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Tips & Tricks

Quitting Your Day Job Part 6: The Art of Being A Photographer’s Assistant

By Chris Nachtwey on August 7th 2014

What Really Happens When You Quit Your Day Job

This is a un-sugarcoated look into what life is really like when you walk away from the steady paycheck and enter the world of being self employed. I will be sharing my experiences, thoughts, and anything else that comes my way as I navigate the waters of being a full time photographer. I also hope to interview other full time photographers to share their experiences with you as well.

Part 6: The Art of Being a Photographer’s Assistant

If you have read my Quitting Your Day Job series, you know that I walked right into the lion’s den that is wedding photography. I never assisted a wedding photographer nor did I second shoot. I went from not shooting a wedding to being a lead wedding photographer.

I’m here to tell you that I would not suggest taking that route whatsoever. If I could go back and do things differently, I would have assisted, second shot, and finally become a lead wedding photographer. Many of the things I’ve had to learn on my own could have been learned if I assisted or second shot for a wedding season or two, but I have no regrets, that was my path and it’s worked out just fine for me.

REWIND: QUITTING YOUR DAY JOB PART 4: BOOKING MY FIRST WEDDING AND BEYOND

A funny thing has happened this season though; I’ve been assisting wedding photographers in my area. Now, why would someone who is a lead wedding photographer and who books enough jobs to support himself decide to assist now? I wanted more experience. That’s it, plain and simple. I wanted to fill days that I was not booked with being at weddings. Even though I’m more than comfortable managing and shooting a wedding day myself, assisting fellow wedding photographers can help me improve my own business.

So, how do you actually find a wedding photographer to assist in your area and what should you expect from the experience? I’m here to share what I’ve learned so far this wedding season.

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How I Landed My Assisting Jobs

Finding a wedding photographer to assist is not easy per say, but it’s not impossible either. I found one of my assisting jobs via social media. I simply replied to a posting looking for assistants for the upcoming wedding season, met with the photographer in person for coffee (kind of like a low key job interview), we hit it off, and I was offered the opportunity to assist a few weddings throughout the season.

My other assisting job came from a photographer friend of mine who I had worked with in the past doing some second shooting, who needed an extra hand a few times this season.

Tips For Finding Your First Assisting Job

If you truly want to assist, you’re going to have to work for it, and I’m not talking about just sending random emails. You need to have a sit down meeting with the photographer you want to assist, and tell them what you can offer as an assistant and what your end goal is. Emailing or calling a photographer is a great way to start the line of communication. I can tell you personally as a lead photographer myself, I will not consider hiring you unless you make the effort to sit down with me in person.

When looking to assist, you need to offer something, for when you bring value to the table, other photographers see the value in having you by their side. For example, I was able to offer my lighting experience and knowledge of how to work with couples since I’m typically a lead photographer. With that said, you might not offer anything, and that’s ok. Just make sure to convey to the photographer you’re meeting with that you are willing to drag bags around, hold lights, and need to learn how weddings go. While I’m one to hire someone who has some experience, I’m also the first person to give someone with no experience a chance, if I feel they are genuine and can represent my brand well.

What To Expect When Assisting

I’m not going to lie to you, assisting is not very glamorous. It’s a lot of bag carrying, setting up lights, and running to grab things in the car. You will most likely not shoot one frame all day (unless you assist me, I toss my assistants a camera during the ceremony and reception when I don’t need any help). You will not talk much to the couple, and during the reception you might be bored, because there is nothing for you to do. What you will learn is how a wedding day flows, how a fellow photographer handles a tough situation, how to light and shoot within tight time constraints, and many more things.

Expect the unexpected. This is wedding photography. It’s a pressure cooker, and anything that can happen, will happen.

My Tips For Being a Great Assistant

1. Dress Well – Ask the lead photographer ahead of time about attire. Some photographers want their team in all black, some don’t mind vibrant colorful attire, and some don’t care. Make sure you find out what to wear and show up looking presentable to the photographer’s request.

2. Show Up Early – Nothing worse than showing up late! If you’re driving yourself to the venue, make sure you’re there early. I try to show up at least ten minutes early. When I see the lead show up, I’m ready to greet them, ask about the plan for the day, and get to work.

3. Don’t Ask About Money – There should have been a discussion about how much you will be paid for your help long before you showed up to the wedding. Do not ask the photographer about your cash or check at all throughout the day. You will be paid once the day is done, and if you’re not, then you can argue and feel used. Any lead photographer worth their weight is going to pay you based on your prior discussion, be it at the beginning of the day or the end.

