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Dear photographer can I carry your bags?

Professional Food Photographer Deborah Jones discusses how she likes to work with assistants on set. APA Photo Assistant Basic Training sponsored by Sony was mostly recently presented to a sold out crowd in San Francisco on February 22 & 23, 2014.
Professional Food Photographer Deborah Jones discusses how she likes to work with assistants on set. APA Photo Assistant Basic Training sponsored by Sony was mostly recently presented to a sold out crowd in San Francisco on February 22 & 23, 2014.
Keith B Dixon

If you are a working photographer there is a good chance someone has asked you if they can work as an assistant or intern on one of your jobs. For new photographers this is a welcome opportunity to get some free help especially on a test shoot. On the other hand, hiring an inexperienced assistance or someone to carry your bags on a professional job is a disaster waiting to happen; I have seen those disasters first hand.

An attendee holds a reflector for professional photographer David Robin
Photo Credit: Keith B Dixon

As a photographer I have experienced assistants drinking and eating on job in plain view of the clients, talking on the set, texting on their phones and suggesting ideas to the client on topics they have no idea about. Yes, I know there are some rare cases were it doesn’t happen, but a majority of the time inexperience assistants make bad decisions that affect the tempo of the shoot and the reputation of the photographer. This might some extreme but believe me it happens all the time. This is why getting the proper photo assistant training is important and I screen all my own assistants.

This past weekend on the 22nd and 23rd, I attended the sold out American Photographic Artist (APA’s) Photo Assistant Basic Training sponsored by Sony. The cost of the program for a non-member for the two days was $120 and included lunch both days and for members the cost was $40. Believe me when I say this, the program was a steal for the value and education! My goal in attending was to benchmark the direction I provide to assistants and learn tips from some of the best photographer in the industry. I must admit, I was hesitant about the program overall because training large groups is difficult and rarely effective but this program exceeded my expectations and doubts.

Day 1 started out with a panel discussion that included Tony Gale - APA NY Chapter Chair, Award-winning Photographer (Moderator), Matthew Jordan Smith - Photographer Sony Artisan of Imagery, Kayla Lindquist - Director, Sony Artisans of Imagery Program, and former Photo Assistant Shane O'Neill - Pro Photographer, Tintype Specialist, former Photo Assistant, Drew Sherman - Expert Photo Assistant, Emerging Pro Photographer.

This panel discussion was focused, informational, and stressed the importance professionalism, being honest about what you know and creating team harmony on set. One panelist who shined, that could be tough when your sitting next to Smith, Lindquist and O’Neil, was Sherman. Sherman understood his role and the importance of it as a photo assistant. He shared valuable tips and nuances about how he works with photographers. But the one skill set that made him stand out was his understanding of how the photo assistant business works.

The other panelist Gale, Smith, O’Neil, and Lindquist (she started out as an assistant), rounded out the panel discussion with real world examples of their experience while working on sets and with assistants. They all expressed different approaches assistants should take to contacting photographers about assisting. Some preferred that you researched them before calling, and others preferred that you showed a respectfully consistency your follow up when contacting them. But they all agreed that professionalism, photo assistant skill sets, and etiquette were the most important traits an assistant could have.

The Day One Take Away:

Being in the driver’s seat on a major shoot is high pressure for a pro photographer. I know because I have worked some of the biggest corporate events in the Bay Area as a lead photographer. Clients will change visions on a dime and failure to execute them is not an option. Photographers are dependent on their assistants to solve problems and provide solutions. The more you understand what a photographer needs the better assistant you are going to become. Your role as an assistant depends on your training and more importantly your understanding of the dynamics of a shoot and what needs to be done so that your photographer is successful.

Day 2 was lead by New York portrait photographer Tony Gale, celebrity photographer and Sony Artisan of Imagery Matthew Jordan Smith, Acclaimed Advertising, Music and Editorial Photographer David Robin who assisted for Irving Penn, and Prolific Advertising, Editorial Food Photographer Deborah Jones.

We broke off into groups of 10 and rotated between stations. My group’s first stop was food photographer Deborah Jones, who one of the best in the country. Jones, who lectured most of the time reminded me of some of my mentors, she was very candid. That set the tone for the seriousness of the expectations of becoming an assistant. If I were an aspiring photo assistant she would have definitely set the standard at which I should operate. She also demonstrated some invaluable photography tips that I found extremely useful in my own work that assistants should know about food photography. Jones took her craft very seriously and I could tell she was also very passionate about the information she wanted to translate to our group. Jones was inspiring to watch and listen to.

Next we rotated over to Tony Gale’s station. Gale simulated the actual feeling of setting up in different areas of the studio. For example, he had the attendees setup a white sweep with V-Flats, a 2-light setup with power packs in a stairwell, and then another 2-light setup for a window shot in which he bounced light off the walls using the “Sunny 16” rule to gauge his exposure. His setups simulated the flow and movement of an actual shoot. It was obvious that Gale was a seasoned educator. He was knowledgeable, informative, approachable, and friendly. But what was most impressive about him was his ability to crank out quality images "on the fly" as we moved around the studio.

At our next station high profile Photographer Dave Robin simulated a fashion shoot using a tech, 1st assistant, Hair and Makeup Artist (HAMUA), and models. The impressive part about his station was he had all 10 attendees setting up lighting and modifiers, while coordinating the HAMUA, and teaching key points on metering and lighting all within a 90 minute time frame. Shooting with “packs and heads” is no easy task, anything can go wrong. Add a live demo, and 10 hands on students, you better be good to pull it off. Robin was like a conductor at symphony all while still being approachable and focused in his teachings. (He was Dope!)

We then rotated over to Matthew Jordan Smith’s area and he definitely challenged our group with his setup. Smith had the attendees build a mock platform for some dancers he was going to photograph on a white background using 4 backlights and a beauty dish on a boom for a key light. Attendees had to run power to a Distro, setup V-Flats and C-Stands, then power up 4 Profoto 7a packs, and meter for the specific F-stops Smith wanted. This was my first time seeing Smith teach live and he proved that he is not only a great teacher but he understands how to manage people and solve problems quickly. Imagine instructing a group of inexperienced assistants on a 5 light setup using a sophisticated lighting system all within hour, impressive.

The only challenge I found with program was the information covered on day 1 projected on the wall was hard see. And you have to be an outgoing type of person and willing to be hand on in the training to benefit from it. Outside of that, the program was well thought out and the instructors were grade A. If you are planning on attending this program in the near future, one student flew in from Birmingham Alabama that's how popular it was, register early. And if they increase the price of the program, they should, it will be well worth the value.

Assistant Resources via Photoshelter:

5 Reasons Why Being a Photography Assistant Is Worth It

How to Make It as a Photo Assistant

The 40+ Items Every Photography Assistant Needs Now

12 Problems that Photo Assistants Are Expected to Solve

Top 9 Ways to Piss Off a Photo Assistant

Keith B Dixon is a Professional Freelance Photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Keith is a Professional Freelance Photographer specializing in corporate event photography, executive portraits, and editorial assignment work in the health care, computer technology, biotech, and real estate. Keith’s work regularly published in various trade magazines in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and Nationally.

Keith's work can be viewed at

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