Top 5 Reasons to Become a Photo Assistant

Updated: March 30, 2022

One of the most common things I hear students say when they embark on the journey to become a full-time professional photographer is that they can’t decide on a photographic specialty. Another is that many feel daunted by issues of pricing, negotiation and usage rights on larger budget jobs. And then some don’t feel totally ready to compete out there with their own photography, yet. While you can certainly learn more about these aspects, putting them into practice often requires experience.

These are all common hurdles that can be minimized with experience; for some, the path of photo assisting is the perfect next-step for the budding commercial or editorial photographer.

Here are 5 reasons you may want to start out as a photography assistant

You aren’t quite ready to launch your own business

Most brand-new photographers aren’t completely committed to one specialty or another. That’s akin to a product business not knowing what product they are selling! Assisting many photographers can expose you to various scenarios and types of shoots to help you home in on what sort of specialty fits your style, lifestyle and personality. You need to know what kind of photography you offer the market before you can launch a business.

You may also feel like your current photo knowledge is enough to be a photo assistant, but not enough to make the leap to full-time photographer. This is because you still have more to learn. So, why not get paid while learning?

Or, perhaps you are freaked out a bit by the idea of negotiating with clients or interacting with art directors. Assisting on professional shoots gives you a front seat to other seasoned pros’ methods and tactics when in these situations.

Maybe you aren’t totally confident with your own photography. Assisting can help you develop a stronger photographic skill set on a daily basis. Over time, this art-form will become second-nature for you.

Perhaps directing talent or crew is an area you aren’t comfortable with yet. Assisting will give you a glimpse into how other photographers tackle this.

Or, maybe you aren’t ready to take the leap and market yourself as a photographer, or manage a business yet. Assisting can often lead to studio management positions, which are perfect for learning the business aspects of a full-time photographer.

You really want to learn more about the industry

Hard experience counts for a lot. When I graduated from photography school, I knew how to operate three cameras: a 35mm Canon AE-1, a 4×5″ Toyo View, and a Mamiya 645 Pro TL.

After one year of assisting I could add to that list Fuji GX680III, Sinar F, Linhof 679, Mamiya RZ67, Hasselblad 501, 503 and H2, Phase One, Rolleiflex, and a slew of Canons and Nikons. When I started school, I had also been exposed to Profoto lighting gear; but I could now add to my resume Broncolor, Elinchrom, Speedotron, Norman, Lumedyne, Dynalite, Bowens and a variety of HMI systems. All in one year of assisting!!

I also picked up a number of lighting and grip techniques that I could store away in my memory bank to use in my own work as I needed!

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You need money right away

This can be a tough one. Many students want, or expect, to roll out of photography school and land a big employed position with some mystery firm that will pay them handsomely to take exactly the pictures they love to take. The reality is, most of the big money to be made in the photographic industry is made by the freelancers, not the staff photographers. And to be a freelancer, you have to be FREE. Free, as in, “available.”

Freelance photo assisting could be an extra income if you are free during the day when the photographer calls. Let’s say a photographer calls you to assist for three days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. However, you are only available on Tuesday. The photographer would rather find a single assistant who can do all three days, then to try to piece-meal the gig around to other assistants. You have to be available to freelance.

So, I always recommend that students who want to be freelance assistants, and also want some sense of security learn how to make cocktails and bartend at night. You’ll be tired frequently, but freelance work snowballs. You’ll get a few jobs at first and then, all of a sudden, you’ll be booking more and more. There will be a point, hopefully, that your photo assisting gigs will begin to make you enough money that you can quit the night gig and focus on your photography, freeing up more time to shoot for yourself, which is KEY for moving towards your goal.

You want to explore a variety of photographic genres

When I began assisting, I had no clear idea of what I’d specialize in as a photographer. I was interested in location work AND studio work. I liked product AND architectural photography. When I got into assisting, I had the chance to assist on shoots involving food, helicopters, celebrities, mansions, catalog product, interior and exterior architecture, children – and I was once on-set with a grizzly bear! One day I would be on a sailboat assisting a lifestyle shoot, the next day I would be in a studio shooting computers for Dell. The next week I’d be on a fashion catalog shoot for Mervyns. I was able to see what life was like for those photographers and was exposed to all of the various stylists, assistants and tangential crew who helped on large productions. This gave me a wider view of the industry as a whole and gave me clarity about what parts I liked and what parts I didn’t like about different genres of photography.

You know you would be a good assistant

The most important qualities of a good assistant are that you are personable, friendly, kind, diplomatic, tactful, and keenly aware of yourself and others all day. After that, you’ll need to know studio strobe lighting, grip gear, and have some organizational abilities. (Arguably, I’d want this same list of attributes out of the photographer I was assisting! But that’s a conversation for another day.)

If you are someone who doesn’t mind hard work, getting up early to get the job done, or working with a wide variety of personalities, assisting could be for you. If you are a congenial person and easy to hang out with for ten hours, assisting could be for you. If you like problem-solving with photographic tools and grip gear, assisting could be for you.

For most people entering the commercial photography world, assisting is a gateway path to becoming a full-time photographer. It’s an excellent way to hone your problem-solving skills while gaining clarity about what specialty and lifestyle is most attractive to you. Much like an apprentice to a carpenter or electrician, the professional freelance photo assistant learns while on the job, performing the necessary services of lighting assistance, gripping, and some duties for client comfort. These small duties make a photographer’s shoot successful, including making coffee, getting lunch, or answering the phone. It’s the perfect entry-level job into a variety of specialty paths within the photo industry.

If this topic interests you, please check out my Livestream on YouTube below:


  • Jeff McLain

    Jeff McLain is a photographer, videographer, digital technician, and location sound mixer. After his photography education, Jeff got his start as a freelance photo assistant in San Francisco working on editorial, catalog and advertising shoots. His skills in Photoshop and computing allowed him to help photographers bridge the gap between the film days and all-digital workflows, and he stood at the forefront of the advent of the career of the "Digital Technician." Jeff then moved laterally to video capture. Locally, he is the Director of Arrowroot Productions, LLC, a commercial videography business. His background as a multi-instrumental musician has also benefited his understanding of sound design and audio capture, which can be a technically challenging aspect of film-making. He is regularly called by filmmakers and television networks to record sound-for-video. He has been a freelancer for over 20 years and takes a 'real-world' approach to his perspective of the photographic and video industry and the skills needed in today's market.