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|| News Item: Posted 2008-02-27

May I Assist You?
Shawn Cullen offers tips on how to be a great assistant.

By Shawn Cullen

Photo by Dustin Snipes

Photo by Dustin Snipes

Shawn Cullen on assignment at Saint Mary's College.
There comes the time when one decides to start assisting before or while getting their start as a photographer. Everybody needs a start and having been assisting for over 10 years, I do understand the struggles in getting started.

When starting out as an assistant, be prepared for the fact that you might have to take assisting assignments that you may not have any interest in, just to pay the bills. I did and sometimes still do! It does not matter the type or size of the shoot, who the client is, or even the photographer you are working with. The same amount of maximum effort needs to be put forward.

You cannot be thinking how you would light the shot or pose the models. You should not be carrying conversations with the stylists, models, or even the clients. You are there to assist the photographer! Any questions you have for the photographer pertaining to the shoot should be asked before the shooting starts or when the shoot is over. Make sure you properly phrase the questions and try not to insult the photographer!

When I show up for an assisting assignment, my intensions are to help make the photographer better and to help the photographer get the shot. Sometimes this means just making simple movements to lights stands or the light source, adjusting power settings on the power packs, and/or watching the power packs to make sure they are firing. Some photographers will want you to be a second set of eyes and pay close attention to the lighting, hair, clothes, or product.

One time I sat in the car for 2 hours while the photographer went into a house and shot portraits using available light instead of breaking out all the lights he brought. We both agreed that there was a good chance the subject was going to feel uncomfortable with the whole production of setting up lights.

Doing little can be a big thing depending on the situation and the photographer. On another assignment a photographer and I hiked 3 miles into and out of a deep canyon in 100-degree heat with no water to shoot cliff diving. Then there are the long 14-hour through the night casino shoots.

When there is down time before the shooting begins, look busy. Straighten up any equipment that is not being used, make sure the power and head cables are not in a position to trip people. Even take out the trash if needed. The most important thing is, no matter what the situation is you must have that same passion that the photographer has in making the best image and run the best business possible!

Photo by

Shawn Cullen working on a Flash Wizard II repair on the court before the semifinal games of the Final Four in 2006.
When the time comes to start looking for photographers to assist for, put in a good amount of time looking for the photographers that you think would be the best fit for the type of photography of your interest and style. Do not just randomly pick out names from the local phone book. Let's say your interest is in portraits. Look for photographers that specialize in portraits, not one that specializes in landscapes, but shoots portraits. Put in the time to talk to others about the photographer you want to work for, to make sure you are finding the best person to learn from. Not all photographers are willing to teach and mentor.

You can search for photographers by looking through photographer showcase books such as The Black Book and Workbook. Each of these companies will have their own website that contains a searchable database for photographers by their location and specialties, and should have a link to the photographer's web sites. You can also search the websites of ASMP, APA, NPPA, and, to look for photographers in your area and their websites. During this search, look for photographers that have VISION!

Photographers that use different camera techniques and formats, lighting concepts, compositions, elaborate built sets, which make for the best images possible. You will find that these types of photographers are true craftsmen of their trade. These photographers will be more likely to adjust to the changes in photography and remain on the cutting edge for years to come, versus a photographer that is hired just for their convenience.

When I contact a photographer for the first time, I start by mailing them a resume that includes my headshot. I will wait 2 to 3 days after mailing the resume to call to see if the photographer has received it and inquire about meeting with them or if they have any questions that I can answer over the phone.

Be prepared for the fact that the photographer will already have assistants that they use. If this is the case, let them know that you understand that you will be at the end of the list. Also ask them if it is all right to email them every 3 to 4 weeks to keep in touch and to prove to them that you really want to work for them. Be diligent and email them every 3 to 4 weeks. If you skip or stop you could lose that opportunity. I personally have waited a year to assist with a photographer and it has turned out to be very rewarding!

Here are a few links to some great articles on assisting. The first is by Darren Carroll, A Foot in the Door, who provides some great information about assisting and what you need have on every assisting assignment. The second is by Robert Hanashiro, Assist This!, who shares his opinions, and that of other professional photographers and assistants, regarding assisting.

Darren Carroll's, A Foot in the Door

Robert Hanashiro's, Assist This!

(Shawn Cullen has been assisting photographers for over 10 years; He is based in the San Diego area. View his member page here:

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