Guest post by Demetrius Fordham
Throughout my years photo assisting, some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned have been while working as a first assistant. Though you glean a wealth of knowledge as a regular assistant—how to handle cameras, digital equipment and lights, how to set up and break down equipment, etc—as a first assistant, you work more closely with the photographer during the shooting process. Essentially, you’re shadowing the photographer and I’d even go so far as to say that you’re the extension of that photographer—making the role an effective litmus test for deciding whether or not photography is actually the career path you want to pursue. (A number of photographers I’ve worked with began as first assistants before making the transition).
So how do you get work as a first assistant? Usually, it’s a process that happens organically: you work regularly with a photographer who likes and trusts you—and for long enough—and it happens by default. You’ll become entrusted to handle pre-production tasks (e.g. arranging second and third assets), post-production tasks (e.g. wrapping the job), and management (e.g. delegating tasks to other assistants). It’s a job that can be rewarding, and if nothing else, you can rely on more regular work and a (mildly) higher paycheck at the end of the day. I asked my buddy, celebrated photographer Doug Menuez, to drop some knowledge on the topic.
In your opinion, what are the benefits of being first assistant?
Being a first assistant is a great way to see how things operate in the real world. There are things that just can’t be taught in school, or even by working as a regular assistant, that you can only get from closely assisting a photographer—especially someone whose creative work you respect, and can be inspired by.
What makes a good first assistant?
Loyalty, attention to detail, a passion for great images. Someone who can take responsibility for their own actions, and think in terms of the whole production. They might not be responsible for travel or some aspect, but they need to be paying attention to it all, and help out where they see a problem coming. Also, they have to be smarter than the photographer and help them focus when they get distracted. Most of all, they have to be mind readers—and stay one step ahead of the photographer.
(Author’s note: If I could add my own two cents, being a first assistant myself, I’d add that 80% of being a successful first assistant is dependent on how well you work with the photographer on a personal level. So much of photography goes beyond technical skills and lighting/digital expertise; a lot of it is about effective communication and interpersonal relationships. And as a first assistant, being an effective listener and communicator/borderline “mind reader” is a necessary skill given how closely you work with a photographer and his clients).
What advice can you impart to a first assistant wanting to transition to photographer?
Soak up everything you can. Listen to everything, watch everything that happens. Be humble—assume you know nothing and be willing and open to learn. Then work your ass off. And have a plan: the thing that holds back a lot of potential photographers is not having a plan. They just go from gig to gig, and start doing well as an assistant—and can get stuck. They don’t have an understanding of the business side and never have enough cash to do their own shoots, portfolios and marketing. Write a business plan that clearly states what your dream is, and how you see that happening over X years.