Advice on Surviving a World that I Actually Know Nothing About

I have some second-hand advice to share with you. My first piece of advice, which is the most important, is to be prepared to explain what kind of work you do. Practice it. Write it down. Get it plastered on a bulletin board- that way, you can tell people about the kind of pictures you make, whether you are discussing it with friends or if you’re asked out of the blue by a well-known and highly-regarded photographer whom you respect and all you have to say is, “Uhm. I make like, sets-installations and I kind of just stick my model in them.”

Not speaking from experience at all, but in this hypothetical scenario, something like, “My work is pretty conceptual and deals with the tableau and sometimes I experiment with the concept of ephemeral narratives,” would be much better than the answer mentioned in the above paragraph. But not like I know or anything.


This weekend (Thursday-Saturday,) a well reputed photographer who graduated from MSU came to give an artist talk and a couple of classes on retouching and photographer/model relationship. He also was doing a shoot, for the benefit of us photography students and theatre students. He’s photographed many celebrities and other important people, assisted David LaChapelle and Norman Jean Roy, and his understanding of light is super intense. His visit has been planned for a while now, and about three-ish weeks ago two others and I were asked to assist this shoot. So, we assisted.

We did inventory of the equipment MSU owns, picked out what the photographer requested, and packed it all up and unloaded it for the shoot. It was, actually, awesome. Probably because it’s never this chill in the real photography world. So don’t take this as truth– it’s all toned down significantly in my situation. SIGNIFICANTLY. Keep in mind that this industry is hard. It can be cruel, it can make you cry, it will tear you apart and then eat the pieces of you that remain and chew those up and spit you out. My experience was the equivalent of a kiddie pool. The real industry is like a shark tank and you, the diver, don’t get a cage to be safe and sound in. Take it seriously.

But, yeah. I missed the studio equipment.

I snapped these images super quick because I had never done anything like this before, and it was exciting for me. It makes me want to know what it’s really like to be a photo assistant for a big shoot. Probably more heavy lifting.

We shot at a big performance hall on campus, backstage. Some theatre students came in to model for him, who were all really friendly and funny. Watching him engage his models and talk to them was something I was taking mental notes on like mad. Sometimes when I shoot, I try to talk to my subject, but when I don’t know the person that well I don’t know what to say or how much to say or ask.

But he has such a good feel for people it was all natural. He asked questions and would snap away when the model was telling him about whatever. He got a lot of great expressions and energy that way, and it also made the subject more comfortable and easier to work with. Something I liked was how he would take the camera out of his face every now and then to have a conversation with whoever he was shooting. It was great how personal he was, and I’m going to try and practice that. I won’t be able to photograph my friends forever, so I need to get comfortable with photographing strangers.

Some tips from him on being a good assistant:

  • “The assistants who make it are the ones who shut up and do their work.”
  • “No one should know you’re there.”
  • “Assume you know nothing.”
  • don’t wear flamboyant clothing
  • have common sense
  • be prepared to work for free for a long time

One thing he said has been nagging me though, because he’s not wrong, which is probably why I keep mulling it over: there aren’t many female photo assistants. Most photo assistants are strong men who are capable of lifting and carrying heavy equipment, sometimes even up stairs. There ARE female assistants, but I’m guessing they are strong enough to do the job without hurting themselves. So, ladies, if you want it badly enough, time to get some muscles.

Some things I learned while assisting him on a shoot:

  • Bring tape. Bring lots of tape.
  • Be focused. A little mistake can cost a lot, including safety.
  • Watch where you are walking, because cords.
  • When handling equipment, have spacial awareness. Again, safety.
  • Think ahead.
  • You are responsible for the logistics. Did the models sign their releases? It’s up to you, not the photographer, to make sure.
  • Have nothing to do and the set isn’t ready yet? Then you actually don’t have nothing to do. Go find something to do, like tape a cord down or something.

So, basically, HAVE COMMON SENSE.

I admittedly made a couple mistakes this morning on the shoot, like not knowing anything about one of the new pocket wizards and being unable to get the right sync cord fast enough (I had a moment where my brain was like I’M NOT GONNA WORK YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN BYE.) Also, don’t share outlets, if it’s possible. Each piece of equipment should have its own power outlet. And, if you’re using stands with twist section locks, make sure those bad boys are screwed in TIGHT. Aim for having to use a wrench to undo it, just to be sure.

I had a really great last three days and I learned so much. I’m keeping his stories and my experience tucked away in my mind, because this information is inevitably going to be useful. He said something along the lines of “Every time I do a shoot I learn something new.”

I’m big on learning. I never want to stop- and as it turns out, I guess I never will.

Happy Shooting (and Assisting!)

Also; I never said the photographers name because reasons and uncertainty and my own personal paranoia, but I’ll just casually leave this here and not say anything whatsoever about it: yay vagueness!

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