a few jobs with the same person to really understand how they worked, what their quirks and personality was like and what type of support they needed from me. You might find this different across different genres of photography and different types of photographers. A wedding photographer may be a little more frantic than say an architectural photographer as their subject nature is quite different.
Jamie Poh | Vancouver Personal Branding Photographer
Jamie is a Nationally Accredited Professional Photographer of Canada with a history of experience in not just photography but business administration, corporate environments and sales. This experience helps with photography in both small business sessions as well as larger corporate events. Being a small business owner herself, she works with you to help create imagery to fit your target market and ensure that your story is told in the best way possible.