Christopher D. Thompson is an action, travel, and studio photographer…
Have you ever pissed off a photo assistant? Are you sure? Many of them don’t like to show it because they’re trying to remain professional at all times. But just because photo assistants can usually handle some abuse, it doesn’t mean you should treat them with disrespect.
I wanted to find out what pissed them off, so I asked 21 different people with experience as photo assistants to share their biggest pet peeves. Of that list, only 7 decided to share their biggest gripes. (One of which asked to remain anonymous.)
My brave panel of photo assistants:
Michael G. Manoukian, Assistant/Photographer/Videographer, Montreal, Canada
Jamey Price, former Assistant, Sports Photojournalist based in Charlotte, NC
Rob Weber, Freelance Assistant, New York City
Darcy Rogers, Freelance Assistant, New York City
Collin Chappelle, Freelance Assistant, Atlanta, GA
Dominick Reuter, Freelance photographer & assistant, Cambridge, MA
Anonymous, Freelance Photo Assistant, Somewhere, USA
I’ve heard my fair share of photo assistant horror stories. Screw-ups and bad behavior can happen from either side. Regardless of the situation, it’s important that at least one of the parties remain professional.
Dominick Reuter, who works as both photographer and assistant, has one bit of great advice for both photographers and photography assistants.
“Be hard to piss off,” he said. “At least until the job is complete and the clients are far, far away. On any of these shoots, your bad attitude is the absolute least necessary thing that should be left behind.”
For those new to the world of photo assisting or looking for some tips on how to succeed as a photography assistant, we have The Photo Assistant’s Handbook, offering the best strategies to help you succeed, get rehired, and grow your photography career.
And if you’re an assistant with something to share to this story, you can send me a message on Twitter, to @heygrover, and I will include your comments in this post.
Top 9 Ways to Piss Off a Photo Assistant
9) Blaming any/all problems on the assistant
Nobody likes to be blamed for something they didn’t do. Don’t use the photographer as a scapegoat. If you screwed up, then you should take the blame. And blaming the assistant in front of the client or subject or other people for something he/she didn’t do is in especially poor taste.
“This has only happened once, but almost made me walk off set. I showed up early to the photographer’s studio where he was frantically getting ready for the shoot. We finished packing gear and headed out, getting there about 20 minutes late. First thing the photographer says to his client is “Sorry we’re late, my assistant didn’t get ready in time”.” – Rob Weber
8) Don’t recommend a good assistant
Everyone knows that photographers talk to other photographers. If you’ve got a great assistant, consider referring them to other photographers. Don’t trying to keep them all to yourself. If you want them to stay in business as an assistant, then you might want to help them grow their business, find more clients, and make more money.
“If you had an outstanding experience working with me, please tell folks.” – Dominick Reuter
7) Don’t act as a teacher or mentor
Everyone likes to learn things, even photographers. You should realize that the assistant is looking to learn about the business, and sees you as a teacher or mentor. Don’t be stingy with the information – it’s OK to share. If anything, it will help them to understand better business practices, so they don’t end up unintentionally undercutting you later on, when they’re no longer an assistant.
“I know things get high paced and stressful on the job. But as your assistant, I really am here to learn from you. So please, take a moment and give me some pearls that might help guide me to being a better photographer or businessman.” – Jamey Price
6) Keeping them in the dark about your gear
If you’re expecting an assistant to work smoothly with your gear, then take a moment to provide some disclosure on the particulars of your equipment. If at all possible, let them know what they’ll be working with ahead of time so they can do some homework if necessary.
“Warn me about idiosyncrasies about your equipment. You might know that particular port on your light kit acts up sometimes, but I don’t. Please save me the lost time and let me know in advance that something is a little off, and I’ll figure out a workaround. If it is a very strange or new piece of equipment, please allow for a little extra time for me to get it figured out. Better yet, when we talk before the job, let me know what gear you’re working with: Canon/Nikon, Profoto/Dynalite, etc. If there is a critical piece of equipment, let me know in advance so I can download the manual if I don’t already know the hardware.” – Dominick Reuter
5) Having ulterior motives
Don’t have a secret agenda – make sure you’re honest with the assistant, and what you expect from them. Chances are that the assistant will eventually figure out your agenda in the end, and you stand a very good chance of scaring them off for future assignments.
