The value of hiring a
If you ask many photographers whether they would consider hiring an assistant, the most common answer would probably be “I can’t afford it”. But these same photographers wouldn’t think twice about buying a second, third or fourth lens, upgrading their camera or renting a specialist modifier for a shoot.
What many don’t realise is that the benefit of hiring a photographer’s assistant can far outweigh the costs. If you’re serious about improving your work and growing your photography business, hiring an assistant is one of the smartest investments you can make, and I’m going to explain why.
The business case for an assistant
Let’s look at an example of a small sandwich business. The owner of SANDWICHES R US, (let’s call him Joe), can produce 30 to 40 fresh sandwiches during a busy lunch hour by himself. This includes buttering the bread, building the sandwich, and charging the customer. It keeps Joe busy, but he knows he cannot produce any more.
He starts work at 7am every day to prepare everything before the lunch rush starts, and he spends his evenings cleaning up, taking stock and doing admin. Joe’s business has reached a bottleneck. As it is, he simply cannot produce any more. He doesn’t even have time to review his menu or prices or market his business, all of which are factors that could help attract new customers.
However, if Joe took on a second person, they could both serve customers during the lunch rush, and Joe could spend more time reviewing and improving his menu and pricing while his assistant takes care of the marketing and admin.
This solution might increase Joe’s expenditure, but it would also likely increase his income by a greater percentage and provide his customers with a better product and better service.
So how does this example relate to photography? Imagine Joe was now a commercial photographer. Joe can complete one or two product or business shoots per day, working by himself, setting up the shot, moving the lights, adjusting the power, and clearing the studio afterwards, and it would typically take him half a day to complete the retouching for each job. This involves about two days of work for one client job.
If Joe were to hire an assistant, it would halve his shooting time and allow him to do the retouching that same day. This frees up the second day, which was originally spent doing post-production work, to do marketing, admin, or another shoot.
If we take it one step further and assume Joe was smart enough to hire an assistant that could also do his admin, he would then free up even more of his own time to work on marketing and building relationships with new clients.
How having an assistant helps you take better pictures
When it comes to whether or not to hire a photography assistant, the first thing many photographers think about is the additional cost to their company. Instead, what they should be thinking about is the additional value that it could add and, most importantly, how much it will actually improve the work that you are producing. So how can it improve the work you are producing?
Earlier I explained how Joe working on his own is constantly having to go back and forth from the camera to the product to move it or re-position a light. In doing so Joe is not seeing the changes live instantly (even using live view doesn’t give you the same real-world feedback that important small changes can make). This can only be seen while you’re looking through the camera and directing an assistant to change something while you see it actually happen.
Every small movement that is made, every slight adjustment to the power or position of the light, is an improvement over the previous one and having an assistant do this over and over without you ever having to step away from the camera makes a huge difference to the quality of the work the photographer is capable of turning out.
How assistants have helped me grow my business
Hiring an assistant doesn’t have to be a full-time commitment. When I first started as a commercial photographer some 25 years ago, I didn’t have an assistant.
For the first few years, I worked mostly alone, setting up my own shoots, positioning lights, adjusting the power, etc. While this was doable, it was far from efficient and, dare I say it, it was even quite miserable with no one else to talk to and bounce ideas off. As my workload increased, finding time for the more mundane (but equally important) tasks like marketing and admin became more and more difficult.
Initially, to help with this, I started taking on student assistants during the holidays. This cost-effective solution meant that I had help for roughly 13 weeks of the year, which was enough to make a significant difference. It also allowed me to hire enthusiastic people at a good price that were grateful for the experience.
However, this wasn’t a full-time solution so, roughly 18 years ago, I decided to take on a full-time assistant. A professional photographer himself, Alex Wallace was already an experienced shooter doing some of his own photography when he joined my business. This meant he could assist on shoots as well as take on some of the jobs himself.
This worked well until Alex decided to move to New Zealand and set up his own business. We're still still mates and he’s doing really well - he's even been a guest on our live show.
When Alex left I hired Fabienne, who some of our longer-standing followers may remember. Although Fab didn’t have the photographic experience that Alex had, she knew how to use Photoshop, so could help with retouching, and had experience with general admin work, so she could take over a lot of the banking, invoicing, and marketing work which, if I’m honest, I don’t really enjoy!
Additionally, she would assist on shoots, either in the studio or on location, helping to set up lights, adjust power ratios, and move products. As I travelled a lot for work, Fab would also travel with me and help with everything from carrying gear to standing in while I set up and tested business portraits or environmental portraits.
Fab worked with me for a further seven years and was there with us when we created our education business until she left to start a family (by which time we already had several new members of staff).
The creative freedom gained by working with assistants
Having someone on hand, whether they’re full-time or part-time, to help you set up, move products around, adjust lights, and stand-in for your subjects speeds up your workflow and allows you to work far more effectively.
I’d even argue that if you want to be a professional photographer, especially a product photographer like I am, you can’t not have an assistant. Having someone to move lights around or adjust the power while you look at the results means you can focus solely on the creative process and getting the best result for your client.
Most of my assistants have had additional skills that further benefited the company too, such as photographic experience, retouching skills, or admin skills. Other useful skills include 3D or CGI skills, video editing abilities, copywriting skills, and marketing experience.
What skills to look for in an assistant
It’s not essential that an assistant has a background in photography. You can easily teach someone how to change a modifier, operate a power pack, and put a light on a stand. What’s more important are the qualities you can’t easily teach, things like good organisation skills, an eye for detail, patience, precision, how to work well under pressure, common sense, and initiative.
The best assistants also expect that they are going to be shouted at from time to time because sometimes, on bigger, more stressful shoots, you may have many people working on a project and things need to be exactly clear about who should be doing what.
On the largest shoots there are often a first, second and third assistant, with the first assistant giving orders to the others.
It’s also important to remember that I was once an assistant for several great photographers and many of the top photographers of today were assistants before they stepped out as photographers in their own right. Along with our education platform, working as an assistant is one of the best ways to learn top lighting and production skills.
Where can you find good assistants
As I mentioned, if you get someone with the right qualities and skills then enthusiastic students, wannabe photographers or even school-leavers can be good options for an assistant. If you’re not quite ready to take on a full-time assistant, there is also the option to hire a freelance assistant as and when you need. You can find plenty of freelance assistants listed on sites such as the AOP, Direct Digital or Assist London.
Keep in mind the cost of an assistant should also be covered by the client. As I explain in our Business course, I charge a fixed day rate with an additional fee for each assistant necessary added to that. If this still seems daunting then try working with an assistant for just a few days to see what it does for you.
Personally I believe you shouldn’t think of hiring an assistant just as an additional cost to your business, you should think of it as an investment that is going to help you shoot better work and be more productive in all aspects of your business - from marketing to post production.
Remember that running a photography business is just like running any other business; it’s the multiplication of your workforce that can improve profitability in the long run.
To learn more about photography and the important skills you need to turn your passion into a profession, make sure to take a look at our extensive collection of photography classes. You'll find everything from dedicated business classes to practical demonstrations of photographic techniques.