How to Get Started as a Photographer’s Assistant

How to Get Started as a Photographer’s Assistant

There are many ways to learn photography, but after you’ve attended classes, seminars and workshops, or sat in front of your computer watching photography instructions on YouTube, you would still need actual hands-on experience.

You could start your business, and do your trial-and-error lessons at the expense of your clients, or you could get paid while being under the wings of a far more experienced photographer. Being an apprentice, is one path to a career in photography, but it is not an easy path. You’d have to be willing to be bossed around, maybe even tossed around – meaning, asked to do all sorts of things, including carry heavy cameras, lights, stands, props. When you’re new at this job, you might not even be a photographer’s assistant, but a photographer’s assistant’s assistant.

What do we look for in a photographer’s assistant? How we choose and train photographers’ assistants at Adphoto?

G-nie sums up the most important consideration when she posted on Facebook, in exasperation over a new photographer’s assistant who wasn’t quite making the grade:
“I don’t care about your degree. I don’t care about your portfolio. I only care about your attitude.” Right on, G-nie.

But, if you want specifics, at least as far as working with Adphoto is concerned, here they are.

We prefer those who live in Makati or nearby areas, especially since work hours when you’re involved in advertising photography are erratic. (My personal record is 40 hours straight – without sleep, and just grabbing quick bites to eat). In addition to advertising photography’s unpredictable hours, commuters would also have to contend with Metro Manila’s horrendous traffic. Since punctuality is paramount when you’re working with us, it pays to live nearby.

Our search for qualified applicants is not limited to college graduates, which is understandable, considering that John has become a top photographer when he barely finished high school (he had half a semester of college work at the same time that he was finishing high school – don’t ask me how that happened). We’ve trained houseboys – they get pulled in to assist when we have busy schedules and need more hands, – and we’ve trained degree holders. G-nie has a degree in Fine Arts, major in Advertising from the College of Holy Spirit, and Anna has double degrees, from De la Salle and College of Saint Benilde). We’ve had them from the top Manila universities, as well as from provincial schools. Where you finished or not finished does not seem predictive of how well you would do as a photographer’s assistant.

There are different ways that they take to come to us. G-nie was our client – she was an Art Director – when she decided she wanted to be a photographer. She announced that she would quit her job, and apply with us as a photographer’s assistant. Anna, on the other hand, was the winner of a reality TV show, “Hired,” and after three episodes, bested 35 other applicants for the position of Photographer’s Assistant. Others were OJTs from schools, others were houseboys. Some answered our ads, and some came, even though we had no ads.

Gender is not an issue – we’ve trained both male and female assistants. Whether male or female, we do ask that they be capable of carrying heavy photo equipment.

We now require that they must know how to drive. When we do car shoots, whether in the studio or on location, having another assistant who can drive is helpful.

They must be in good health, preferably athletic or at least with active lifestyles– since as advertising photographers, we do a lot of outdoor shoots – which may require climbing mountains or towers or crossing rivers. They should be fearless (no fear of heights or of flying, since we do aerial photography); no claustrophobia (John used to shoot in gold mines, 2000 feet underground); not squeamish, as we don’t know what we would be asked to shoot. They must have a sense of humor and of adventure.

Resourceful. Creative. Persistent. Persevering. Hardworking, not hardly working or pretending to be busy. Problem Solver. Must have true grit. Not onion-skinned (balat-sibuyas or sensitive), as sometimes being bawled out is part of the game. Genuinely eager to learn, and learns fast. Clean living (preferably does not smoke or drink, and absolutely, no drugs). Not too quiet, and not too talkative. Sincere. Although we won’t insist on a contract, we prefer to train someone who can see his future with Adphoto.

I have not listed these qualifications in order of preference because there is no order of preference. The combination of all these qualities makes the applicant an ideal photographer’s assistant, but since no one is perfect, then our photographers will adjust – as long as, as G-nie indicated, the new photographer’s assistant has the right attitude.

While I do all the initial interviews in order to check qualifications, discuss job descriptions, compensations, benefits and other employment concerns, the final decision is made by the photographers who will be working with the applicant. Photographers do the final interviews and decide whom to hire among the applicants. That’s because it is important that people get along at work, and actually like each other, and there’s nothing like a face-to-face interview, and few days of working together, to determine if they have the right vibes or chemistry with each other.

