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|| News Item: Posted 2009-12-18

So You Wanna To Be An Assistant?
Sports Illustrated's Robert Beck tells you what it takes to become the next Kojo.

By Robert Beck, Sports Illustrated

Photo by Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

Okay, you want to get into sports photography.

Looking at assisting as a good way to break in? Good choice. You get paid (usually), earn valuable experience and afford yourself a chance to learn without paying tuition. Think it is going to be easy? Fun? Not always. Just ask anyone who has ever worked for me.

I know we have gone over it before in this column but it is time for a refresher. First of all, be prepared. These days it is a great idea to bring a fanny pack, Lowepro Sideline Shooter is perfect, loaded with a sharpie, gaffers tape, maybe a trigger tester, lens cloth, Leatherman multi-tool and a couple of multi max radios. It wouldn't hurt to be versed in whatever gear you boss is using. If he is shooting Nikon, be familiar with Nikon bodies and lenses. Know how to change lenses - without dropping them.

Understand how the programs and menus work. Be ready to change shutter speeds and apertures. Profoto lights? Get to know them. Figure out how to run the ratios, hook up the heads and test fire. How do you drop out the background but leave the exposure on the subject the same? Many of you will not own the gear I am talking about. The Internet offers instruction manuals. You can head down to the local rental house and ask to check out some of their gear too.

Much of what we do on photo shoots is problem solving. The more you know, the more you will be able to help.

You are going to help. Not to rub elbows with the talent. He does not care that you were an all star in Little League or that your second cousin went to the same college as he. It is a fine art, you are helper, listener and psychologist. I liken an assistant to a caddy. Know what's going to make your photographer better. Be ready to offer your opinion if asked. Watch for the little things.

On portraits and feature shoots I am pretty wrapped in working with the athlete in my tiny little frame. Sometimes I miss something mucking up the background or wrinkles in the clothes. Something in the pocket that shouldn't be there? Glare off of something metallic drawing attention away from the subject? Be aware of what is going on. DO NOT STAND AROUND WITH YOUR HANDS IN YOUR POCKETS.

Dress appropriately. Going to shoot a football game? Wear what you want, don't dress like a mascot. Shooting at a golf club? Find out if they require long pants, like in the pits at NASCAR, or a collared shirt. If you don't know the subject, avoid that thrift store tee you've been sleeping in for the past week. Shave. Brush your teeth and comb your hair. You are representing some other entity here - SI, ESPN the Maggie, The Union Tribune, Nike, etc... - not yourself.

Be on time. Plan your travel times the day before. Bring cash for incidentals and keep track so you can expense them whether that is for parking or extra water for the crew.

Photo by

Robert Beck and Kojo Kinno at the Great Wall in China.
On any shoot, watch how the photographer works, and, to a certain extent, mimic him. When putting the cameras together for the shoot, check the ISO, motor drive speed (single on strobes, probably continuous high at athletic events), color balance, shutter speeds, and apertures.

Is the camera turned on? Make sure the lenses are clear. Be careful when passing the gear around. With so many switches and buttons on our lenses and bodies it is easy to change one by mistake.

Check out your boss' face when he misses a TD because the lens button shifted from auto-focus to manual focus.

Tired of carrying that 400mm? Set it down body bottom down. If you set it down top first you have a good chance of bending the flash hot shoe. Try not to set it where it will get kicked or a ton of dust blown into it.

Carry the gear like it was your own, or better. I get a bit peeved at times when I turn for gear and an assistant is watching the game through my 400 - Kojo has earned the right to do that, and he knows when to and when not to. Remember, you are there to work, not watch the game and root for your fantasy league guys.

Watch how the gear comes and try to pack it the same way when it is time to leave. If something is broken during the shoot or batteries drained, mark them as such. Where do all of the loose cards go? How do you separate shot from those that are shot? Body caps? Lens caps? Has anything been left behind? Double check.

I know this is a lot to remember and sounds like a bit of grousing. But we have all made the same mistakes - many times. That is how we learn.

At the end of the day I hope it was a good shoot and you can look back on it and say "That was cool." Better yet, you boss says "Let's do it again."

Good luck!

(Robert Beck is a staff photographer with Sports Illustrated based in Southern California. You can see his member page here:

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