The Virtues of Assisting – Part 1

I have to say from the outset, that while this article is “Part 1”, it is by no means a planned series.  I just know that at some point I will be writing more on this topic.

During the first 8 or 9 years of my life with a camera, the type of subjects I typically shot, and the types of images typically created by photographers I knew, didn’t really call for an assistant.

When shooting wildlife, landscapes and the like, there’s not really much to even assist with (unless, maybe, you fancy having somebody run around after you bringing you drinks and munchies, perhaps wafting a fan in your general direction in the heat of summer).  Usually you’re sat there for potentially hours at a time waiting for just the right light to fall on your scene, or for the animal to get in just the right spot.  Of course, we usually went out in pairs or small groups just to keep each other company and ease the boredom of waiting.

Since photographing people, however, I’ve learned that assistants are an extremely valuable asset.

Whether it’s helping to carry bags from the vehicle to the location, holding a reflector, setting up lights and equipment ready for the next set while you and your subject carry on shooting, or one of the many other things that assistants may be required to do on a shoot, they can save massive amounts of time and make the day flow much more smoothly.

They also spot things you may miss – sometimes a stray hair or twig in the background is just too small to notice through the viewfinder (especially if you’re shooting on location at some distance with a long lens).  The banter between photographer & assistant when they are also good friends, and the occasional in-joke, can also be highly entertaining to the subject, helping to put them more at ease in front of the camera – and it definitely shows in the final results.

While an assistant is now a regular ingredient in the majority of my portrait sessions, I had never, until a few months ago, assisted another photographer myself.  I had made a number of offers, however nobody seemed to want to take me up on it – I’ve spoken to a lot of other photographers recently on both sides of the assisting fence and many seem to have a hard time finding photographers to assist in their area.  It seems that a lot out there don’t want assistants, for one reason or another (sometimes they’re perfectly valid reasons, sometimes not so much – but that’s for another debate).

At the end of last year, somebody did take me up on the offer, and I went to assist fellow photographer Graham Binns during one of his shoots at Ashton Memorial here in Lancaster.  I can’t speak for Graham, especially when he does it so well for himself already, but I have to say I rather enjoyed it, despite not shooting anything all day (until we were done and I got the quick group shot at the top of this page).  Graham had not told me exactly what he expected of me, but I just turned up and did what I would hope for in an assistant of my own.

The thing that immediately struck me about the whole experience is how many more of the little details you notice when you don’t have a camera in your hands – a hair sticking up or crossing over an eye, a odd looking crease or fold in the subject’s clothes, a reflection on the floor, stray light entering a window or reflecting off something and creating strange highlights on the subject, or spill from a strobe.  Many of these things I was able to spot and just go fix without the photographer even realising I’d done it, and without him having to tell me to do it if he had noticed.

It’s a bit like walking around the pool table to check the angles of the other balls and lining up your next 2 or 3 shots, rather than just staying behind the white from where you think you’re going to shoot, guessing and hoping.

As photographers, we are artists.  As artists, we have doubts and question ourselves constantly, but as photographers we are also problem solvers.  We have visions in our head that we want to create, but we’re not always entirely sure if what we want to create is possible with what is available to us at the time, or things simply aren’t working quite as we’d hoped for a particular shot (whether it be the pose, the lighting, the environment, or whatever).  Having an extra pair of eyes and an extra problem solving brain provides the photographer a sounding board that understands what they’re talking about and that can often lead to a moment of inspiration (either by the photographer just hearing themselves talk it out, or by the assistant offering a possible solution).

These generally aren’t the kinds of things you can discuss with your subject, the makeup artist, hair stylist or other non-photographic people that may be involved in the shoot.  Having the trust of the photographer, not only that they’re willing to tell you the doubts and questions they have, but that they value your opinion enough to want to hear it, certainly does wonders for your own confidence, and gives you that little extra boost you need to push yourself in your own work.

So, has this experience allowed me to grow as a photographer?  Absolutely!

At the risk of horn tooting, both Graham and myself are somewhat competent at what we do and we both have a great deal of experience with almost identical equipment, so while nothing may have been learned from a technical photographic standpoint, it did allow me the opportunity to view a shoot with a different pair of eyes; A pair of eyes that now, on my own shoots, spots a lot more of the little details that are often missed until browsing the photographs on a computer screen (the majority of those details being things that probably wouldn’t bother anybody but the photographer who actually shot the images).

Would I assist again?  Absolutely!

In fact, I already have.  I assisted Graham again a month or two ago on another location shoot with one of his clients in Blackpool.  I also assisted another photographer, who’s been one of my assistants for the past several months, on his first serious shoot with a model several weeks ago.

Would I recommend every photographer out there, regardless of their current level of experience, go out and assist another photographer?  Absolutely!

Going out and assisting others has changed the way I approach many shoots now.  I can see the insight provided by a new perspective and that extra attention to detail reflecting in my own work.

But, be prepared to work hard, learn to anticipate what the photographer is going to need before they realise they’re going to need it, learn to spot the potential problems before they become problems as soon as you arrive at a location, and be prepared to receive little thanks until the end of the day when the client’s gone home, you’re both completely exhausted and the photographer has the time to gather their thoughts and really express their gratitude (often over a pint or two in the local drinking establishment).

Remember, on a portrait shoot, the entire session is about the subject.  Not the photographer, and certainly not the assistant.  Be humble and be helpful, there’s no room for egos on a shoot.