There are millions of people out there who can make gorgeous pictures. But a lot of what goes into being a professional photographer is dealing with clients, solving problems as a team and making sure things go smoothly on the day of the shoot — skills that have nothing to do with actual photography. – Will Styer

Want to get started in the industry? In a recent article for American Photo, leading professionals were asked for their advice on how to get hired as a photo assistant, an invaluable step in the career and development of a photographer.

1. Sell yourself.
Put together a portfolio that shows off your creative and technical skills, and tailor it to the photographer you want to work for. Build a solid website and keep it updated, so that anyone hiring has a reference. Then go for it. “As long as you’re upfront with a photographer you want to assist about your knowledge and experience, it’s never too soon,” says Styer, a former assistant who now shoots for Esquire, Armani and Ralph Lauren. “You don’t have to know how equipment works to carry it. Be honest about your abilities and realistic in your expectations.”

2. Decide how you want to work.
Should you work full-time for one photographer, or freelance with a variety who use assistants as needed? “There are pros and cons to each,” says New York advertising and editorial photographer Jack Reznicki, who assisted for five years before shooting for the likes of Hyatt, AT&T and The Wall Street Journal. James Porto, an influential high-concept photographer, thinks you should do both. “The ideal path would be to work for a single photographer who you admire for at least a year, then to freelance for multiple photographers, Freelancing pays better, too.”

3. Pick your bosses wisely.
Either way, hire yourself out to photographers you can learn from. Look at their work, especially in magazines and other print media, and when you make contact tell them where you’ve seen it and why you like it. If you know what kind of work you want to do, assist photographers who do it; if you’re still trying to decide, mix it up. In the process, you may even find a mentor.

4. Choose the best way to make contact.
Email may seem the easiest and least obnoxious, but it’s also easy to ignore. “I think phone calls are better and more personal than email,” says Reznicki. “With the first call I usually say I can’t talk then, but I tell them to call me back at a certain time. What’s amazing is that only about 25 percent of people follow through.”

5. Be persistent but polite.
“I’m not going to remember you from one interaction,” says Tony Gale, an assistant-turned-photographer and now president of American Photographic Artists. “Being consistent is important. I would suggest trying a few different ways to reach out – telephone, email, social media. Just don’t do them all at once or too frequently.”

6. Be ready.
Sometimes photographers need assistants at short notice – especially if a member of their go-to crew can’t take on the assignment. Last-minute substitutions can lead to regular work.

7. Do whatever needs to be done.
Once you start assisting, know your place. “As an assistant, your job is to make the shoot as smooth as possible,” says Gale. “That might mean setting up lights, but it could also mean mopping the bathroom. Don’t be reluctant to get your hands dirty.”

8. Be seen and not heard.
“Unless you’re the first assistant and know exactly what’s going on, you won’t endear yourself to the boss by always putting in your two cents on set,” says Reznicki, who recalls an assistant who gave unsolicited advice in front of a client. “He didn’t realize that there was also a political aspect to the problem. I never hired him again.”

9. Bring your own kit.
Pack simple tools and materials that keep you self-sufficient and useful – a multipurpose pocket tool, clamps, gaffer’s tape, a roll of black foil to control light, a pad and pen for keeping notes. “I used to bring memory cards, which more than once solved what could have been a huge problem,” says Gale.

10. Anticipate the photographer’s needs.
Don’t make the photographer ask for everything he or she wants you to do – take the initiative, if you know what they want. “Some of my assistants know exactly what needs to be done before I even tell them because they’ve worked with me so long,” says Styer. “But if it’s your first time assisting a particular photographer, I’d pay close attention and just be ready when you’re asked to do something.”

11. Ask questions.
Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. Your boss knows you’re there not just to earn some money, but also to learn. Just don’t overdo it – after all, you’re expected to know the basics. Be confident, but be teachable.

12. Have a positive attitude.
“If you pay attention, listen, and can focus on a task, that’s what I care most about,” says Gale. “Knowing more is always good, but if I’m going to spend from six hours to several days with someone, personality is important.”

13. Don’t use your smartphone on set.
“It’s very disrespectful, especially when time is money and so much is on the line,” says Reznicki. “If you have to, do it on your lunch break or go to the bathroom.” You also risk upsetting the client – Reznicki tells of a photographer who was sued by his client because his assistant uploaded a behind-the-scenes image of the shoot to social media.

14. Follow up.
If you’ve assisted a photographer and all went well, send a thank-you note saying you’d like to work for them again and expressing the hope that he or she will refer you to other photographers.

15. Keep networking.
Even if you end up working full-time for one photographer, it’s important to establish new connections. Do this on shoots, of course, but attend photo community events too. And be sure to make friends with your local photo equipment rental house.

16. Exploit social media.
“It’s actually one of the ways I’ve met a lot of well-known photographers,” says Detroit-based Matthew LaVere, who is now making the transition to full-time professional. “Down the line, they’ve called me up to see if I was available to assist. Instagram and Twitter have really helped me network.” Facebook and LinkedIn offer similar opportunities.

17. Start booking your own jobs.
“It is absolutely possible to assist and shoot at the same time,” says Gale. “I know some people believe you should make a clean break as soon as you think you’re ready, but I’m not sure that’s realistic. Gradually shooting more and assisting less is a perfectly fine way to do it. And if you start turning down shooting jobs because you’re already booked to assist, you know it’s time to quit assisting!”

If you’re in the Cape Town area and would like to start your career as a photographer, sign up for DLPHOTO’s Beginner To Pro Course today.