Category "Assistants"

Advice for Photo Assistants: Working as a First Assistant

- - Assistants

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.

Advice For Photo Assistants: Traveling Smart

- - Assistants

by Demetrius Fordham

I think I speak on behalf of most photo assistants when I say that travel’s easily one of job’s biggest perks. In my time assisting, I’ve worked in the Congo, Seoul, Monaco, Sydney and Rio among other cities, hung out with awesome new people and stayed at five-star hotels – all on someone else’s bill. Sweet, right? Not necessarily.

Traveling might be one of the best parts of the job, but it’s also one of the most challenging. Photo assistants are responsible for lugging hundreds of pounds (and thousands of dollars) of equipment across the world. We’re the lucky ones checking in ten cases of photo equipment, filling out the proper travel documentation, dealing with photographers trying to skirt airline luggage limits (I once had a photographer stick fake CNN passes on all our equipment in order to get it all through). Upon arrival, we’re the ones responsible for ensuring all the equipment got there in one piece, and getting it to the studio (while the photographer and clients are having cocktails on the hotel’s rooftop bar). Don’t even get me started on keeping track of excess travel expenses, or jumping on planes at a moment’s notice (the girlfriends love this, by the way). All that said, there are ways to make traveling – an inevitable part of the job – a little easier.

One: Pack right

It’s the photo assistant’s responsibility to ensure all the equipment gets to the destination in one piece. Therefore, make sure it’s packed meticulously: ensure all cameras are disassembled, individually wrapped and travel-ready. Carry on all cameras if possible (that way if everything gets lost in transit or stolen, the photographer is still able to take pictures). Make sure all other equipment is securely packed in their respective cases (Tenba makes sturdy travel-ready cases for camera, video and digital equipment) before checking them in. And it might sound like common sense, but it’s a good idea to double-check that all the required equipment is actually there and that it’s all functional before leaving the country.

Also be sure to double-check you have all the small but necessary items like cables, batteries, chargers, travel adaptors and memory cards. There’s nothing worse than discovering you have dead batteries and no charger in a location with limited pro-photo resources.

Don’t forget to pack properly for yourself, either: if you can, travel light and try to fit a week’s worth of clothing in one bag. But make sure you bring one nice shirt. You may be asked to dine with clients at some swank joint and that flannel might not cut it.

Two: Get all your documents in order

If you’re traveling outside the country with multiple cases of high-value photo or video equipment, it’s a good idea to obtain a carnet document (essentially a temporary “merchandise passport” for your equipment) to ensure you clear customs more easily and freely. These can be applied for online or at a carnet office, though in most cases the producer or studio manager will handle this process and all you’ll need to to do is to provide the serial numbers off each piece of equipment you’re working with. Obtaining a carnet might be a pain in the ass, but traveling with it makes hauling equipment from country to country a lot less dramatic.

Also ensure that have your personal travel documents in order: namely, a valid passport and the requisite visas needed for the country you’re traveling to. Double-check that you’re in possession of a valid driver’s license, as you’ll need it for identification purposes (and chances are you’ll need to drive).

Three: Back up everything

Backing up images should already be standard practice as a photo assistant or digital tech, but due to the high risk of digital media getting lost in transit (I’ve had bags stolen before; particularly common when it appears you’re traveling with expensive equipment), you have to get OCD-like about protecting your files when traveling. As a rule, I personally give the photographer a hard drive of the images taken on the job, and I take an additional hard drive myself which I carry on. I also FedEx one back-up hard drive of images to the photographer’s address before leaving the location. At least if the plane goes down, the job can still be delivered on time!

Four: Pack plastic

In a perfect world, you won’t have to pay for anything – and you shouldn’t. But in reality, you might need to put up small amounts of cash for cabs, excess baggage, some meals or to cover incidentals at a hotel. That said, carrying a credit card is useful. Once the job wraps, you’re entitled to get all these excess travel-related expenses reimbursed – including international roaming charges on your cellphone – so keep all of your receipts and records and ensure you can justify all the expenses you’re claiming. (For more information on invoicing and billing on any job, see my previous post.

Five: Get sleep!

Long work days coupled with jet lag and a fast-paced, high-pressure environment aren’t so great for your general well being. It also doesn’t help that you’ll often have dinner after the shoot with the photographer, crew and sometimes clients, and are tempted (or obligated) to stay out for a drink or hit the town. Though it’s important, necessary even, to socialize with your crew and explore a new city, know and respect your limits. Get back to your hotel room at a decent hour and try to get at least six hours of sleep – seriously. You’ll feel better, perform better and get booked on international jobs as a result.

