Photo Assisting

Alan Vance lugs my camera Pelican (with maybe $15,000 of glass & cameras in it) up a ladder to the rooftop.

If you work with me on location, there’s pretty much a constant refrain of me shouting, “Alan!”

“Alan, can I get my 1.4x extender?”   “Alan, I need the power cable for the laptop.”   “Alan, can we get a head with an umbrella out that window, and then flag it so the reflection doesn’t show in the glass tile behind the stove?”

A good Photo Assistant (“PA”) can absolutely make or break a shoot, so today we’re going to hear from mine: Alan Vance. I get emails every week from people offering to assist me for free, but they don’t always realize just what a skilled position they’re asking for. Carrying gear around is only a tiny, tiny piece of the puzzle. A good PA can work very closely with the photographer, and handle complex technical tasks with a huge variety of equipment.

You wanna be a photo assistant? You’d better be intimately familiar with equipment from Broncolor, Elinchrom, ProPhoto, Dynalite, Arri, Lowell, Photek, Matthews, Manfrotto, Arca, Westcott, Canon, Nikon, Hasselblad, Phase One, Lee, and more. You’d better be able to troubleshoot Capture One, Lightroom, or Canon Digital  Photo Pro. You’d better be able to use a light meter – preferably your own. You’d better know how to assemble any model of softbox, and in a hurry. You’d better know what I mean when I say, “Get two Inkies with baby plates and light this to f/13, and gel them with a half cut of minus green. Then get a head with a shoot-through and put it down at the end of that hallway. Have some CTO ready for that one. Might have to flag it off the ceiling. And we’re going to put some SB-80s over the valence, there. See that little shadow? I want you to kill it.” And then make it all happen. Yeah, it’s a big job, and not just anyone can do it.

Alan helps me load up the equipment, and as often as not, drives the car while I try to catch up on emails. Once we arrive, I disappear with the client to start walking through the project; Alan finds whoever is in charge of the loading dock and negotiates his way up the freight elevator with a mountain of gear on a rolling cart:


And then the real work begins. Without further ado, here’s Alan:

Assistants are more than the best movers in the world. Sure, I start and end a job by loading and unloading Scott’s gear, but I do so much more. I am an electrician, gaffer, and comic relief all rolled up in one. My goal as an assistant is to do all the little annoying things that prevent Scott from focusing on the big picture. Whether that’s keeping track of where all the speedlights are or meticulously gelling dozens of lights, that’s what I do. I assume the worst and plan accordingly.

Flagging a light fixture to control reflections.

Finessing an orchid into position with clothespins.

Photographers are lucky that they’re not the ones that  have to figure out how to distribute more than a couple thousand watts of equipment on set. Just cabling and powering everything safely, and in ways that aren’t visible to the camera is a challenge in itself! That said, there is still a lot of maintenance that goes into keeping lighting equipment running well. On a shoot recently I had noticed that one of Scott’s Arri 150s was running at two thirds it’s output. Suspecting that the bulb was on the way out, I was swapping in a new one when I noticed that the insulation on both the hot and return wires leading to the bulb were stripped off the wire. This is a huge safety issue. After getting some electrical tape to temporarily bandage it (electrical tape isn’t super awesome in hot places,) I tagged the light for further repairs later.

Rigging a hotlight and a set of cards and v-flats to light cabinetry.

Every so often Scott comes to me and asks me to put a light somewhere that it just has no business being. Several weeks ago Scott and I were photographing the exterior of a house in San Francisco, when Scott asked me to place a head with a umbrella on top of a small tree. Due to the nature of the landscaping and Scott’s love of stands that are barely as tall as me, I didn’t have an easy way to place the head where it needed to be.

In the end I had to rig a light stand to the top of a fence to boom out and stabilize a precariously balanced light stand with the head and umbrella on it. I’ve seen and used a lot of grip equipment, and knowing how to make what you have available work for you goes a long way.

Probably the most important thing that Assistants do is to help set the mood. No one likes being around someone in a bad mood; and if some one is in a crumby mood it will destroy the productivity of the shoot. I learned this the hard way. I spent a week on shoot in a bad mood and it lost me my position with that photographer.

Creating a sun shade so the laptop can be seen in sunny conditions.

Flagging off a too-bright skylight with Cinefoil.

One final lesson about assistants; just because you hired one doesn’t guarantee that shoot will run smoother or the pictures will look better. It’s a tenuous relationship in the beginning; assistants take time to learn the photographer’s tendencies. It’s easy to mess a shoot as an assistant if you don’t know how a photographer operates.        – Alan Vance

Climbing a tree to pull foliage back out of the shot.

So there you have it, from a (very) experienced PA. Alan knows the insides of my equipment cases better than I do — because he spends more time with them than anyone else. And he lets me know when I need to replenish things – if I’m running low on CTO gels, or 15-watt light bulbs, he makes sure I know about it.

Setting up the tethered session on the laptop. “Digital Tech” is a whole other class of assisting, with it’s own skill set. Second Assistant Kate looks on.

Bottom line is, he knows what to do, and when to do it. We’ve worked together enough now, that he can anticipate what I’m going to ask for, and half the time it’s in my hand before I can finish asking for it (“Alan, I need the……Oh. Thanks.”)!

Finally, I can’t resist this little gem: Here’s Alan, IN THE SHOWER, using a squeegee to keep excess water droplets from forming on the glass while I get the “water running” shot. And yes, he volunteered for this:

Questions? Hit the comments.

2 responses to “Photo Assisting

  1. Great article and insight. A couple of questions:
    1. Where do you search for qualified assistants?
    2, Is there a mimimum amount of work you need to provide to keep an assistant interested in working with you?
    3. Do you have to maintain workers comp and liability ins. for your assistants?

  2. Hey Mike,

    There are a couple of different ways you can go about finding assistants. First you can always check with the local chapters of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), or American Photographic Artists (APA), or any other professional organization. More commonly jobs are passed on the recommendation of another photographer or assistant. Rental house’s are good places to check too, assistant practically live at those places.

    They’re are a lot of different types of assistants. They’re are some that only work for one photographer, and other’s that work for dozens. Most assistants are hired on an as needed basis. I have one photographer that books me for 8-10 weeks straight (Scott loves when I go on those shoots.) On the flip side I have a couple of photographers that hire me only call when they’re in my neck of the woods. Generally the defining factors on whether or not an assistant will work with you again are the pay, and how things run on set.

    I’m not one hundred percent sure wether you need to maintain liability insurance for an assistant, I assume that is affected by their employee status. If you hire an assistant as a general contractor, they’re billing you for providing a service. As such they are responsible for paying they’re own taxes. If you the photographer pay them from your companies payroll, than you are responsible for any applicable taxes. Ask your account what works best for your business.