But a best-foot-forward interview may not reveal the true personality of an applicant. This is why, if the photographers give a thumbs up on a certain applicant, we schedule him to work side-by-side with the photographer and his regular assistant for a full day. The applicant becomes the assistant’s assistant. I give him a short briefing on what to expect, and what is expected of him; the do’s and don’ts of assisting (like, no sitting down while the photographer is working, to eat when the photographer tells him to eat – as he may not have another chance later in the day to leisurely sit down for a meal). He is also told that since shoots are different from day to day, we cannot give him a list of what to do. Instead, he needs to go with the flow – not to touch what he does not understand, and especially not equipment, not to force what is not opening, turning, or clicking, and to use his better judgment as to how he can assist without getting in the way.

You’d be surprised at what unwarned applicants do. One applicant, as soon as he got into one of our studios, started calling friends to tell them that he was there, and repeatedly described to those on the other end of the line, the studio and our set up.

Another applicant just sat there watching all that was happening, not even standing up to help one of our assistants whose hands were full – he was carrying light stands, tripods, rolls of background paper into the studio.

In the days of film, one applicant’s unbridled curiosity pushed him to open film holders with exposed but undeveloped 4×5 films. Thankfully, he didn’t finish them all, and we managed to get a couple of usable films. Nevertheless, what he did was unforgiveable, and he holds the record for the shortest time that an applicant for photographer’s assistant was with us – he did not even last half a day.

In later years, this record breaker’s digital counterpart permanently deleted files from a computer because he thought the photographer was finished, and he wanted to get the computer ready for the next shoot. We made a frantic call to someone who had file recovery software. I don’t remember if we managed to recover those files or if we had to reshoot, but I remember that tempers flared that day.

I used to make all the hiring decisions because our photographers did not want to be bothered with this procedure, and did not want to have to learn how to conduct job interviews. But since I was doing the hiring, I was always being blamed for all these fiascos. I had to shift the responsibility of hiring (or at least of contemplating whom to hire) to the photographers. I also had to write guidelines for photographers’ assistants, and share with applicants these horror stories about those who came before them, in an honest effort to save them from committing the same horrendous mistakes.

So, applicants for the position of photographers’ assistants, are forewarned before they are sent to the “lions’ den” – and hopefully – they pass their first day with us.

At the end of day, he writes an accomplishment report – what he did, what he learned, what he observed, and to write the new words that he picked up and what he understood them to mean (so we can correct him, if he got those words wrong). He is also to vote on whether he wants to continue with his application or not.

He is not the only one voting. The photographer must also decide if we should invite the applicant to come back. If the photographer(s) like the applicant, he is asked to come again, for a maximum two weeks. He does not get paid for one day of assisting (that’s his investment, and on that first day, he’s barely assisting) – but we do pay minimum wage for the two weeks. The actual pay is discussed at the end of the two-week test period, and only if we are planning to hire the applicant. In addition to basic salaries, we pay performance-based compensation (more commonly called “commissions,” merit bonuses and many benefits), so it’s important that the applicant understands what the total package includes.

During the two weeks, he gets reading materials, A Training Program for Photographer’s Assistant, that we have written where we outline what he is expected to learn. He is also lent a copy of a book by an American author (find name of author) , A Handbook for Photographer’s Assistants. (When I first got hold of this book, I found it amusing that the author’s initial experience as a photographer’s assistant is the same as what he would get with us. He said that the first thing his photographer-boss handed him was not a boom, but a broom. At Adphoto, in addition to a computer paint brush, he will have to learn how to use a roller brush to paint the cycloramas – no matter that he has a degree in Fine Arts.

He continues to write daily accomplishment reports, which must be submitted at end of day, no matter how long the day has been. This report must be emailed to the Studio Manager and to me. He must copy-furnish the photographer and photographer’s assistant whom he assisted, and everybody else in the team whom he mentioned in his report – so they could concur with or deny what is in the report. During those two weeks, he is also instructed to read the Job Order Form, where he can get details on the job at hand. It is his responsibility to get the information needed to know and understand the job and to follow the instructions there. He is also supposed to write the updates – which ones have been shot, what time it started and finished, what equipment was used, and other bits of information that we need to get in connection with the job. He has to get the photographer and the photographer’s first assistant’s signatures on the form.

