So You Want To Be A Photographer? Then Be An Assistant First.

albertaspruce-6I think the best way to learn what you need to know to be an editorial or commercial photographer is by assisting for one. Or better yet, 50. There are so many moving parts and details to a photo shoot it is hard to imagine running one until you have worked on one. Or 50. Or better yet, 500.

Here’s what you might do on a shoot:

-consult on gear

-rig lights

-shoot tests

-be a second set of eyes for the photographer

-fly to great locations

-meet interesting people

Here’s what you will do on a shoot:

-steam clothes

-order lunch

-make a coffee run

-sweep the floor

-take out the trash

The point is that these are all things that go into a successful photo shoot, and if you think that any of these tasks are below you, then you will not be a good assistant. If you do the little things no one notices without asking or complaining, the photographer will notice.

So how do you start? It’s really quite simple.ItalianShore-3

Make a list of photographers whose work you like. Look in local magazines, check out the website for your local ASMP chapter, use Photoserv, Google local photographers. It doesn’t really matter if they are in the niche you want to work in, what matters is that you like their work. If you think they make great pictures, you can learn something from them.

Once you have your list , send them a concise email introducing yourself, a bit about your background, and why you want to work with them. Let the photographer know that you know their work. Compliment a specific shot or project. Flaterry can definitely get you in the door. Lastly, mention you would like to give them a call, or meet up for a cup of coffee to introduce yourself.

One of the most difficult things to do if you have never assisted is to get that first job. It can be intimidating to call photographers asking them to hire you even though you have no experience, but you have to do it. Think of it as practice for working as a photographer and trying to get new clients. You will never get work if you don’t make the first move. Photographers are surprisingly nice folks in general and they know what you are going through, they have probably done it themselves.

Once you have talked to them, ask them if it is okay to call again in about a month. Almost everyone will say yes. Then, and this is the most important thing, call them again in a month. And then every month after that. I kept a spreadsheet with photographers name, phone number, email address, website, and the last time I spoke to them.

So you got a job? Now the learning really begins.

Good for you. All that calling and emailing paid off. Now here comes the most important part.

Be attentive. Be efficient. Pay attention.

Your job is to make sure this all works out. Listen closely. Watch what everyone else is doing. If you don’t know how something works, ask. Better to look green than to break something. If you have finished your task, ask what else needs to be done (remember the thing about taking out the trash?). If you have questions about why something was done, wait until there is down time. Be indespensible, but not intrusive. Don’t give your opinion until it is asked for.

You will make mistakes. Take responsibility for them, apologize for them, and learn from it.

WallaWallaFair-4So now what? Keep learning.

The more you know the more you will work. Learn to use as many types of lighting as possible (strobe and continuous). Learn to use as many types of cameras as possible (still and video). Learn as much about video as possible (almost everyone is doing it these days). Learn as many software programs as possible (digital techs make more money than assistants). Keep making phone calls. Every one of these things will be important skills for you as a photographer as well as an assistant.

And here is the most important thing: Keep taking pictures. Once you start making a living as an assistant it is very easy to forget that your goal is to make a living as a photographer. A lot of photographers assist for a lot longer than they planned (myself included).

Do personal projects. Do fine art projects. Meet up with stylist assistants and models and do test shoots. A lot of time photographers will let you use their studio and lighting for tests after you have worked for them a few times. Carry a camera around with you and take pictures of things that interest you. Keep reading PDN (that’s where I found my first job). Keep learning new skills. Go to ASMP meetings. Go to ASMP assistant meet-ups. Keep trying.

Assisting is really like an apprenticeship. You get a chance to learn on the job. You get to see what works for a photographer, or just as important, what doesn’t work. And best of all you get paid to learn.


William Rugen is a graduate of 2005 Summer Intensive. He currently works as a photographer, producer and assistant for Motofish Images ( in Seattle, WA. He also works as a fine art photographer and has sold and exhibited his work nationally and internationally (

Additional work by William Rugen: