By Gary Rabenko
Photographers and videographers often bring along a family member to help. That person is called an assistant. They used to be lighting assistants. But many photographers have given up on finding a person willing to work long and hard enough for someone else’s photographs. Everyone wants the fun of taking pictures themselves! Assistants rarely are the technical persons you might expect them to be. Most photographers have always had to make do with shleppers, or at best someone who could hold a light where directed without bumping into something or someone, and still actually get some light where it was most needed!
For each shot there are only a very few combinations of distance, angle, height, tilt, swivel, beam spread, and power output that will serve a positive purpose, and countless others that will be destructive, troublesome, or of no benefit whatsoever. A skilled assistant would have to know more than most photographers now know about light to be an asset to the end product.
After bringing in and setting up the gear, today’s assistant has very little to do. Photographers might want to have movable lighting services. But it takes years of serious training, and nobody really good stays an assistant. They become photographers and are then faced with the dilemma of finding someone to do what they neither wanted to do themselves nor were trained to do. Unless they are photojournalists who pride themselves on not using lights. They need not worry about such things; if you like snapshots, you will not mind. But if you want great photography you do not want a photojournalist. What you want is a good photographer who can be photojournalistic. Big difference!
Anyway, a few highly skilled assistants used to be responsible for simultaneous performance of many high speed tasks. And a few became photographers themselves but rarely pushed or pursued the rigors of training others that way. The times simply had changed. They would turn to a friend for help. And friendships can easily be ruptured by having too serious expectations. So it was just chill . . . hang out . . . wait . . . OK, time to pack up. Often fathers, sons, and brothers would get into the act, as would their female counterparts. It looks good to see more than one person moving around. Well no, it really does not look good. But you think it is necessary so you feel better seeing someone holding a light pole, even if the light is too weak to be useful or unable to move gracefully in real time through a crowd.
I was asked which family member I might prefer to assist me in a photo shoot. That brought a big smile to my face. There are basically three types of assistants. The shlepper brings in the equipment and moves it around trying to keep it safe and operational. He should be checking that batteries are still alive and that cables don’t get unplugged. The technical assistant is a person who can set up the gear and who then deploys or adjusts it as directed by the photographer. The coordinating assistant is good with people and timing and should be a pair of eyes in other rooms as well as a liaison between crew and client.
Each type can cause more harm than good, and often does. Even how the equipment is brought into the venue can lead to needless stress. Assistants often move gear to a remote location or to where it was kept last. But this is a different gig, and the photographer might decide to work differently. I find that very experienced assistants still will lean ladders on the wall—not a good way to start the relationship with the property manager! And they repeatedly create trip hazards, block doorways, and even make it a challenge to get to vital gear by placing backup gear in the way. Basically, most assistants are not adept at situational analysis, nor are they detail oriented. A photographer who actually relies on the assistant’s technical skill even just to set up the gear, I can guarantee, will most likely be embarrassed when the client arrives and the first shots have to be redone.
An experienced pro can be undermined by a coordinator. I once remained poised at the ready in an uncomfortable outdoor environment waiting for the appearance of the main subject. Till my assistant interrupted my attention to inform me that the subject got delayed and would not arrive for at least ten more minutes. Lowering my camera to turn to him, I peripherally noticed my subject just zipping by!
So what family member might make the best assistant? Anyone can move gear. But the sprightly, wise, and wonderful grandmother with wisdom to recognize what really is important from moment to moment, who has real life experience to know when not to interrupt good things, might just be a special asset. This person would not be easily distracted from her mission, and believe me, some grandmothers can move faster than most assistants! She would have a good sense of priorities, be ever vigilant and alert, and not engage in small talk with crew or client, which is always a distraction to both.
With today’s gear being small, lighter, and more capable than ever, the line has blurred between a photographer’s assistant and an assistant photographer. There is a difference. The photographer’s assistant should never be taking photos, for when he does, he is not assisting the photographer. The assistant photographer should not be taking photos either, because he is unskilled, inexperienced, and no doubt getting in the way of the skilled videographers and photographers who are trying to do their own jobs unassisted!
Seriously: invest in a full second or third photographer. And don’t let salesmen talk about assistants. Either the photographer has one or he is used to working better without. Consider most assistants to be a nice family member who can move a light or snap a shot with your camera. But a smiling Bubby is worth her weight in gold and she probably will work for free! v
Gary Rabenko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.