While it is the photographers who assess the applicant’s performance and personality, and makes the final decision to hire or not to hire, it might be the thumbs up or thumbs down from the photographers’ assistants that could make or break an applicant. If they like the applicant, they might be more willing to take him under their wings, and to teach him the ropes. If not, well… they just might leave him alone, and that’s not really a good thing.

In my next blog, I will tell stories of actual photographers assistants, named and un-named, who have come and gone through Adphoto, and hope you can pick up gems from those stories.


Chapter 7: A Photographer’s Additional Sources of Income

What services should you offer? Should you concentrate on photography, or should you offer collateral or supplementary services?

Even before we formally started Adphoto, we looked at opportunities to pick up bits and pieces of income from here and there. Our capital actually came from earnings from outsourcing photography services. The museum at the now-defunct Nayong Pilipino (a park near the International Airport) needed prints of portraits of some ethnic men and women. John had photographed some, mostly Ifugaos and Maranaos, but anthropologists on the board or staff of the Museum, like Dr. Robert Fox, had provided negatives of other ethnic groups.

We were not yet set up to do any printing, so I looked for someone to do this work. Another photographer-friend with an established studio offered to do black&white prints for me at five centavos per square inch. I turned around and submitted a quotation for ten centavos per square inch for prints from negatives supplied by the Museum, and fifteen centavos per square inch for prints from John’s negatives. That job grossed for us P1,000.00 which became Adphoto’s starting cash capital.

Of course, John worked hard to build a darkroom so that we could do those black&white prints in-house, but color prints were subcontracted to outside color labs.

Until the conversion to digital photography, we were earning from processing other photographers’ slides and transparencies, and subcontracting color printing, not just locally but also in Hongkong, which surprisingly offered better quality at lower prices than local printing labs.

Whenever opportunities presented themselves, we expanded our services to include services other than, but allied to, photography. There was a time when disappointments with a production house that built sets for us led us to take on the challenge to handle production management – to build sets, source props and talents, and look and arrange for locations. We still do this service for clients.

Sometimes, your own clients can lead you to a slew of supplementary businesses. In the beginning, our cook only prepared food for the staff, while we helped our clients to order food from outside. But their request for “home-cooked” food led to our being asked to handle catering for our clients, their talents and other suppliers, and a supplementary service became a source of miscellaneous income.

There’s money, of course, in offering and doing supplemental or outsourced work. Additional jobs, such as subcontracted work, may also help you to perform your photography services better and faster. We realized that the production work that we offered helped make sure that props, locations and talents were ready when we were. If you do fashion or portrait photography, it may help to have your own in-house make up artist. If you are a travel photographer, it would certainly boost your career if you could also write. But do review your menu of services regularly and see what adds and what detracts from your list of essential services. Make sure that they do not take you away from your core competencies (your chosen specializations) and that you do not spread yourself so thinly that you’re not able to do satisfactory work. Check also your profit margins from these supplementary work to make sure that the non-photography work that you do adds to your profitability. Of course, you also need to check that your studio does not look like a sari-sari store and that your bundle of services and products complement each other.

In 2003, we built a second studio a few blocks away from the original one because our two photographers were doing photography for competing car clients. However, since we don’t do car photography everyday, we decided to maximize utilization of the second studio by renting out that big space to other photographers. That got us into the studio rental business. In addition, since photographers who rent studios usually also need to rent equipment, we invested in more lights and now rent out professional lighting systems. To ensure that our equipment are handled well and carefully, we also offer the services of lighting assistants. We do not, however, rent out cameras, as cameras are directly handled and operated by guest-photographers, and we have not found a way of qualifying photographers on their use of delicate equipment such as cameras.

There was a time when we considered graphic design as an out-sourced auxiliary business. We did not want to hire in-house graphic designers as we did not want to compete with our own clients, but bagging graphic design projects could mean increasing the possibility of getting first crack at the photography jobs for such projects. We quickly learned the difference in the workflow of photography jobs versus design projects. With the photography work that we do, by the time we are tasked to do photography, all the concepts and directions have been approved. They know what they are going to ask us to do. Everything has been decided because photography is at the end part of advertising or marketing campaigns. On the other hand, design projects are at the beginning of the production process – when clients are still only ready with an idea or at best, a creative brief. A designer then would present different concepts for client’s approval– and even when the client has chosen the final concept, there are still many variations, revisions and steps before production houses are called in for a final execution of their creative concepts. Since we were only subcontracting the design part, we were only marking up that part of the project, and it just seemed like too much work – going back and forth for many revisions – for a 15% mark-up. We decided to drop that subcontracting part, to concentrate on photography, our main business.

