You’re the lone wolf. You’ve been going at this photo thing all by yourself and doing just fine. Then you take a new job, a client you’ve been dying to work with and in the middle of it you realize, you need help. There’s just too much to do, too much going on and you’re not going to get all your shots done on time. Sound familiar?
You need a photo assistant my friend, and the good news is that there are plenty of great assistants out there, you just need to find one AND do this the right way.
Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. The content in this article is NOT legal advice but simply suggestions for things to consider for running your business. Please speak with your attorney for what is right for you and your business.
Table of Contents
What Is A Photo Assistant?
There are two types of photo assistants actually. There are the pro assistants, and then there are the people who are just starting out in photography and they are looking to learn more.
The professional photo assistants are actually excellent photographers but they don’t want the stress of running their own photo shoots.
They would much rather work for someone else and thrive doing so. Many times they might know more technically about cameras, lighting, computers, etc. than a lot of the photographers they work for. They’ve got a lot of experience on all sorts of shoots and have a ton of knowledge.
Next we have the beginner photographer who wants to learn more. They don’t have a lot of experience yet, and they want to work with you to learn everything they can. Their goal is actually to be a photographer some day.
This assistant still has a lot to learn and they want to work for someone to help them learn the ropes and get better at their own photography.
These are two very different attitudes in an assistant so it’s important to know what you need help with, and I’ll cover that below. The beginner assistant has their own agenda to learn, while the pro assistant is there to help make your shoot go smoothly.
What Does A Photo Assistant Do?
Photo assistants can do an assortment of things so it’s important to figure out what you really need help with.
Do you need someone to just help you carry equipment to and from your car on location? Or do you need someone to really help you with lighting and camera set up. Get very clear about that so that you can find the right assistant for you.
Here is a list of tasks that are common – this is not a complete list, and in no particular order:
- Carrying and loading equipment
- Organizing equipment for location
- Organizing studio for a shoot
- Picking up materials and supplies at stores
- Picking up and returning rental equipment
- Picking up and returning props (it’s not appropriate to ask your assistant to do full on styling work – that’s a job for a stylist)
- If you do need light styling work and your assistant has experience with that, pay them more for that
- Misc errands that are related to the photography job
- Help with lighting setup
- Help with camera setup
- Help with some computer set up, but please know that if you need someone to help you with tethering to the computer, that’s a job skill of a Digital Tech, and you need to pay them more for that ($500-$700/day)
- Help with minor editing or image culling
- Cleaning your studio and setting up for a job
- Cleaning your gear and setting up for a job
- Cleaning the kitchen during a food shoot
- Running out and grabbing food for the stylists when they run out of something on set
- Taking out the trash (yes! that’s important – it’s not appropriate for the photographer to have to take the trash out in the middle of a shoot)
- Picking up craft services and meals during the job
- Plus many more
What Do Photo Assistants Charge?
In the US, a pro photo assistant will cost you more to hire than a beginner. They start at $450 a day for a 10hr day and go up to $750, depending on the work you are asking them to do. I’d say the average is about $500/day if they have a lot of experience.
For the beginner photo assistant, you could pay $150 for a 10hr day on the low end and then up to $350 for the day, but again this is based on their experience level and what they already know.
Can’t I Just Ask A Beginner To Assist Me For Free?
Nope! That’s not an option and here’s why. First of all, many states are passing laws that do not allow free internships, in order to protect the workers.
Second, the assistant is legally considered an employee as defined by the IRS, so there are payroll costs associated with that. The cost of that is about 25% of their day rate. Again, you would charge this to the client as part of your costs.
Your beginner photo assistant that is charging you $250 a day would cost you $312.50, so this is what you charge your client.
Even if that assistant has their own business license and business liability insurance, just by the nature of you telling them where to go, what to do AND they are using your equipment of course, they are still considered an employee.
Third, you are taking a huge risk by having anyone on your set and you need insurance to protect them, you, and your client, should anyone get hurt. That’s called Workman’s comp.
Now, don’t freak out, more about all this later with an easy way to handle what I just said above.
When Is It Time To Hire A Photo Assistant?
First of all, you must have your business set up properly and that would involve getting a business liability insurance policy, among other things.
Many inexperienced photographers, and photographers who just aren’t technically proficient manage to get a lot of jobs. They are good at marketing though. The smart ones will hire a pro photo assistant (or two) to help them pull the job off. I saw this a ton when I was assisting actually.
Hiring an assistant is a large expense, so you must make sure you are charging enough for the shoot, and estimating your costs correctly to include a photo assistant in your budget.
If you are doing a tiny restaurant shoot for $500, you are obviously not going to be able to hire a photo assistant to help you. You’re going to need to charge more in order to justify the cost of a photo assistant.
There are going to be jobs where the physical work will be very demanding. These would be location shoots for example. So you are asked to go to the client’s offices, setup a studio in their conference room, and still get a lot of images done in one day. This is the perfect scenario to hire assistants.
What type of assistant you hire will be based on your technical skills as a photographer, your budget, and what you need help with.
The Easy Way To Handle All The Legal Paperwork And Insurance
I know i’ve probably talked about some things that are making you intimidated about hiring a photo assistant. The easiest way to do this is by using an entertainment payroll company.
What this company does, is THEY become the employer, not you, but just for that one photography job. You are listed as a producer on the job and then your assistant is payrolled through the payroll company.
This is how almost every tv show and movie handles their productions in order to protect all the people working on the set.
Your assistant will fill out several employment forms from the IRS and your state, and prove they are allowed to work here, just like any other employee in the US.
The payroll company has a Workman’s comp policy that will be used in case your assistant gets hurt. They also pay for all the taxes that are required as well.
At the end of the year your assistant will get a W-2 from the payroll company, not you. So you don’t even have to worry about that extra task.
There is a fee for this, but you need to trust me that it is absolutely worth it. Carrying your own workman’s comp policy is extremely expensive so this is the perfect way to hire assistants legally when you are starting out.
I use a payroll company called Smith And Stilwell(this is not a sponsored post). They’ve been around for at least 30 years.
Along with your regular business liability insurance, you need a type of endorsement that will protect your assistant if they get in a car accident on your photography job. With my insurance policy, that endorsement is called “Hired And Non-Owned Auto Liability”.
You need this because if the photo assistant gets in a car accident while working for you, the argument is that they would not have been in that location if it weren’t for you hiring them. Almost as if it’s your fault they got in a wreck. I know, I know. Welcome to the US.
On all my estimates and invoices, on the line item where I list out my assistants I say this, “Assistant costs include state mandated payroll and workman’s comp insurance”. In 30 years not a single client has questioned, this, ever.
How To Hire A Photo Assistant
So now that you’ve seen it’s not that hard to handle the business part of hiring an assistant, let’s talk about the best way to find good quality assistants.
This does NOT involve you putting out an open call on your social media! You’ve got to get an assistant who has been vetted.
By far, the best success I have had finding assistants is by simply asking my pro photog friends for referrals. Ideally you want an assistant that has had experience in what you photograph.
The next best way to get good assistants is by referrals from your local camera rental supply house. They know all the assistants in town and can easily recommend a great assistant to you.
After that, a great place to find a local assistant is from your local photography organization. Many of them have crew resource lists for their members. Here are a few:
- APA – American Photographic Artists
- ASMP – American Society of Media Professionals
- PPA – Professional Photography Association
- In the UK you have the Royal Photographic Society
Every country will have their own, so just Google that in your area.
Do you have a local college near you with a photography program? That is another excellent way to find photo assistants. You can reach out to some of the instructors there to help vet the right student for you.
Get several referrals and simply interview them on the phone letting them know what you need help with, and to see if they are the right fit.
I hope that shed some light for you with how to hire a photo assistant. They are wonderful to have on set with you, and can really make your photo shoot a lot more fun.