Beyond learning how to handle cameras and photo equipment, working as a photo assistant will provide you with valuable lessons that can go a long way towards helping you build a successful career as a commercial photographer. Learning about: project management, studio protocols, location procedures, pre-production and post-production are all essential business skills. As important are the realities of today’s photo economy – as shared by our guest this month, James Sullivan of 1ProPhoto.com.
Maria Piscopo: What are the best ways to research and find assisting work?
James Sullivan: The most efficient first step towards getting work is making a list of those photographers whose images you admire, and putting them into some type of database for easy access (1ProPhoto.com created their own stand alone APP. ‘1ProPhoto.com -Photo Production DB’ based on FilemakerPro) and then making initial contact via social networks like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others, as well as using traditional email to send a short (1-2 paragraphs) introduction with your resume as an attachment or a link to a down-loadable PDF, or if the resume is short you can embed it into the email.
Another great option is to create your own email newsletter (Mail Chimp offers a nice free option) to keep those potential clients in your database up to date on the jobs that you have been working on and your new skills and experiences. And lastly pick up the phone and call the photographers or their studios directly. This not only shows your level of ambition and commitment but it will also demonstrate your ability to communicate with the people you are trying to get work with. These days it is more word of mouth and recommendations than ever before; so you must be socially adept and great at networking and have exceptional communication skills!
MP: Realistically, what are the challenges and changes you have seen for photo assistants in the last 5-10 years?
JS: Specifically, for those with 4 to 6 years experience, the role of Photo Assistant has evolved and changed into the role of “Lighting Director” or “Lighting Tech”. These individuals have acquired a skill set that on the lean side, consists of knowing every piece of lighting and grip equipment manufactured in the last 20+ years as well as being able to accurately reproduce the lighting of ANY published images simply by looking at it and reverse engineering it. This job is not just about equipment knowledge on set lighting skills but also about working with a photographer or producer during the pre-production process, making equipment, studio, location and lighting recommendations that can best serve the shoot and the photographers vision. This inclusion in the production process can also go a long way towards keeping production budgets low; which in turn allows these highly skilled individuals to command a day rates between $1200 and $1600 a day or more depending on the job’s requirements.
And while the position of Photo Assistant can offer a great career path as well as offering exceptional learning opportunities; the day rates have not kept pace with the U.S. economy or current levels of neither inflation nor living expenses in most cities around the world. Unfortunately, there are still: Clients, Magazines and Photographers/Producers whom are trying to hire assistants for $150 a day, and trying convince them that this is a standard day rate. This is complete nonsense when you consider that the day rate for a 1st assistant in 1976 was $175! The base day rate for a Photo Assistant in the U.S. (as of Jan. 2016) is $300-$600. And that is an ‘Editorial Rate’ again based on your experience and ability to ask for what you know you are worth.
I am also of the opinion that the job estimates (provided by wonderfulmachine.com) and the low ball rates they have published on sites like APhotoEditor.com are not only misleading as to the true value of the products and services provided by photographers and their production team; but this incessant devaluation of photographers professional services as well as the production process and creation of image/video; is part of what is killing the long term viability of the commercial photo industry.
Unfortunately, the respect once afforded photo assistants for their skills and years of experience in years past which was not only appreciated but highly sought after by our peers, as well as the photo industry as a whole, has disintegrated right along with the level of ‘Craftsmanship’ that we all brought to each and every photo shoot. That respect has gone out the window except for a few old school reps, producers, and photographers that recognize that value of have someone skilled and experienced on their productions. This lack of respect also extends to the slow and sometimes non-payment for services rendered by the photo assistant. And these are two of the biggest reasons so many photo assistants have never been able to transition from assistant to photographer.
Now I’m sorry if this makes me sound like a ‘Debbie Downer’ (SNL reference) but my view point is hardly unique. In speaking with people around New York, Miami, and Los Angeles; many people who have worked in the photo industry for years are leaving and looking for work in other fields because very often it is no longer a viable career path unless you are already rich and/or have a lot of powerful connections!
MP: How do you think working as an assistant helps make the transition to full time photographer?
JS: Presently that only reason to venture into a career as a commercial photographer is because you are compelled to do so to the extent that mentally and physically you cannot find fulfillment pursuing anything else. Or you just don’t know how to do anything else. If you can survive the realities of today’s photo economy that I just spoke of, if you don’t mind having to wake up every day in order to work find your next job, are super resilient and don’t have a problem living from pay check to pay check; then the time spent working as an assistant will allow you to learn the real world skills that you will not learn in school or might otherwise not acquire should you choose to only work for one photographer for an extended period of time. Working for a diverse group of photographers on a multitude of shoots allows the assistant to learn from everyone else’s mistakes without that added expense of time and money that tends to kill many new photographer’s careers. This applies even more so when it comes to: producing shoots, dealing with clients, models, stylists, hair and makeup, booking studios, model agencies, renting equipment, location scouting, creating and managing a shoot budget. It is imperative that today’s crop of photo assistants recognize as well as realize that: “This is a business, this is your business, and you need to treat it as such”.
[The opinions expressed here are those of James Sullivan and are based upon his first hand experiences as well as information garnered from his recent conversations with photographers, photographer’s reps, and Photo Producers, and may not reflect the opinions of the publisher of the article.]