Dan Heller's Photography Business Blog Industry analysis from www.danheller.com

The photography world -- the business, the culture, the art, the politics, the technology.

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Monday, July 11, 2005

Why being a Photographer's Assistant is a bad career choice

Every week or two, I get an email from someone asking if I'm hiring assistants. They'd like to work for me, not just for the job, but because they feel being in my presence will give them insight into the photo business world. There is something unique about such people, and now that my books are being released, I'm getting so much more of these emails that I'm finding a common thread among them: they're enthusiasts, but are still soul searching about themselves and what they really want to do. Their passion for photography, while thoughtful, has not really been researched yet, and their desire to work for someone to learn the business is understandable, but it doesn't really accomplish that goal.

Obviously, the impetus is that they love the craft, and for someone that wants to learn photography techniques, as opposed to business mythodology, working as an assistant might not be a bad idea. (But only if you work for a photographer who does exactly--and only--a narrow field or style that matches precisely what you want to shoot.) But that's usually as far as it goes. Any other objective, no matter how well-intentioned, is futile. They think they can jump ahead of the pack and learn the secrets of the trade that no one else knows, or at least, won't for some years to come.

Well, it ain't that simple. As my saying goes, "if it were that easy, everyone would do it."

We need to dispel of this myth: Making a business work in the photography world has very little to do with photography. It has more to do with how well you know "business." And knowing business is not something you can efficiently or effectively learn by assisting someone else given the time and energy required. Sure, you can learn how to keep records, or to fill out a contract, or even to work with a buyer who's choosing images. But these are tasks, not skills, and they certainly don't teach the lower-level paradigms about how business is run. Again, it's not that you can't pick up some things, but what you glean over time is miniscule, compared to what you could learn if you invest that same time and effort elsewhere. Or, more to the point, started from a more advantageous position in the first place. (More on that in a moment.)

Another thing to note is that most all photo businesses vary in some very major way depending on the photographer. Some have great technical skills, and maybe a great client base, but they may not have the best negotiation skills or even marketing savvy. Others may have those all swapped. Photographers are somewhat like snowflakes in that they all look roughly the same when viewed from afar, but close-up, each is so uniquely differently, that it's a big mistake if you try to copy one by observation. If any given photographer is successful, chances are that he is so because of who he is: his unique qualities and characteristics happen to make it all work. A different individual will never be able to match these attributes perfectly, and trying to do so may cause more harm than good to one's own career.

What will make you a good photographer is by starting first from a basis of something you know really well. I always recommend to people they enter the photo business from something that they did before going into photography--like a previous career, hobby, interest, or anything that separates them from everyone else. For example: if you come from the auto industry and know a lot about cars, chances are you will speak persuasively and authoritatively about cars in general, which can help you land jobs with clients who need you to photograph cars. Knowing the business of the marketplace you are shooting gives you immeasurable insight into the business culture of that target market, which is far more valuable.

Those who have no substantive background before photography are not likely to do well in this business, and few careers in "the arts" suffer fools easily. And, it turns out, many of these very people sem to be those who want to work as photography assistants. Of course, not all are like this--but that gets back to my other favorite quote, "even a clock that doesn't run is right twice a day." (In other words, you can't look at anecdotal evidence of how "someone" was successful at doing something, and expect that it presents a tested and viable strategy for you.)

All that said, it's not like I'm totally sour to the idea of being a photo assistant; if one were to insist on my giving some kind of advice, here it is: (And you can't look to satisfy just one of these--they are all important.)

*) Work for someone you know. (Asking a total stranger is guaranteed to fail on the next series of points below.)

*) Do not work for photographers who are secretive about their business practices, or who feel the least bit threatened by other photographers. These people often have no real understanding of the business world in general; their success is more due to the narrow scope of their focus and having capitalized on opportunities early in their career from uniquely particular circumstances. Their success is like that of the lottery winner--they think they're smart, but in reality, they are more the lucky exceptions to the rule. It's not that they didn't anything wrong; indeed, they did do well. But a hundred people could have done the same thing and not yielded the same success either. Do you want to be another statistic? Arrogance is a sure way to rule out any given employer in this field. Success is not about knowing secrets and putting them together. It's about applying basic, common business sense together, along with a dose of talent, and be persistent.

*) Try to find those who are used to helping people learn--like photography teachers--and who are generally good employers.

*) Seek out those photographers who have built their businesses during or after the mid-1990s. It's tempting to find seasoned professionals who've been in the business for years and years, but the problem is that they learned at a time where conditions are too dissimilar to today's economic climate. What those professionals do today to maintain their businesses are not what you would do to build a new business from scratch. Which brings us back to the point: photographers who became pros after (or during) the 1990s understand the current realm of high competition, the role that the internet plays in business development, and the business mechanics of working in the digital age. Sure, seasoned pros have had to evolve these skills, but their back-fitting it into their existing business model is, again, nothing like building a new business from this foundation.

Why I don't hire assistants is a catch-22: if anyone were talented and smart enough to actually be useful to me, they would not want to work for me or anyone else. They would instead be working on their own to build their careers. Everyone else, I wouldn't want to hire.


Blogger FredS said...


Nice article! I was thinking of myself to be an assistant but after, I realize that I can do it myself so I will start my business in september... BTW, I like your blog and your website, very useful. Also I want to say thank you because it's a lot of work to do what you do! Maintain a website and a blog it's a lot of work and time so thank you again to share your experience!

Frederic Sune
PS. Sorry for my english, I'm French.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

So, what do you think about someone (myself) who would like to be a photographer's assistant for a much different reason. I have a photographer friend who is not interested in learning all the ins and outs of the computer part of photography. He just wants to shoot photos. So, he is hiring me to edit his photos, resize and watermark his photos, rename files, and post to his website. I have an eye for photography, but I'm overwhelmed with all the knowledge it takes to be a good photographer. I love editing photos in a creative fashion. I have Perfect Photo Suite and PhotoShop Elements along with several other apps to do just about anything I want to photos and I love doing it.

11:21 AM  
Blogger argv said...

Suzanne: my article was intended for those seeking to learn to be pro photographers themselves. Your career track is clearly not that. In fact, I would not characterize your job responsibilities (as you put them) as an assistant, but more as a photo-management specialist. This is a desperately-needed job function, and those who do this well have very good careers ahead of them.

To be clear a 'photographer's assistant' is someone that acts as a shadow to the main photographer with the intention of learning the business in order to grow their own version of that business for themselves. This is what I believe to be a poor way of learning the photo business.

12:46 PM  
Blogger VenusRouge said...

i swear i ran into this article a few years back and here i am probably googling the same thing. this reaffirms my own answer. great post.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Ching said...

Hi your article just got me thinking. I do want to build a career in photography and I recently saw job openings for assistant photographers. This photographer does fashion photography which I really am keen about. I mainly want apply just so i could learn the things about lighting and stuff in studio photography. My plan was to work for 3 months, learn as many things as possible, mainly on the technical side, and then continue building my portfolio. Can you please advice me on this?

12:08 AM  
Blogger argv said...

My article states in the beginning: "for someone that wants to learn photography techniques, as opposed to business mythodology, working as an assistant might not be a bad idea..."

And that's what you said you're looking to do. So, yes, go for it.

Being an "assistant photographer" is great. Being a "photographer's assistant" is entirely different.

7:52 AM  

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