“I once worked for a wedding photographer who carried nothing more than a D80 and a kit lens for wedding gear. He had me working my tail off running around shooting the most poorly-lit stuff with my D700 and prime lens. He totally used me for my body.” – Jamey Price
4) Being cheap and stingy
Photographers don’t like working for cheap and stingy clients – so they shouldn’t treat assistants that way either. Asking them to work “for the experience,” or for very low pay, or by asking them to be a second shooter at the last minute for no additional compensation isn’t cool.
“Assisting has to be treated like a business, mainly because it is. Just like you don’t want to work “for credit”, I don’t want to work “because it will be fun”. I can’t eat fun at the end of the night.” – Rob Weber
“You know you’re a cheapskate when you pay us almost nothing for 10 hours work, and can’t find the 5 dollars on your credit card to buy a coffee for your hard working assistant.” – Jamey Price
“I don’t like it when the photographer wants to do a trial run (meaning you work for free or way less than reasonable) to see if you are a good match. A photographer wanted to pay me $50 for a travel job because it was my first timing assisting for him. Can you imagine how he would have felt if he was asked by a first time client to travel somewhere and do a shoot, but would only get 20% of what he normally charges just to see if it was a good fit? Needless to say, I did not take the job.” – Darcy Rogers
“If you just want a day-laborer, then get one. If you want someone with the technical and aesthetic experience that can help your shoot go more smoothly, then budget for that. I happen to be in a middle area where sometimes I am assisting and other times I am hiring assistants, and I do not like being hired to work for less than what I pay people for the same job. I’ll finish the assignment this time, but don’t be surprised if I am “busy” next time you have a shoot. Also, experience I get from you is not a substitute for money.” – Dominick Reuter
“While I appreciate the ego boost in you liking the way I shoot, handing me a camera during a wedding and asking ‘for a few candids’ not only keeps me from doing the job you hired me for, but is something you should pay more for as well.” – Anonymous
“Nothing is worse than working twelve or more hours and not getting hooked up with lunch and coffee. I don’t want a roasted pheasant on china, but peanut butter sandwiches and ‘no time for coffee’ is crap.” – Anonymous
3) Being disorganized
An assistant is there to help things run smoothly, but that can only happen if the photographer is organized, and has a plan. If you’re flying by the seat of your pants, without a plan, “winging it,” then you might end up pissing off your assistant. Have a plan – and communicate it to your assistant.
“I worked with a photographer who was extremely organized with equipment; everything was labeled and he was insistent about putting things back exactly where they belonged. It really taught me how critical it is to be organized with gear. The shoot runs smoother and faster when you know where things are.” – Darcy Rogers
“Try to let me know as much as you can about what the shoot is going to look like. Inside, outside, hot lights, etc. The more I know, the better prepared I can be to assist you. Also, don’t act confused when I ask these questions.” – Rob Weber
“I like to be part of a team and team members know what the game plan is. Don’t tell me I need to set up 12′ scrims (plural) and lighting and make coffee 10 minutes before a scheduled shoot time.” – Michael G. Manoukian
“Speaking of shoot time, send me a schedule, not a text message the night before with an address and a time.” – Michael G. Manoukian
“I don’t like it when the photographer is completely unorganized with information. I was second shooting/assisting a wedding photographer. She sent me off to go photograph the groom getting ready. She gave me directions, but for the life of me I could not find the location. After several frustrating calls between us, she realized she had given me the wrong address. Not only did I drive around in circles for about 45 minutes, but I missed the window of time to photograph the groom.”– Darcy Rogers
“Tell me what type of shoot or what sort of situation we’ll be in: I don’t want to dress and prepare for a corporate job and end up in a swamp, or the other way around.” – Dominick Reuter
2) Don’t pay them, or take too long to pay them
Assistants don’t want to work for free. And, just like you don’t like to for months to get paid, neither do they. Put yourself in their shoes, and pay them fast – on the spot if possible. If an assistant has to wait several months to get paid, you might end up looking for new assistants with each and every assignment.