If you have any other tips or questions on traveling as a photo assistant, feel free to comment below or get discussion flowing on the Photo Assistants’ Association Facebook page.

© Corey Rich Productions

© Corey Rich Productions

Advice for Photo Assistants: Getting in with Production Companies

- - Assistants

by Demetrius Fordham

In my first post on photo assisting, one of my biggest pieces of advice for photo assistants was to get in with production companies. And though I touched briefly on why, I got a lot of emails and comments asking for more details on how to better get on the radar of production companies, and what producers expect from photo assistants in terms of knowledge and prior experience. Being a photo assistant myself, I can only speak pretty generally to these questions, so I sat down with my longtime friend Josh Marianelli, a producer and studio director at the California-based Corey Rich Productions to get the lowdown on how to get hired at a major production company and what producers are looking for.

First things first. How can a photo assistant get on the radar of a production company, and ultimately, get hired?

Word of mouth works well – being recommended by another assistant or producer goes a long way, so try to make as many connections as you can on any job you work on. (Obviously, while also being respectful of the existing relationships on the job, and not selling yourself too hard). Use social media channels to stay connected with producers and always be ready to share your work history or up-to-date portfolio with any production company looking to hire. Getting hired is also about being the right match for the production company. For example, at Corey Rich Productions we do a ton of physically intense outdoor shoots. So, depending on the job we’re tasked to shoot, we’re looking for assistants who have the right capabilities beyond camera and lighting knowledge – assistants who can climb mountains, cross glaciers, have the strength to be on the road for multiple weeks, confidently travel through Pakistan and hike into the Karakoram. It always helps, in my experience, to have a unique skill set that might be advantageous to the types of productions you’ll be working on.

Also, once you’re hired by a production company, do your job well. We don’t turn and burn assistants – once we find a qualified assistant, someone with the right attitude, who works hard and plays hard, we’ll work with them over and over again.

What kind of general knowledge do producers expect from photo assistants, aside from equipment mastery and lighting/tech skills?

Beyond camera, lighting and tech skills, our expectations have more to do with attitude than with added knowledge. We want our assistants to be engaged, completely aware of their surroundings, and to be independent-minded and self-sustaining. This means thinking on his or her own about what needs to happen throughout the day, project and set. We also expect assistants to respect the work environment and be aware that they’re part of a bigger team that includes everyone involved within the project, at any level or any capacity. We expect them to be respectful of the client, especially if there is one on set. Leave your ego at the door, show up and be passionate about what we’re doing – and enjoy yourself while working with us!

Does a photo assistant’s professional background or experience ever factor into your decision to hire them on a job?

Most definitely. I mentioned this earlier, but most of the time we don’t just hire for photography or technical skills, we’re also looking at personal skill sets and backgrounds and unique knowledge dependent on any particular assignment, whether it’s operating certain machines and equipment, to knowing how to navigate a certain city or corner of the globe, or having certain language skills and organizational skills. We are looking for assistants who can basically add to the abilities of our team.

Anything assistants shouldn’t do when trying to get a job with a production company?

Absolutely don’t embellish or fabricate any of your abilities or experience. When it comes down to it, those capabilities you sold us on will be tested, particularly with the types of shoots we do. We expect you to confidently show up and perform at the level that you sold us on – not just when it comes to cameras or lights. For example, if you can tell us you can ski, you’d better be able to ski! No matter how large or small the task seems, we rely on our team’s ability to hold their own and contribute to the end goal of successfully and safely wrapping a production. Of course, you can never completely avoid an accident – that’s part of production – but if you approach every job with an honest assessment of your experience, you can help to eliminate costly mistakes and safely contribute to completing the job. For instance, if you’ve never worked with lighting equipment around water, and don’t know how to safely use or connect a ground-fault circuit interrupter or safely set up and secure lights of any size, don’t tell us you have – the risk is too high.

Any additional tips for photo assistants trying to get in with production companies, or just succeed at their profession in general?

The industry and environment that we work in has changed dramatically over the past decade, and we’re no longer just shooting still photos. Moving picture and audio work make up at least 50% of the jobs we do today. Increased knowledge, specifically related to operating and working with video and audio equipment, technology and software, will increase an assistants’ chances of securing more jobs. Whether it’s in a corporate office environment or a far-off remote location, an assistant who can confidently handle and operate all the gear associated with still and video productions, including audio, will be able to sell themselves to a larger number projects. Having an assistant who can smoothly transition from still to video to audio and switch back and forth between all equipment on any set, is a huge asset to any size production but particularly small crews that share multiple responsibilities and wear many hats. When it all comes down to it though, make sure you enjoy what you do! At Corey Rich Productions, we want our crew to have fun and not take themselves too seriously – and hope anyone we work with can do the same.

