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|| News Item: Posted 2004-05-30

Leading Off: Assist This!
By Robert Hanashiro, Sports Shooter

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / Sports Shooter

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / Sports Shooter

Robert Hanashiro and his assistant Max Morse on assignment in Huntington Beach, Calif. on May 27, 2004.
I've been working in this business for a long time and unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I generally work alone and seldom used an assistant, even on large-scale lighting jobs.

But recently I have been traveling around the country on a project that has required me to take a ton of lighting and camera gear. So I have finally heeded the advice of my boss, USA TODAY Director of Photography Paul Whyte, who recently told me "You ain't getting any younger. Hire an assistant when you have to carry a bunch of shit."

My feeling was always: "I know how I want things set up and how things were packed and it is easier to do it myself." So I have actually gone against my nature and used assistants on all of these shoots.

I have used the classified ads and searched for assistants in places like Colorado Springs, Plano, TX, Columbus, OH and Knoxville, TN and I have leaned toward hiring photography students.

Yup, that's right students.

While most photographers shy away from using the inexperienced (i.e. students) for assistants, one photographer likened having a student on a portrait shoot of a high-profile football player to having a student in the operating room instead of a surgical nurse, I decided that I wanted to use someone that would also benefit from the experience besides being my extra pair of hands.

Plus, who else would work 3 or 4 hours for 125 bucks?

And using the operating room analogy is somewhat fitting, because what I am doing is not brain surgery and I just needed another body around to help carry things and make sure nobody is killed by a falling lightstand and softbox. The lighting and set - ups are relatively simple.

But for some of us in this business, finding the right assistant is like finding a wife ... a person to not only fetch and carry, but to also help with the creative process when needed and also know when to shut up.

"I want to find someone who knows what they're doing," Peter Read Miller from Sports Illustrated told me about hiring assistants, "For lighting jobs I need someone whose done lighting. My goal for an assistant is that they know what I need just before I need it."

While Peter has hired students to help with remotes at track meets and carry lenses and gear at football games, he tends to use the same people for his portrait work. People he knows and knows how he works.

"Taking a student to a football game and helping there have all been good experiences," Peter Miller said, "I am happy to have a student along as a 2nd and 3rd assistant if we have the budget"

"I use students as assistants when I need an extra hand and I feel the opportunity would be good for a student," the Seattle Times' Rod Mar said, "But when I'm shooting something where I'll not only need the extra hands but an extra 'brain with experience', I'll hire a pro."

Texas freelancer Darren Carroll also tends to shy away from hiring students on important lighting / portrait shoots but said: "Now that's not to say I would never give a student who desperately wants to work for free, just for the experience, a shot at assisting. But I probably wouldn't have them doing anything important during the shoot, either. At that point, I'd just want them to observe, see how things work, and hopefully take that, plus a little hands-on experience, away from the shoot. By the same token, there are some "students" who are damned good assistants, and have worked professionally in the field. Those, I'd hire in a heartbeat---but only because at that point, I don't consider them "students" anymore."

Brooks Institute of Photography student Max Morse, who I hired recently for a shoot on the beach, says about assisting "More than anything you've gotta be aware of your role in this thing. I think too many students/assistants don't know their role is to maybe be seen and definitely not heard."

"When I work with someone new I sit back watch and learn rather than ask too many questions. Obviously after I get to know someone or work with them a lot I talk a little more and ask questions."

Max has also assisted for Peter Miller as well as Dave Black, Bill Frakes, Rich Pilling and V.J. Lovero.

"A good assistant can anticipate and act without being told what to do every time," Robert Seale from the Sporting News told me about assistants, "My photography professor, Dr. Roach, prided himself on getting his students ready to assist out of school. He taught us how to roll electrical cords the right way, how to safety light stands and cords. He taught us to carry an assisting bag, with things the photographer might forget, like gaffer tape, gels, light meter, color meter, etc. One of his big quotes was on being a professional when you are out working with someone.

He said : "Being a professional is a way of thinking and acting at all times, it is a way of doing things right the first time, not just when someone is there to see and approve. I want you to be a professional!"

Sometimes a good working relationship assisting can lead to regular work and a long term friendship, like SI's Robert Beck and his main man, "Kojo" --- Kohjiro Kinno. Kojo was a student at San Jose State when he first went to work for Robert.

"The first time I employed Kojo (I really don't "use" him though I sometimes abuse him I suppose) he was a student. At least that is what he told me," Robert said, "Why have I ended up employing him over and over and over again? For over 2.5 years? Because he is good at what I need. He is on time or early. He has the basic stuff to help ... fanny pack, light meter, tape, Sharpies and a Leatherman. He lives for photography. He knows where all the rental houses are. He makes good decisions when he has to and none when he doesn't need to. He gives me honest input when I ask for it. He can walk the walk and talk the talk. That said, he knows when to flap his lips on a shoot and when to zip 'em. He knows when to work and when to play."

For Darren Carroll, the traits for a good assistant come down to attitude and ability.

"Good assistants have good attitudes," He said, "They want to see the shoot go well, and they know why they've been hired to assist. They are NOT there to be a slave, but they ARE there because they provide an integral service without which the shoot doesn't come off. They're not there to schmooze the client, to try and get shooting work, or to get coffee for me. It does help, though, if they can tell me how to get to a local Starbucks.

