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|| News Item: Posted 2004-12-16

Assisting: 'A Foot in the Door'
By Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

This is what you need if you want to be a good assistant.
Okay, all you aspiring young photographers out there. You're about to graduate from journalism school, secure in the notion that, when you think about it, you have learned absolutely nothing that will help you make it in the real world of photography. Or maybe you're an older aspiring photographer, looking for a foot in the door and a way to learn, first-hand, how the successful pros do things. Either way, I have just one word for you. Just one word. Are you listening?


There is no better way in this business to get to know people, to get a hands-on learning experience, to get the proverbial "foot in the door" and --- believe it or not, get paid to do it, than offering your services as an assistant. Working on location portraits, in a studio, at strobing arenas, and even at a football game or a golf tournament offer an unparalleled opportunity for meeting others in the profession, and establishing yourself as someone who is reliable, resourceful, intelligent, and capable.

But desire and resourcefulness are only half the battle. Those will get you hired the first time. It's getting hired the second time that's the challenge. If, as Woody Allen says, eighty percent of success is showing up, then eighty percent of assisting is just showing up prepared--for anything. And that means that you need to show up with a bag of tricks that will not only make the shoot go smoothly, but will ensure that photographers are suitably impressed by your preparedness and attention to detail. That results in referrals. And referrals result in more work.

What better time, then, to compile a list of things every good assistant needs to have than Christmas? With the help of one of the top assistants in the country, I've put together a list of 25 things you should have with you when you assist on a shoot. Send this on to Santa, or to anyone else who's told you that you're impossible to shop for because you already have every piece of photo gear on the planet. Most of the items below can be found at your local home improvement store and/or Radio Shack. And better yet, these stocking stuffers won't set Santa's budget back more than a couple of bucks.

The first group goes at the top of your list. These are the ten MUST HAVES for any good assistant. Do not, under any circumstances, show up for an assisting job without the following:

1. Gaffer's Tape
Not duct tape. Gaffer's tape. Small core. Large core. Flimsy. Firm. Silver. Black. I don't care (okay, I prefer black). Just don't EVER show up for a shoot without it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Tell Santa that it's available from our fine sponsors, or your local theatrical lighting shop.

2. Sharpies (plural, as in lots of them)
Want to see a photographer cry? When he hands you a roll of film and says, "That's the test roll. Mark it 'Front Clip plus one-third,'" say, "Do you have a pen or something so I can do that?"

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Channel-Lock pliers
3. Channel-Lock pliers
Beware: at some point someone will try to steal your pair of these pliers-on-steroids. Guard them with your life, and make sure your name is on them (although that still doesn't stop one photographer I know...) You want to make sure that Super Clamp is tightened down? Try these. They come in a variety of sizes, so you and your favorite photographer can always engage in a "mine's bigger than yours" contest.

4. Wire Cutters
A combination cutter/stripper is your best bet. You can't hard-wire strobes in an arena without a pair.

5. A knife of some sort
Leatherman, Swiss Army, utility knife, whatever. Just make sure it's sharp.

6. Jeweler's screwdrivers
What CAN'T you fix with these? They work for lens mounts. Eyeglasses. Heck, you can even use them to scrape the gunk off of your Polaroid back rollers.

7. Test button
Make it yourself. A momentary pushbutton, some 18/2 electrical cord, and some electrical tape is all it takes. If you really want to get fancy, solder and heat-shrink tubing (see below) will work nicely.

8. Outlet tester
Why drag a pack and a head all the way across the catwalk to find out the breaker is blown? This $5.00 item fits in your pocket and offers a foolproof solution to finding hot outlets.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

9. Add-A-Taps
Both the male and female variety. The females are illegal in many states (the add-a-taps. Get your minds out of the gutter.). But you can get them at Elliott's Hardware in Dallas, and from at least one sponsor...The males can be had for a song at your local Home Depot.

10. Size "AA" batteries
Light meters. Pocket Wizards. Medium-format cameras (remember them?). They're all rendered useless without them. Depending on the photographer, you may be rendered unconscious if you don't have them when needed.

Now, if you've been an especially good boy or girl, and Santa wants to go deep into your list, try asking for the following items. Most photographers won't exactly expect you to have them, but when something goes wrong, they'll be ecstatic if you do:

11. Allen/Hex wrench sets
Get both U.S. AND Metric. You don't want to have a set of Balcars crap out on you and only have a set of U.S. wrenches in your bag. Trust me.

12. Soldering iron, solder, and flux
The minute you realize you're short one remote cable, or one strobe cable, you'll save the day by making one from scratch. And if you solder everything together, it won't stop working at the worst possible moment.