If you have any more tips or questions on getting hired or working with production companies (or getting hired as a photo assistant in general) feel free to comment below or get discussion flowing on the Photo Assistants’ Association Facebook page.

Advice for Photo Assistants: Chasing the Paper

- - Assistants

by Demetrius Fordham

After my guest post on general photo assisting tips, my inbox was flooded with suggestions and questions on different aspects of the industry. One of the themes that came up consistently in emails and comment threads was money: how photo assistants can ensure fair rates and timely payments, how to keep track of invoicing and billing, etc. While I don’t have all the answers, I’ve learned a thing or two about handling the money side of photo assisting, and have developed some guidelines and processes that have worked for me. Obviously, everybody goes about their business differently, so feel free to use this info as a jump-off point for further dialogue.

One: Ask the money questions up front

One of the most important things I’ve learned is to cut the bullshit and just ask the money questions right off the bat. You’re doing business, after all. Before you even accept the job, ask: What’s the day rate? Is there OT (overtime after ten hours)? Is the job advertising or commercial? (If money is being generated through the pictures that are being taken you should be compensated accordingly). Are the travel days paid? Also, get the billing details (are you invoicing the photographer, the photo agency or the production company?) up front, or at least before the job begins. That way, you can just seamlessly shoot off the invoice right after the shoot (I’ll talk more about this later). It sucks, but handling your business, literally, at the very beginning ensures that you’re not wasting brain space thinking about money on the day of, and that everyone’s on the same page. Payment-wise, anyway.

Two: Know your rates

In my experience, no matter how much money a company or publication has, many will still try to cut corners. You’ll also deal with photographers who’ll try to squeeze on rates. But if you know your rates, you’re less likely to get taken advantage of. For U.S. photo assistants, editorial (magazine) rates should be around $250 for a ten-hour day. It’s common to hear $200 or even $150 from some publications, and though this might have been fine in the 80s, there’s that pesky little thing called inflation. If you think your time and services are valuable, fight for that $250.

For advertising gigs, $350 for a ten-hour day is acceptable, but first assistants that work regularly for the same photographer can command day rates of $400 and upwards. Digital tech rates start at around $500 for a ten-hour day. While this might seem like a lot in comparison to the aforementioned assistant rates, the responsibility of organizing workflow and archiving and processing the entire shoot is worth that money. Also, after ten hours, time-and-a-half is the norm. Make sure you keep track of how many OT hours you’ve done so you can bill accurately and ensure you don’t get short-changed.

Three: Bill accurately, and ASAP

Bill directly after the job if possible, or within one day after. It goes without saying, but the sooner you bill, the sooner you get paid. (Also, this way the job is still fresh in everyone’s mind). Like I said earlier, it helps if you get all the billing details upfront.

A note on billing: the photo industry is not standardized and you can be confronted with a different system of billing and invoicing with each job. It’s important to find out whether you’re being treated as an independent contractor or an employee. If you’re an independent contractor, you’re treated as your own business and will be asked to provide a W9 form at the end of a job (I keep one scanned on my desktop, signed and ready to go, so it’s easy to attach to an email). You’ll later receive a 1099 form from your client, so you’ll be able to reconcile your taxes. Alternatively, you could be treated as a temporary employee: this comes with the added benefit of having your taxes already deducted from your “paycheck,” and instead of a 1099, you’ll get a W2. Just some things to note, which leads me to my next point.

Four: Get organized. OCD-like organized

Unless you’re one of the rare salaried assistants out there, then, like me, you’ve got to make this freelancing thing work for you. This means keeping your shop in order: scrupulously tracking all your outgoing invoices, monitoring what money you’ve received and what payments are still outstanding, etc. I use Blinkbid which I think is a pretty sweet billing program for photo assistants and photographers. It keeps track of all of the above and allows you to send email reminders when payments are due. Keeping everything organized will also allow you to keep an eye on your steady revenue stream (or lack thereof), which is crucial for freelancers like us.

Five: Chase that paper

Even if you’ve followed all the steps up until this point, the sad truth is that there’s no guarantee you’ll get paid when you want, even if you’re getting the rate you want. Often studios, locations and equipment rentals all get paid up front, so it boggles me why photographers and their assistants should wait – but that’s the reality. That said, don’t wait more than 30 days to get paid. If you’ve hit the three-week mark and still haven’t gotten your check, follow up with a quick email.

