Expectations: A Two-Way Street (Or Assistant's Expectations From Photographers)
I wrote a column last week about the ten or twelve qualities that I think are necessary for someone to be a really good photo assistant. It pretty much all boiled down to this-- you need to look, act, and work like a professional. Simple stuff. Most of the feedback from the post has been positive, but a few people have pointed out that I came off a bit demanding and one-sided. One person commented on Facebook that "there are some good points there, but after reading it would you really want to work for that guy?" Don't even get me started on the email (Apparently, I'm a pompous ass).
I realize that not everyone is going to agree with me every time I put my thoughts out there, but that doesn't mean I want to intentionally piss people off, either. So, I went back and re-read the article again. Did I miss something? Had there been something in my tone that I'd glossed over while I was writing it? I honestly thought I'd put together a helpful list, based on my ten years of experience as both a photographer and an assistant.
Here's the deal. I stand by everything I said in that article. It does occur to me, however, that I should perhaps balance it out a little bit. Expectations, as the title of this article says, are a two-way street. So, maybe an article about a photographer's expectations of an assistant should have also included what an assistant should reasonably expect from a photographer.
I'm at a point in my career where I hire assistants as needed for specific projects, but also still work occasionally as an assistant for other photographers. I think that helps me keep my expectations in check. But regardless of whether you are the photographer or the assistant, it comes down to treating people well and making it a positive experience for the other person. As with any relationship-- business or personal-- both sides have to bring something positive to the table.
So, from the assistant's perspective, that means...
Communication is Essential.
As your assistant-- whether full-time employee, or just working with you for the day-- having a clear idea of the assignment and your expectations of me will not only make my job easier, but it will also help make you look good in front of the client. The more you tell me now, the less you'll have to tell me later, and the more seamless the experience will be for everybody once you start shooting. The best way to accomplish this is for you to sit down with me in advance and talk me through it. Will I be doing any shooting? Is there a shot list or a schedule for the day? Please let me know if my ideas or suggestions are welcome.
Tell Me About Your Gear.
When I hire an assistant for the day, one of the first things I do is send them a list of my gear-- the cameras, the lenses, the lights, the modifiers-- everything. I welcome and encourage questions about what I use and why. If I am assisting you, having your list helps me prepare. If you're using any gear I've never used before I'll read the entire manual and anything else I can find to make sure I'm ready. Are you shooting with Nikon/Canon or medium format? Power packs or monolights? The better prepared I am with your gear, the better I can do the job.
One more important thing to remember about the equipment rundown. We all have gear that works just fine, but maybe not 100% the way it did when it was fresh out of the box. Letting me know about things like cords that have to be plugged in in a particular order or softboxes that have to be mounted a certain way is another one of those things that will help me make everything run more smoothly for you.
I'm a Photographer, Not a Day Laborer.
Not that there's anything wrong with being a day laborer, but if all you need is someone to do the heavy lifting, please tell me ahead of time so I can either graciously decline the job or at least not be disappointed when it starts. I don't mind working hard or breaking a sweat. I actually thrive on it. But we both know that while I am here to assist, I am also here to learn. Teaching me something new about photography or your workflow is going to make me an even better assistant for you on the next job.
A Few Thoughts on Finances
We've all seen the job postings or advertisements from no-budget clients who think that photographers are just lining up for the chance to work in exchange for "great exposure." If you aren't willing to take those jobs (which you shouldn't), please don't expect your assistants to do the same when we work for you. I'll bust my ass all day long for you, and I might even be willing to do it just for the experience. But don't assume that to be the case. We both need to be up-front about this from the start.
On the other hand, as a photographer, I know that sometimes you're working on a personal project or a proposal and there really is no client footing the bill. A true no-budget gig. I'm totally cool with that and will work just as hard. The only thing I ask in return is that you keep me in mind the next time you have room for me in the budget.
I've assisted photographers who have paid me at the beginning of the day, the end of the day, within a week, the end of the month, etc., depending on the relationship. It doesn't matter much to me what your payroll system is as long as you have one and it's handled in a timely fashion.
Spring for lunch. I promise I won't order the most expensive thing on the menu.
Tell Your Friends About Me.
Photographers talk to each other, and even though I've known some who don't share or play very well with others, they are generally a pretty helpful group. If one of your friends or colleagues asks if you know of a good assistant, please tell him about me. Relationships and community are two of the building blocks of this industry and-- just like you-- I'm trying to establish as many as I can. If you're happy with my work and not looking for a full-time assistant, please spread the word. I'll do the same for you.
Here's the thing-- In virtually any other job out there, you get a manual on your first day that explains what's expected of you, and (sometimes) what to expect in return. Unless you are going to work for some big, corproate photographic agency or a major publication, you may never come across an employee manual in this business. That's why open communication between photographers and assistants regarding their expectations of each other is so important.
About The Author
Jeff Guyer is an Atlanta, GA photographer specializing in commercial and portrait photography, as well as weddings, sports, and street photography. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter, or check out his work at Guyer Photography.