"As far as ability goes, I hire an assistant because he/she knows lighting and equipment. Now, that doesn't mean you have to know how certain brands of lights work; I use Profotos and occasionally Balcars and Speedotrons; if all you know are Dynalites, but you know HOW to light, it'll take me five minutes to teach you how the Profotos work. You do, however, need to know the basics of lighting: how to set up (and, more importantly, take down) a softbox, or seamless, and you need to know the difference between a light stand and an "A" Clamp. A good assistant also listens and pays attention to detail. I should only have to say that I want the Octabank with a 1/2 CTO on the main light ONCE. And once I say it, I shouldn't find a quarter CTO on it. Also, I shouldn't have to go looking all over God's creation for lens caps, shot rolls of film, or Polaroids after the shoot is finished."

Photo by Robert Seale / Sporting News

Photo by Robert Seale / Sporting News

Assistant John Healy's athleticism helps him while working with Robert Seale on a portrait shoot of Emmitt Smith.
Here are Darren's assistant essentials:

- Shows up on time
- Dresses professionally
- Acts professionally
- Approaches problems logically and rationally
- Pays careful attention to detail
- Can put up with me.

Robert Seale added one more trait he finds important for assistants: "Athleticism is important. Just ask John Healy --- he's had to leap several feet in the air on several occasions for Polaroids."

"Kojo knows that nobody owes him a thing," Robert Beck said, "He knows that hard work will reward him. He is polite. He is respectful. He has a great sense of humor and he is VERY KIND. He learns from every shoot (maybe not from me). He shoots on his own whenever he can. He reads magazines. He studies pictures. He surfs the web for all kinds of images. He teaches and shares with me. He is my teammate. He puts up with me. I trust him. He is humble. He has a great sense of humor. He knows that though we live and breathe photography, we don't live and die with it.

"God bless that kid! When he stops working with me someone is REALLY going to have to step it up to fill his shoes."

During my recent adventures on the road, the students / assistants have mostly had to carry cases of gear to and from gyms (and in Max's case, across the beach to a pier) but all have contributed and helped in other ways.

Things like reminding me to pull the dark slide and closing the lens on the 4 x 5 camera may sound small, but for this large format newbie, they are essential.

"I think assisting a photographer is a great experience because you get a chance to see in the side the day-to-day operations of a photographer at a large newspaper," said Andrew Haag, a Missouri student who helped me in Plano, "It's also nice to just watch and see how the look at a situation and the angels they take and compare that how I would have done it. A lot of times it is just learning by watching because there is often little time to talk, but there is still a lot to learn by just watching."

While you students and beginning photographers out there may not get a chance to help an SI photographer with a portrait shoot of an NBA or NFL star, schlepping a 600mm around the sidelines also has it advantages.

Photo by Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

Legendary assistant and talented photographer Kojo Kinno on assignment with Robert Beck.
You have to remember that this is a VERY small industry. Meeting photographers and editors, demonstrating professionalism and a good attitude goes a long way to making a name for yourself and developing a positive reputation. You don't want to be like an unnamed So Cal student who was mouthing off how good a shooter he is at a recent event while slamming staffers at the local papers. Needless to say, his reputation in the area is pretty well in need of CPR.

A reputation is a very fragile thing.

"Just as internships boost your resume and give you real life experiences, assisting gigs are a great networking tool. I'm a big advocate of trying to saturate my name in the industry, in order to increase the chances of people coming to me for assignments or knowing my name or work when I apply for a future job or internship," said Robert Caplin, who helped me in Columbus, "By taking the assistant jobs, I have networked with some AMAZING photographers, such as SI greats, Chuck Solomon and Al Tielemans. Even more importantly while assisting the two, I was able to learn how close knit the industry really is, everyone knows everyone!"

Andrew Haag echoes that: "I think the most beneficial thing about assisting a photographer is the impression you leave. All photographers know other photographers and they often talk about assistants they had. And if you work hard and pleasant to work with, then that photographer will most likely remember who you are and down the road when looking for a job then you will have someone that will be willing to help you. And that is absolutely priceless in this business. Helping others will help you down the road."

"Assisting can help build a positive reputation, " adds Max Morse, "And it gets your face and name out there and people get to know you and recognize you."

But it's not always fun and exciting ... long and late hours can be the norm. And sometimes things go wrong like the time Max forgot to ship cards to SI's New York office after an NFL playoff game while assisting the late V.J. Lovero.

"I thought I was done for," Max admitted, "But I've worked twice as hard ever since and everything has turned out fine."

Kojo has used his sterling reputation assisting Robert Beck and contacts he's made into a great gig this summer, getting an assignment from a sports agency to cover the Summer Olympics in Athens.

As far as "Assistant Horror Stories" ... Rod Mar had probably the best ... or maybe the worst.

"I'm lucky. I have WAY more success stories than horror stories,"he said. "The worst I can think of was the assistant who showed up late and hung-over ('man, what a party last night'). Then hit on one of the models all afternoon and had to leave early. You can bet he didn't work for me again. Nor is he one of the names I pass along to the many pros coming to Seattle needing assistants."

* * *

There are still openings for the Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau 2004, but if you intend to participate in THE coolest photography event of the year, you'd better register soon. We are about 80% filled at this writing. For more information, go to and click on the "Workshop" link. There are also several videos about The Luau in the "Special Features" area.

* * *

Sports Shooter v. 67 highlights the "techie" end of our business with an article about end of film by Trent Nelson, what goes into covering a major horse race by SI Bill Frakes and debating shooting "RAW" from Reed Hoffmann.

We also have a couple of personal stories by Anne Ryan and Anthony Bolante. And Rhona Wise writes on something that student and veteran photographers alike could benefit from --- captions.

So sit back, adjust the contrast on that monitor, turn up the volume on that "Big Kahuna & The Copa Cat Pack" CD and enjoy Sports Shooter v. 67.

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