“PAY FOR OVERTIME! You may plan a 10 hour shoot on location, but don’t include my 2 hours of gear pick up and travel time to and another 2 hours back after the shoot. I don’t work for free.” – Michael G. Manoukian
“I know that your clients can be slow to pay you and that makes you mad. Likewise, it makes me mad when my client (the photographer) is slow to pay me. If you haven’t gotten paid by a client for the job I worked for you, you still need to pay me on time.”
“In the same vein, the irony of a photographer complaining about slow paying clients and then taking 90 days to pay me is not lost. The whole time you are talking to me about this I’m screaming internally while nodding thoughtfully.” – Rob Weber
“Paying late or not at all. No one likes to chase down their paycheck.” – Darcy Rogers
“Getting paid on time is often a sore point with any member of the crew (stylist, MUA, etc.), but it’s tough when photographers fail to mention that I won’t be paid until they are… which sometimes goes months. A couple hundred dollars probably doesn’t mean much to their bottom line, but when you make your money $200 at a time, waiting 2-3 months has a big impact. Knowing that up front is just a professional courtesy.” – Collin Chappelle
“If you paid parking fees, your (and my) lunch bill, etc. that day, I expect to be paid that day too. I am an expense, and my expenses are your expense, just like anything else you needed to get the shoot to go smoothly.” – Dominick Reuter
“If you’re a commercial photog making $3k on a job, making an assistant wait 4 to 8 weeks for a few hundred dollars is ridiculous. You have far more capital established and you should have a few hundred dollars liquid to pay for help.” – Anonymous
“Don’t take 8 months to pay me. Also, when your check bounces don’t act like it is somehow my fault. Yes, I took 2 weeks to deposit it, but I was out of the country on another job. If the check had showed up 6 months ago, when it should have, I would have deposited it promptly.” – Anonymous
1) Insult them
Treat an assistant how you want to be treated – with respect. Being rude, yelling at them, and blaming them for things creates an unfriendly environment. When they’ve done a great job, when they’ve saved your ass, when they’ve made you look good — say thank you.
“I’m not a dog, I’m a human. Don’t snap at me or whistle at me, it’s degrading.” – Rob Weber
“I don’t like it when a photographer doesn’t introduce me to the client or subject: I have a name. I will be interacting with these people. Please let them who I am and what I will be doing.” – Dominick Reuter
“We are all here to do a job. Mine is to make a photog’s life as easy as possible. There is no need for condescending remarks.” – Michael G. Manoukian
“There’s nothing better than when the photographer you break your back and slave for says just a simple thank you and smiles. But there is equally nothing worse than feeling like you’re being used as simply a pair of arms with no thanks ever given. How hard is it to say thank you?” – Jamey Price
“Working as an assistant is a pretty thankless job and no one expects you to rant and rave to your client about how your assistant saved your butt by seeing something you missed, that would make you look bad and my job is to make you look good. But if there was something I did particularly well or that was extremely helpful in a pinch… its just nice to give credit where credit is due.” – Collin Chappelle
“Please for the love of God, stop saying “kid, keep your day job.” It didnt work on you, and it wont work on me either. We all want to be out here doing this for a living so you might as well stop trying to talk me out of it and maybe have one less photographer for you to compete with.” – Jamey Price
“The more you bad-mouth your old/other assistants to me, the more I wonder if you are going to do the same thing as soon as I’m not there. Also, comparing how I do things to other assistants is fine if it’s in your head. Hearing “my old assistant would…” every two minutes just sucks and reminds the client that you haven’t worked with this photographer for very long, just tell me how you would like me to do something differently.” – Rob Weber
“Sometimes things go bad on a shoot and that is a bummer for everyone involved, but when the photographer loses their cool, it makes it that much worse.” – Darcy Rogers
“Don’t be a jerk to me, especially in front of the client/subject: This is actually for your own benefit. No one wants to deal with a person who they see as abusive toward their employees. Behind the scenes, I don’t need kid-glove treatment, but if your criticisms are unfounded or unfair, expect some push-back.” – Dominick Reuter
Are you (or were you) a photo assistant? Please contribute to this story by adding your comments below. Or, you can post your comments on Twitter, and I’ll add them to this story.
You can also download The Photo Assistant’s Handbook at any time.