As a professional photographer, you’ve probably experienced a couple of less-than-ideal situations regarding your lighting assistants. Whether they lost equipment or spent the entire time texting, there are certain do’s and don’ts that are important to communicate prior to any gig, no matter how big or small. Because of this need, we’ve created a list of 5 basic responsibilities for lighting assistants. Feel free to send your lighting assistants over to this article prior to your shoots so they can familiarize themselves with the general responsibilities of being a lighting assistant and avoid potential mishaps.

While being a lighting assistant doesn’t require a specific skill set, the job does go beyond simply carrying equipment and following instructions. A good lighting assistant is engaged, proactive, professional and personable. Each lead photographer will have different expectations for their lighting assistants; but in general, there are certain things that all lighting assistants should keep in mind.

5 Responsibilities of Photography Lighting Assistants

Note: From this point on “you” will refer to the lighting assistant

Assist with Lighting

As the lighting assistant, your primary tasks will include shaping the light.  These might include the following:

  • Using a reflector to bounce light onto the subjects
  • Setting up flashes on flash stands
  • Adjusting the settings on external flash units
  • Holding/aiming video lights.

If you don’t know how to do any of these things, don’t worry. These skills are easy to learn and they can be picked up on the job.  Prior to the shoot, research lighting basics such as the difference between natural and artificial lights and the basics of flash photography.

If your lead photographer has allowed you to bring your camera along, make sure that you are not distracted from your primary task of being a lighting assistant. Though you may think you’re doing a great job holding a light with one hand and shooting with the other, chances are, you’re not doing either well at that moment.

Manage Equipment

It’s your responsibility to keep track of and organize the equipment. As you travel from location to location, even the lightest tripod can start to weigh you down. As you take breaks or set any equipment down, it takes a conscious effort to keep track of everything. As the lead photographer hands you a lens or other equipment to put away, make sure it’s secure and organized so you can easily find it again when it’s needed. And as you set up a flash stand outdoors and the wind picks up, it’s your duty to glance over and make sure it’s not going to tip over. These are just a few examples of managing and organizing the equipment; but in general, keep in mind that you’re dealing with expensive equipment, from $300-$1000 tripods to $500 to $3,000 lenses. Be proactive and make it your responsibility to stay on top of the equipment.

Watch for Details

The lighting assistant should help the lead photographer watch for details. In an ideal world, the lead would notice everything in a scene; but sometimes, with so much on his/her mind, things can slip through the cracks. Keep an eye out for a couple of things in particular:

The Background – Is there anything distracting or out of place in the background? Watch for water bottles, bags, or any other clutter in the background that might distract from the image.

The Subjects – Watch for stray strands of hair, wardrobe malfunctions, and other obvious issues. If you’re on a wedding shoot, always mind the wedding dress and veil and make sure they are always looking at their best.

 Dress Professionally

BTS of the Fitness Shoot with Alexis Vanessa
BTS of the Fitness Shoot with Alexis Cuarezma

It’s important to dress appropriately. For an engagement session, styled shoots, portrait sessions or family sessions, feel free to dress casually but ensure your wardrobe looks presentable.  Also, be sure to prepare for any changes in weather and shooting into the evening. Wear comfortable shoes, as we may be walking a lot; and if we’re heading to the beach or into the woods, make sure you don’t wear anything that you wouldn’t mind getting a little wet or a little dirty.

For weddings, our studio dresses in full black, conservative attire. Black collared shirts or sweaters with slacks is the norm; but this is flexible as long as you’re using your judgement and represent the studio professionally. Skirts, dresses, and heals aren’t a great idea, as you never know if you have to climb over or onto anything.

Act Professionally

Be sure to stay engaged in the moment, staying off of your phone and avoiding the bored/disinterested look. We realize that it’s not the most exciting job in the world, but as with any client serving industry, it’s important to focus on the job and act interested. Talk when appropriate but make sure you’re not making comments that distract from the moment.

Always remember that you are a vendor and an employee at any event. Clients and their guests will often invite you to have an alcoholic beverage and join in on the fun and dancing. However, it is important to politely decline these offers. While a little drink and dance may seem harmless, it could be a major liability if anything were to go wrong during the event. Grab a bite when it is deemed appropriate, get some water and a soda to stay hydrated, but never cross the line between guest and professional.

Ask Questions Only When Appropriate

Many of you lighting assistants are aspiring photographers, excited to observe and eager to learn. Some of the most educational experiences in our photographic careers was during the time we were apprenticing and assisting other master photographers. Simply paying attention to the photographer, his technique, and interactions with the client, often taught us more than any class, lecture or book ever could.

However, make sure you understand that the shoot is not a training session. Fight the “lemme see” instinct and wait until it’s appropriate to view the photographers work that you helped create. Unless it’s a question about the task at hand, save your photography questions until after the shoot.

Besides the 5 points above, it’s important to just simply use common sense. Be on time, be friendly, and have a great attitude, even if your job is to run to the car and grab a piece of equipment. Hopefully the learning experience along with the financial compensation will make it worth your time. And of course, make sure you have fun.  Here are a few more tips for photography assitants

  1. Know the Photographer, and What he Does – It is important to research photographers before applying to assist them. This can help you do better in an interview as well as weed out photographers whose style or specialty do not match your interests.
  2. Early is “On Time.” On Time is “Late.” – Seriously, you should always be 10-15 minutes early. Not only does it give a good impression, but it prevents you from ever being late.
  3. Know Your Stuff. – Its important to know what you are doing. The photographer is going to be relying on you to get things done and if you can’t then you won’t be around very long.
  4. Know Their Gear, As Well or Better Than They Do – You need to know their cameras, lenses, how they like them setup and stored. This is key to being a well respected assistant.
  5. Think Ahead and Stay Busy -Think about things that can be done before they NEED to be done. This will go a long way towards bolstering your rep. That and never stand around, always be doing something. If  you cant find or think of anything to do then ask for something to do, just never stand around unless you are on a break.
  6. Know Where Things Are on Location – Know where the nearest bathrooms are, where the electrical outlets are, and things like that. This will impress most photographers.
  7. Solve Problems – Inevitably there will be issues on a job or project, be proactive and vocal with solutions.
  8. Be Silent and Invisible – You are not the center of attention. You should only speak when spoken to, and should not interact with clients or other people unless instructed to by the photographer. A good assistant will be invisible on set.
  9. No Self Promotion, Ever. – You work for the photographer, you represent them. You should never give your your business card or point someone in the direction of your website over the photographer with whom you are assisting. This is the cardinal rule of assisting (and 2nd shooting) and if broken you will almost always be without a job after the photographer finds out.