4. Learn The Gear Fast – Make sure to have the lead photographer show you the gear you will be carrying and helping with all day. Most photographers have a system for how they carry gear and how it’s organized in their bags. Make sure to learn real fast where the 70-200 goes and where the wireless triggers are, for example. If you know where the gear is, it makes life easy when you’re asked to grab two triggers, a macro lens, and a set of batteries.

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5. Leave Your Gear At Home – Don’t expect to shoot at all, leave your gear at home; don’t even throw it in the car. If a photographer needs you to shoot, they will throw you a camera and ask you to do what they need. Sometimes assisting means sitting in the back of the church watching the ceremony. That’s not a total loss though, when something like that does happen, use that time to observe how the lead photographer is working, where they position themselves, what lenses they are using, and how they capture the moments.

6. Keep Your Mouth Shut – That is blunt, but the truth. Stay quiet and don’t give your opinion unless asked. Let the lead photographer introduce you to the couple; don’t barge into the room pronouncing that you’re here! If you don’t agree with how something is going, bite your tongue. This is not your gig, do your best to just do what you’re asked to do. It’s not always easy, but that’s what assisting is. You’re helping, not leading.

7. No Self Promotion At All – You’re working for the lead photographer. It’s their gig and you did nothing to book this job. Do not hand out your own business cards; do not mention that you have your own budding wedding photography business. If anything, ask for some business cards from the lead photographer, and when asked about the photography, hand those cards out to the guest.

8. Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help – There is no way for you to know how every piece of gear works. If you’re having trouble with something, just ask for help from the lead. Make sure they are not busy, and I guarantee they will happily show you how to set that light up correctly or how to get the triggers working. Now, remember how it works, because a second ask could annoy the lead photographer.

9. Have Fun – For goodness sake, make sure to have a good time. I don’t mean drinking and dancing at the reception, I mean enjoy what you’re doing. Crack a joke on the side if the lead is a little down about something. Stay positive, and upbeat. If the couple talks to you, by all means engage them. Have fun, be personable and learn a few things along the way.

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One of my great assistants in action

Conclusion

For me, assisting is not easy to do from time to time. As a lead shooter,  it’s hard to not shoot, but I have learned a lot this season. I’ve seen venues I’ve never seen; I’ve learned new ways to use speedlights; how to shoot formals more efficiently; and a slew of other good tips and tricks.

Most importantly, I’ve immersed myself in more weddings. I’ve spent days that I would have been at home instead, at weddings learning more and more. The pay is decent and I’ve made some new friends in the industry. So, if you’re looking to learn more, or just immerse yourself in more weddings like me, find a good assisting job on the side to fill those days you’re not booked.

Till next time, keep shooting, building your business, and embrace the hustle!

Chris Nachtwey is a full-time wedding and portrait photographer based in Connecticut. He is the founder and creator of 35to220 a website dedicated to showcasing the best film photography in the world. Chris loves to hear from readers, feel free to drop him a line via the contact page on his website! You can see his work here: Chris Nachtwey Photography

Q&A Discussions

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  1. hIDE ME

    It’s all about fun fun fun :)
    Have fun with what you are doing and you’ll instantly do your best at the job in hand.

    Nicely written series.

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  2. James Matthews

    I’ve recently moved to San Diego and I’m trying to make contacts by way of assisting. I called a bunch of photographers whose work I liked and was basically hung up on each time. Opted to email the rest instead asking for a quick coffee catch up to touch base, nothing. I think I’ve emailed about 80.
    It is tough…

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    • Greg Faulkner

      Dude that’s not you it’s them. That kind of attitude is just rude, if that’s how they treat people you don’t want to be around them.

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    • Chris Nachtwey

      James, sorry to hear about that. No one should hang up on you if your genuine. If there are any photography Facebook groups for San Diego photographers I would suggest trying to get into a good one and posting that you are looking to assist. I know in CT that’s a good way to find side work. Also, it’s not you, it’s them. Keep grinding man, someone will bite, even if you need to assist for free once or twice to prove your worth paying.

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    • James Matthews

      Yeah, thanks guys. I’ll keep gunning and will eventually get there :)

      I did find a couple of fb groups but they are locked and I’m waiting to hear back about my request to join. I’m sure I can dig up a few more.

      Fingers crossed Lin & Jirsa find my application soon ;)

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  3. David Yoon

    This is a great article. Thank you for the tips!

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  4. Austin Swenson

    Super upfront advice, I loved reading this article!

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