The DOs and DON’Ts of Photo Assisting According to Ian Spanier

August 7, 2014

By Ian Spanier

© Ian Spanier

 Photo assisting in New York City.

Seeing as there is no manual on how to be a professional photographer’s assistant I thought it would be good to open the discussion on what I view as important to making it as an assistant today.

Cold-calling photographers:

I guess it is good practice as this is what you will be doing as a photographer but with that, I’ve never hired an assistant off the cold call. I’ve always hired from either the recommendation of another photographer or more likely the recommendation from an assistant. Maybe this isn’t the case in smaller markets but I do feel this is the case in larger markets. If you are going to cold call  or if you are called up by a photographer here is some advice, at least how I see it. 

The cold call. It is an art and should takie up as little time of the intended new client as possible. Bottom line is that a lengthy email explaining who you are is overkill. Nobody wants to read a novel about you yet, so keep it short and to the point. 

-Learn to spell.  Seems like a no-brainer, but if you spell the word “sorry” as “sori” that says volumes about you. The same goes for “their” and “there.”  You have to learn to check your writing. 

Don’t send a selfie. I cannot believe I even have to say this, but a few assistants as of late have been sending me pictures of themselves. Personally, I am not a fan of selfies as is, but sending me your version of what you think makes you look cool is very creepy. I’d rather see some of your photography so I can get a sense of your skills as a photographer. 

Don’t be a stalker. This may be a bit of a double standard, as I am very persistent when it comes to working towards meetings with potential clients, but I think if a photographer has not responded to your requests to assist him/her after a few attempts it’s not going to happen. I do try to respond when assistants send me inquiries. 

Once you start working with photographers:

Be responsible. If I ask you for an invoice right away, send it. Don’t make me wait. Generally I am not able to invoice my client until you send me an invoice. The same goes for any other required forms as W-9, independent contractor, etc. This is only good practice when you start shooting jobs, so don’t slack on this. 

You owe yourself. I always tell my assistants that if they are working towards being a full-time photographer themselves that for every day assisting, they owe themselves a shoot day. This is of course highly ambitious, but the point is that if you are  assisting only and not shooting, you will not further your career. 

On Set:

-Anticipate. The mark of any good assistant is the ability to anticipate what the photographer needs. Those that really excel know it even before the photographer does. My first assistants have always gotten to that point early on. That told me they were paying attention and were aware of how I worked. Their ability to anticipate my needs made them invaluable. 

-Presentation.  You are on set as a part of the photographer’s crew. You need to reflect the photographer as best as you can. The photographer’s clients judge the photographer in part by the surrounding crew. If you want to continue to work for the photographer, showing him/her that you respect and understand  is a huge asset. 

Be quiet, but present. It’s not your show, do your job and be there to anticipate for the photographer. I don’t mean this in a bad way. I want your input. I applaud your ideas that will help the shoot, but if you are the bigger character on set or attract too much attention that’s not going to go over well in my book. 

Put your damn phone away. Ok, it’s the world we live in. I get it. We all bury ourselves in our phones and tablets. I don’t care if you are taking artsy pics of power cords or how the sunset looks on your time- but I’m paying you to work for me, not to post your vision to Instagram. I don’t expect you not to respond to other photographers or clients about jobs, but make sure I know that you are on point. Make sure the photographer is taken care of first. 

-Ask questions. If you don’t know something… ask! You are assisting to learn. I’ve always been very open with assistants about not just the shoot at hand but running a business and dealing with clients. Use your photographers as a resource. 

-Have fun. Part of what makes a great team is having fun on set. I have clients that actually request certain assistants to be on set because they appreciate the energy we give off. 

Fun with assistants. 

-Be realistic about your goals. Before you blink and ten years has passed by, think about what you hope to gain from assisting. I didn’t really assist for long. I took a different path via photo editing and self-teaching to go through the process of making my mistakes and learning my craft. Unless you want assisting as your career, I believe you should really think about the intent behind assisting. Too many assistants stay in the business for too long. Be honest and know your end point. As hard as it may be, you need to be honest with yourself about when to hang it up. There’s nothing wrong with staying in the game if you love it. But if you are tired of seeing others doing what you want to do, get off your ass and do something about it.

-Experience is invaluable. Seek out the opportunity to work for those you admire. There’s no quicker way to burn out than to be on a boring job. 

-Never stop learning. I can’t say this enough. There is always new equipment, different techniques and varied approaches. There are only so many ways to skin a cat in this business. The more you know the better you are as an assistant and eventually as a  photographer.


Ian Spanier is an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer based in Los Angeles and  New York City and a PhotoServe member. As comfortable as he is in  the studio, he can face any challenge presented on location. Ian’s first full book of published work, Playboy, a Guide to Cigars, documents his travels to nearly every country that manufactures cigars and is available at fine cigar shops and at major book stores. His second critically acclaimed book, Local Heroes: Portraits of America’s Volunteer Fire Fighters, is out now in stores and online. You can visit the book’s Tumblr Page here. Spanier is a member of the Lowepro Team, Photoflex’s Pro Team, and Imagenomic’s featured photographer list.  He has been the recipient of  numerous awards from such major photo competitions as  American Photography, SPD, The International Color Awards, The International Black & White Spider Awards, PDN’s World in Focus, Planet Magazine, and Seeing the Light, to name a few. Finally, he is a regular lecturer for SMUG, as well as The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Ian Spanier is available for assignment. See his site at  For questions or comments e-mail him at: He is represented by Bill Charles.