Subcontracting printing – photographic or offset – is a different matter. As in photography, printing is at the end part of the production process when there is no more hemming and hawing happening. The photography has been done, the client has approved the best images, and they just needed to have final prints made.

It is easier for us than for our client to supervise printing. They could put their executive time to better use, and we are probably more knowledgeable about the technical aspects of printing. There was a time when I actually bidded against my own printing subcontractor and to be expected, my subcontractor submitted a lower bid. Surprisingly, the client decided to give me the project. I had informed my client that my co-bidder was my actually my subcontractor, but he told me that he chose to entrust the project to me as he would not have time to supervise printing, do quality control, and do follow ups to ensure that prints were submitted on time.

As a businessperson, you would need to avoid expanding into auxiliary businesses that drain your energy, resources and concentration but you might want to be looking at additional sources of revenues that still allow you to focus on your photography as your core and primary business.

Chapter 6: Finding and Deciding on a Name for Your Photo Business

Finding and deciding on a name. There is always the temptation to name your company after yourself, and why not? I used to think that a photographer is vain or unimaginative when he opts to use his name, until I heard another photographer say that using his name was like making a promise to every client that he would live up to clients’ expectation and that, at every transaction, he is putting his name and his reputation on the line.

In 1973, when we were setting up our studio, I told John that I would rather that we didn’t use his name. Aside from the fact that I worried that his Chinese name would attract the interest of the wrong kind of government people, I was also dreaming of someday, running a studio with several photographers, each representing a different specialization. I also wanted to be at the top of lists, and in those days, lists – in phone directories, black books and wherever else photographers’ names were listed – always listed names alphabetically. That is no longer true in today’s cyber listings. I learned that I should have a name that quickly identified the business that we were in, or the services that we rendered. I wanted to name our studio “Aadvark” because the double “A” would ensure that we would always be on top of the list, but the Aadvark name would not give a clue as to what we did. This was before companies with totally unrelated names – like Apple, Nike or Google – became popular.

I also read that short names make it easy to remember – which was why Coca-Cola became “Coke” and Pepsi-Cola became “Pepsi” with hardly any effort to say the second syllable, so that all we really hear is “Peps…” There’s also Sprite, Tide, Breeze and many other one-syllable trade names. Two would still be acceptable, and three syllables may lose following, but even the giant, International Business Machines became I-B-M (three syllables), and Hewlett-Packard (four syllables and hard-to-pronounce or remember) became HP. Procter and Gamble became P&G but Unilever seems to be holding up as a name that is easy to remember.

I could not think of a one-syllable word that started with an A and that suggested photography. “Click” would have been several notches lower in the list, after all the A’s and B’s, so I gave up on “Click” as a name for our studio. A photographer-friend in Singapore gave up the longer “Charlie Lim Photography,” for CLIP (an acronym for Charlie Lim International Photography).

In those days, I liked a color separation and digital effects company named Giraffe-X, and wished I had come up with a name that was just as clever (with a unique logo to boot). From them I learned that “X” stood for special effects.

This basin of arguments for a company with a name that begins with A, a short name that’s easy to remember and a name that easily tells the business that we are in, no longer holds water. The Internet does not list companies alphabetically or even chronologically (when they were established or when they were listed), but following complicated search algorithms that follow internet advertising and search engine optimization techniques that bring the most-searched or most internet-active companies to the top of the ever-changing search page.

So, you can throw out the old rules. Go ahead and find a clever, perhaps playful, name. Or go for a traditional name (they just might make a comeback). Just make sure it’s easy to spell, say and remember, and work to keep the name of your studio at top of clients’ minds as well at the top of the charts. In the end, your name must be backed up by a solid reputation for great photography and equally great service, and if you stayed in business long enough, your business name would be synonymous with the kind of photography you offer.