13. Wire stripping tool
I like this gizmo because it just looks really cool. The fact that it works well, and strips wire a lot more cleanly and quickly than a combination tool or knife is just gravy.

14. Zip cord
Standard 18/2 electrical cable. Perfect for running extension lines for sync cords, remote cords, etc. At about 30 bucks for a 250-foot spool at your local Home Despot, it's silly not to have some of this lying around.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Heat-shrink tubing
15. Cable ties
Bring an assortment. They're great for attaching zip cord to catwalk railings, lexan covers to reflectors, anchoring remote cameras solidly in place, or even as makeshift safety cables in a pinch. Get a variety of sizes just to be safe.

16. Electrical tape
What, you're going to wire things together and not cover it with anything?

17. Flashlight
It doesn't have to be some whiz-bang, 10 million foot-candle monstrosity that Dave Black would need to light-paint the Empire State Building. Just bring something that will help you find the right circuit-breaker panel in a dark catwalk, or root through a camera bag outdoors at midnight. On the other hand, if you're assisting for Dave, you might want to think about something a little more powerful...

And finally, here are a few things that will score you some SERIOUS brownie points if they're in your magic bag. Completely unexpected, they're a genuinely pleasant surprise when they appear seemingly out of nowhere:

18. Cigarette lighter
Hell hath no fury like a photographer who smokes but runs out of matches before the shoot. Also a great way to heat up and melt...

19. Heat-shrink tubing
Mankind's third greatest invention, after gaffer's tape and the flush toilet. Pick some up in varying sizes at your local Radio Shack to give your buttons, connections, and other electronics work a polished, professional look.

20. "A" Clamps
Many a makeshift backdrop has been hung, or a reflector jammed into place, or a seamless stopped from unrolling, by a couple of these.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

"A" Clamps
21. Light meter
I know, I know. What photographer doesn't carry a light meter? You'd be surprised.

22. Spare Sync Cord
See # 4 above. Substitute the words "Sync cord" for "Light meter."

23. Black Wrap/Cinefoil
This handy item, sold in one-foot and two-foot wide rolls, is available at any theatrical lighting or film grip shop. Lightweight and malleable, it's an invaluable tool for masking off unwanted reflections on a basketball backboard remote, or for flagging off stray backlight. Can't fit a roll in anywhere? Fold some up in quarters and stuff it in the bag.

24. A loupe
Have you ever seen the look on the face of a 4x5-toting photographer who realizes, after rummaging through his case, that he's forgotten the very thing he needs to focus with? A few of my assistants have. Loupes are also great for judging focus off of Polaroid negatives, and can even be used for critical-focusing of medium format cameras (for, say, remote cameras at basketball games). It doesn't have to be a $150 Schneider. Having anything that magnifies will suffice.

25. Tape measure
Believe it or not, some people still like to figure out depth of field the old fashioned way. It also comes in handy when a remote-focusing photographer looks at the distance scale on the lens and says, "That can't be right, can it?"

26. List of every Starbucks Coffee establishment within a 25-mile radius of the shoot. Applicable only if you're working with me, or with Robert Seale.

Finally, there's the issue of something to put it all in. Some people prefer a fanny pack. Others prefer a small duffel. I use both, depending on the situation. Whatever you choose, put everything together and keep it there, ready to go at a moment's notice. East-coast uber-assistant John Healey, who helped me compile this list, refers to his kit simply as his "Crash Bag" for this very reason.

Of course, it's probably not a good idea to call it that in an airport...

And speaking of airports, whatever you do, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CARRY THIS BAG ON AN AIRPLANE. I always find it funny that you can bring a Pocket Wizard (you know, the little black box with the antenna, the button, the flashing red light, and the word "Transmitter" on it) on a plane with you, but God help you if you try to get a jeweler's screwdriver past the keen-eyed folks at the TSA. Yes, someone I know was once even told that his gaffer's tape was a dangerous item, and couldn't be brought on board. I kid you not.

So check the bag. Or better yet, ship it ahead of you. But NO MATTER WHAT, make absolutely sure that you have it with you on the day of the shoot. Because there's nothing less confidence -inspiring, or more frustrating, than an unprepared assistant. And there's nothing better than a prepared one.

(Austin-based freelancer Darren Carroll spent six years as a Sports Illustrated assistant and lived to tell about it. He still carries his own "crash bag" with him everywhere, simply because most assistants out there do not … for now.)

Related Links:
Darren Carroll's member page

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