Realistically though, payment can sometimes take over 30 days. I’m not going to lie: that’s annoying as hell. In these cases, if it’s a client I’ve worked with before and I know are truly trying to get me paid, I’ll let it slide with weekly friendly reminders until I get my money. This typically works, and I’ll usually get paid a couple of weeks outside the initial 30-day mark. Should it take any longer than that, I strongly suggest you sign up for Square. It’s a smartphone app/device that allows you to accept credit card payments, which will give the photographer, production company or agency the ability to pay you while buying them time (ideally with the money they receive from their client, by the time their bill is due. But that’s not really your problem). Any longer than 60 days and I’ve known assistants take the matter to small claims court – also the route I would take, but thankfully, I haven’t been in that situation.

If you have any more tips or questions on how to handle money, invoicing and billing, or finances in general as a photo assistant, feel free to comment below or get discussion flowing on the Photo Assistants’ Association Facebook page.

Advice for Photo Assistants

- - Assistants

Guest post by Demetrius Fordham

Like many young, aspiring photographers I thought I’d move to New York from Colorado and start reeling in the ad campaigns, editorials and magazine covers. That was six years ago. And while I’ve shot some cool editorials and ad campaigns here and there, photo assisting is still my bread and butter, like many other photographers I know.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I’ve found it’s a steady way of earning some decent cash in the photo industry while building up my portfolio. It can help you get your bearings in the highly competitive business of commercial and editorial photography, help you build your network and allow you to work alongside some excellent photographers. Plus, it’s a great “first step” in deciding whether or not you actually want to pursue a career in photography (4am call times are not for everyone and you’ll find that out pretty quick).

So if you’ve decided that you want to foray into the crazy world of photo assisting, whether it’s to earn some money or your photo stripes or both, here are a few tips I’ve learned on how to succeed as a photo assistant, thanks to my six years of assisting photographers like Sheila Metzer, Finely MacKay and Doug Menuez.

One: Forget pricey photo schools

Yeah, you heard me. Ditch those photo schools and programs you’d drop thousands on to allegedly “learn the ropes” and just get out there. Technical expertise is taught best on the job. So go out and get yourself one: go to your local photography rental house with an equipment room, or hit up photography studios. (In big cities like New York and Los Angeles, there are literally hundreds). These are great places to learn the ins and outs of lighting, digital and the latest professional camera gear. Slog it out long enough at these places and you’ll meet like-minded photo assistants and photographers that you’ll find can be some of your best resources. Which leads me to my next tip.

Two: Network with other photo assistants

I got my first photo assisting gig through another photo assistant who I’d met at a studio where I’d been putting in some hours. See, photographers will often ask the first assistant to pick his second and third assistants. So if you have some good contacts in the industry, it’s safe to say that you’ll also get some decent and regular work. I’ve learned that a network of a few solid photo assisting buddies goes a long way. And it goes without saying that when you start to book your own photo assisting gigs (or better yet, your own shooting gigs) you’ll throw a bone their way, too.

Insider tip: If there’s a particular photographer you want to assist for, then do some casual research. Look them up on LinkedIn or Facebook (Photo Assistants Association on Facebook) and find out who their studio managers or first assistants are (these guys are the ones who do the freelance assistant hiring). Chances are, you’ll have a common friend or two. Go buy them a drink. Everyone likes a free drink.

Three: Get on the radar of production companies

Contact production companies that specialize in photo shoots, tell them you’re a photo assistant and you’d like to be placed on their assistant’s list. After some vetting on their end, you’ll be placed in a database. It’s sounds overly simple, but from personal experience there is a lot of work that comes directly from production companies. Why? Because photographers are lazy. They don’t want to worry about minutae and trust their producers to handle all of the logistics of a photo shoot. This will bode well for you.

Four: Check your ego at the door

Seriously. ‘Assist’ is the key word. You are the photo assistant, not the photographer (you’ll have your time soon enough). In the meantime, learn how to respect someone else’s shoot and follow instructions. This includes checking your cellphone at the door. Don’t answer your phone on set, don’t Instagram, Facebook or text. This is not your set. This is surprisingly hard for some photo assistants to learn.

Five: Do your homework

Research your photographer. Go online and find out their style of photography, the kinds of lighting and camera they use, and ask other assistants they’ve worked with about their digital workflow. As you continue to work with the same photographers, you’ll begin to anticipate their moves and requests before they ask you: but before you get to that point, it pays to do some research.

Go out and get some of the basic tools you’ll need on set. The more you work, the bigger your kit will grow, especially if you’re working on the digital end of things – assorted cables, cube taps, tape, tools will quickly fill your kit bag – but in the meantime, get yourself some set gloves, and a multi-tool, like a leather man. Trust me.

