© Brandon Magnus-Ledesma
When photographers responded to our call for nominations for PDN’s All-Star Assistants, they sent in their stories of times when their assistants, digital techs or second shooters went the extra mile to make sure a shoot went smoothly—despite bad weather, a broken-down car, the first shooter too sick with the flu to handle all the shots of the bride and groom. They also described the qualities they believe are essential for every assistant to have—and what they look for when considering applicants who want assisting jobs. Though every photographer and studio has different needs, the same talents were mentioned again and again as being essential if an assistant is to succeed and grow on the job.
When hiring assistants, where do photographers look for qualified applicants? Most photographers PDN spoke to say they ask other photographers. “I find them from word of mouth or recommendations by colleagues,” says photographer Sheena Leazenby.
When building your network of referrals, it can be helpful to meet and talk to other assistants. Says Matthew Jordan Smith, “I like having a personal recommendation from someone I trust. That recommendation usually comes from another assistant.”
But it’s hard to get referrals when you have little experience, so how do photo assistants get started? Contacting photographers directly can pay off, especially if you can demonstrate that you are familiar with the work that the photographer does.
Donald Miralle says one of his best assistants contacted him after seeing one of his photos in a textbook. Mark Mahaney says he’s hired photographers who e-mailed him. Mike Tittel got a cover letter from a prospective assistant with a link to his personal website, and a note promising to follow up with phone call. “I was impressed by his professionalism,” Tittel recalls, “so we set up a coffee meeting and he has been working with my regularly since.”
Some photographers, like Ted Horowitz, say they check the ASMP list of assistants, especially when they’re looking for local help on a location shoot.
Photo students who want to assist should use their school time wisely. Lou Jones, for example, says he has found assistants through “photo school teacher recommendations.” He has also hired “standouts who start as interns.” Monte Isom hired an assistant who “was one of my first and best interns.” Stephanie Hickerty notes, “I did find my most recent [assistant] from an interview that was required for her class at the Institute of Art. I'm very happy that she chose me to interview!”
The Qualities That Land the Job
So what skills do photographers look for in assistants? That varies according to the needs of the photography business, which may demand different lighting or technical skills, either on location or in the studio. But being an assistant requires long hours and lots of work, so to land a job, you have to demonstrate that you have worked hard and been flexible when facing a challenge.
“Work ethic” and “professionalism” were the two factors mentioned most by photographers describing what they look for when interviewing assistants. “Initiative: Everything else grows from there,” says Anthony Nex. “Dependability and timeliness go without saying,” according to Stephanie Hickerty.
Many photographers say that the qualities of character and personality are just as important as technical skills. “Photography can be taught to anybody but the ability to put your ego aside and get along with others is something you have or you don't,” says Matthew Jordan Smith. “Anyone can learn the technical material,” Jackie McCool says. “Not everyone can learn how to be diplomatic, discrete, kind, patient and never offended.” Stephanie Hickerty needs someone with an artistic eye and technical skills to serve as second photographer, but notes, “For the most part, camera skills can be taught … which is why they weren't at the top of my list. Being able to put the client at ease immediately and instill a sense of trust is key to making the day flow smoothly.”
“A willingness to learn about all aspects of the business,” impresses TJ Houston. Cheryl Maeder says of her old assistant, “What is most important is that she is willing to learn every day and always wants to learn new skills.”
The Plane’s Delayed: Who Do You Want to Sit in the Airport With?
When asked the biggest challenge his assistants have to face on the job, John Fulton says, to “sit in a car for eight hours straight with a stranger (me).” Shoots don’t just involve taking pictures, and photographers hire—and re-hire—the assistants who were still tolerable to be around at the end of a 20-hour day.
Among the skills Richard Kelly says he needs in an assistant are, “mechanical skills, a sense of humor, an overwhelming sense of professionalism, great karma especially for parking, the ability to pack well, have long interesting conversations during waits at the airport, a drivers license, communication skills.”
The Qualities That Lead to Success
Photographers want assistants who will represent their business well. For some, that means assistants who have a personal stake in the photos.
Monte Isom, “On every shoot if the assistants/techs are thinking about what they would do if it were their set, they can start to predict what the photographer needs. Also it prepares them on someone else's time and dime for when they are the photographer.”
Says Scott Kelby, “I think you have to be a serious photographer to understand what another serious photographer needs, because being a successful assistant isn't about moving equipment. It's about being able to produce a shoot, spec and troubleshoot the equipment, coordinate with models and generally be a jack of all trades on the set.”
Mark Mahaney says, “I'm constantly asking my assistants what their opinions are about images I make while I'm making them. I don't always listen to their advice, but it's invaluable for me to have their input or to keep their eye out for something I might be missing while I'm actively shooting and crunched for time.”