Before you go on set, make sure you’re an expert at your equipment. Ensure you know how every piece of equipment works, and if you don’t know, ask. Small mistakes can cost time and therefore money – remember you’re there to help speed the process along, not hinder it.

Have an eye for detail: little things like double-checking the photographer’s camera to make sure it’s set to .raw and not .jpeg. Take note of where power settings are on flash packs. Have small reflectors, nets and other light-shaping tools on hand at all times to accommodate subtle light changes as needed.

Six: Learn and remember

Though it’s easy to get caught up in the fine details of the job, it’s also important to actively take stock of the things you learn as an assistant – from the business of making a production work, to how to achieve certain lighting, to adopting techniques for creating certain types of images – so that you can apply them to your own shoots one day. You learn so much about the business and technical side of the industry just by being around sets all day, and this knowledge will serve you well.

Seven: The photographer is always right

Know this, and you’ll keep getting hired.

Photo by Robert Wright


- - Assistants, Working

Photo by Travis Shinn

OTMFC is a collective of great photographers and assistants that come to your job with a truck load of experience and equipment to get it done right. I caught up with David Hudgins, one of the founders, to see what this is all about.

Heidi: Have to ask, how did you come up with the logo?
David:  The logo was drawn up on a bar napkin.

When you don’t want to drop the f bomb, what’s the replacement?
Over The Moon For Christ is one of our favorites, but we always prefer to drop the F Bomb!

How did this business idea come about?
We got tired of showing up to a shoot and realizing that we forgot to order that one little piece of equipment that we could not do without. We decided to build a truck and have it come standard with all of those little pieces. All you had to do was book the truck and you would have everything you needed to do a photo shoot. It made our life and everyone else’s life easier. When you focus on creating a product that works great for your client, the successful business follows.

You have 3 kitted out trucks right now, do you have plans to expand your fleet?
We are always looking at ways to improve what we are doing. When we decide to take action will depend on the needs of our clients.

How did you decide what each of the 3 trucks would be kitted with?
Through years of experience working on set and placing orders, we knew what equipment we would need for different size shoots and budgets. We tailored equipment packages around these parameters.

Can you do a la carte and or is it a flat fee?
We provide both! We have trucks that come as a package at a set price. We also have trucks and cargo vans that are a la carte and can be built out to accommodate any size shoot. You can also have equipment delivered and picked up from your set.

Have you ever been on a job where the photographer has SO MUCH to choose from they go into option paralysis or they keep changing their set up?
Once we had a whole truck load of equipment, 50,000 watts of light, motion picture lights, etc. The assistants spent hours lighting the set to perfection then the photographer turned in the opposite direction and shot talent with an on camera flash. They never even used the set! That has happened to us so many times we have lost count.

One of the biggest problems photographers seem to have is editing. Whether it is narrowing down the images from your shoot, deciding what couture gown talent will wear, or deciding which lighting setup you will use, a photographer always likes to have options so they can pick the best solution.

Does it ever happen where someone orders the biggest set up you have and then shoots available light? Would you call that your dream client?
Again, that happens all the time. We had a shoot last week where we hauled the contents of a whole truck, including generators onto the roof of a building. The assistants setup all of the lights, and the photographer used a flex fill for the first 2 shots and a flashlight for the last 2. They are not necessarily dream clients, because you still have to setup and breakdown the equipment. The dream client would be the one that gets a truck of gear then tells you to leave it all IN THE TRUCK and then lights available light.

We have a joke about “available light,” because when a photographer says they are going to shoot available light, you think it will be an easy day…then they end up setting up every light you have available and it becomes a long brutal day.

What’s the advantage of hiring you over let’s say renting individual items, cost I assume and variety? Why else?
Passion and experience.

How much new equipment do you invest in on a yearly basis?
This depends on what equipment comes out. Some years have more new toys that others.

How do handle the lighting demands of a still and video shoot on a job where they require both and need to be shot at the same time? Are you noticing a trend towards continuous lighting?
There is a lot of convergence between continuous and strobe lighting. The challenge is finding, understanding, and providing the tools to give the photographer their look with both options.

Your site has an extensive roster of available crew, how do you get on the list? Who vets them?
The people that are on our list, are people we have known and worked with. There are a lot of great assistants in LA that we have not had the pleasure of working with. We try to add people after they have worked with several other assistants on our list and have been recommended by them and our clients.

Are any of your guys aspiring photographers or are you all committed to running this business?
There are a handful of us that are dedicated to running the company. The rest are great assistants and great photographers.