A day’s assisting in South Africa…


This is an article I wrote a long time ago now, back in 2002 when I worked as a freelance assistant.  At the time I was working  with a number of advertising, corporate, and fashion photographers in the UK. One of my photographer clients had a particularly nice contract that involved going to South Africa fairly regularly. I went out there with them and worked harder than I’ve worked in my life, but it was fun, and an unforgettable experience.

Technology has obviously moved on since then (it’s unlikely we’d shoot film if we did this now, and I’d probably needed to have brought some digital skills to the table), but hopefully this still gives an idea of the assistant’s role on a shoot like this, and the kind of mindset behind working as an assistant on a big shoot.


I’m dragged out of deep deep sleep by my phone alarm. I can’t believe it’s that time already. Only 4.30 in the morning, but I’ve left it till the last minute to wake myself up. We’re onto the tenth day of the shoot in Cape Town and I realise I’ve never worked so hard in my life. The early starts wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the late finishes. But when the food and wine are so good and so cheap (well, free in fact as the client is paying) somehow early nights aren’t top of the agenda.

A quick shower later and I’ve got the kit loaded onto a hotel trolley. It would have been nice to leave stuff in the van overnight, but that’s not an option so everything stays in my hotel room. There’s the lighting – 3 heavy Profoto cases each with spare batteries and two heads – and all the related paraphernalia. Octoboxes, big and small, plenty of stands, about a million sandbags, reflectors (California sunbounces and lastolites), diffuser material and gels (neutral density of different intensities, plus a variety of colour corrections and warm-ups). We’ve also got some Broncolor packs and heads, but as we’re going to be shooting outside today, they’re staying behind. Then there’s the camera kit. The main camera’s a Mamiya RZ, with spare body, 3 film backs, a Polaroid back with one in reserve, and a number of lenses. We’ve got 35mm too – a couple of Nikon bodies and plenty of lenses. There are a couple of tripods (cleaned down the night before to get rid of salt and sand, as were the cameras). Plus we’ve got a case of underwater housings, though those are staying in the room today. Everything else is loaded ready to go downstairs.

Ten to five and there’s a knock at the door. It’s the second assistant, Matt, looking about as rough as I feel. It’ll be a good half hour until we start to function so we’re still on autopilot. I double check I’ve not left the cool bag with the film behind & have a quick scan of the room for anything else. Matt picked up some more gaffer tape on his way home yesterday (he’s a local guy and knows everyone and everything there is to know about putting a shoot together here) as we were about to run out so, we pack that in the bits bag with all the odds and ends that might come in handy (bungees, spare clamps, a couple of floor stands, black wrap and blackout cloth). He’s got some more film too (we’re shooting Kodak transparency) so we check it’s from the same batch as the rest (the lab’s got a bunch of film set aside for us that supposedly came out of the factory at the same time, so there shouldn’t be any discrepancies when rolls are processed).

We meet the photographer in the lobby who’s looking ridiculously sprightly, load the van in the dark, and set out for the beach. We’re getting there first to start deciding on shots and get the kit set up, and the client, designers, production team and models will join us at a slightly more civilized hour. As usual I’m paranoid that I’ve forgotten something so am double and triple checking everything in my head as Matt drives. There’s no one else on the road and it’s pitch black and still quite cold. I’m wearing a jumper on top and shorts on bottom as I know it’s not going to be this chilly for long. If I had a normal job I’d still be asleep right now. But with all the feelings of complete knackeredness and slight anxiety that I’m going to screw something up there’s the realisation that it’s actually pretty cool to be cruising through Cape Town at the crack of dawn on what’s going to be a beautiful South African day in November.

We’re heading South down the Cape. The first couple of days we were here we spent recceing locations and casting the models. We’ve got polaroids of spots we’re going to shoot at this morning, each marked out with the direction the location faces. It was my job to mark these up (I make sure I always carry a compass with me) so I hope I haven’t got any of them wrong. When we arrive at the beach after half an hour there’s the first hint of light. The production guys will get here with breakfast in 45 minutes or so, but Matt has got a flask of coffee with him so we share some of that and start to feel human again.

We scurry out over the dunes with the photographer who decides on the location of the first shot of the day. We’ve now got the challenging task of carting what seems like a ton of gear from the car park over to the spot in question. We’ve got a couple of fold-up trolleys that can be handy on other days. Unfortunately they’re as good as useless over these soft sand dunes. So we have to lug insanely heavy lighting kit the 500 yards or so into position. It’s the boxes of Profoto kit that are the real killers, not helped by the fact that the dunes are about as easy to cross as the Himalayas. This is one of the less fun parts of the job – but it does save on the gym membership, I suppose.

While I’m constructing one of the large octaboxes I hear a strange whooshing noise over in the direction of the sea. I look the 50 yards or so over to the surf and see 3 large dark shapes picked out by the early light of the sun. A plume of water spouts out of one them and I realise it’s a pod of whales come to say hi. They hang around in the shallows for a bit then head back out to sea until they disappear into the half-light of dawn. I feel like David Attenborough for a second before I remember that he doesn’t have to set up lights.

The production team have turned up by now and have got some bacon rolls and coffee on the go. They’re a local company and it’s their job to liaise with the photographer before the shoot and help source local make-up artists, stylists and models. They also help with recommending and helping choose locations and props, and will organise any permits for shooting outdoors or hiring any private location we’re shooting in. They organise local assistants, plus will know any local labs and hire shops and will help get any kit reserved before we arrive. They basically sort a lot of the admin side of things and it’s their responsibility to help ensure that the shoot runs smoothly while we’re there. And possibly most importantly, they make sure there’s coffee there early in the morning.

We’re shooting kids’ fashion for a major UK chain. Their marketing manager is out here for the two weeks, as are a couple of guys from the advertising agency who are working on the account. It’s a great team to work with & everyone’s getting on really well, which is one of the reasons why we’re all struggling this morning – perhaps that last cocktail wasn’t such a great idea last night…

Cars are turning up pretty frequently now as the rest of the people involved in the shoot arrive. There’s the make-up artist and the stylist, plus a bunch of parents (some pushier than others) with their respective child models. Most of the kids are pretty grouchy at being up this early, but it’s going to be a long day and we’ve got a lot of shots to do so there’s no place for leisurely starts (more’s the pity). We’ve got a few more kids than we’ll necessarily need, so if the worst comes to the worst & any are refusing to look cute they won’t get used. It’ll probably be up to me again to do the diplomacy thing with the parents who are distraught that little Jimmy is missing out on his moment of fame – that’s just one of the extra things that wasn’t in my job description.

Eventually we’re ready to shoot. We’re balancing flash with daylight as we often do. The sun’s starting to come up now and there’s a bit of a breeze picking up. Matt and I make sure the lights are heavily sandbagged, especially the one with the big octabox on it as we don’t want it taking off into town like the kite surfer did last week. We’ve also got a production runner with us so I get him to hang on to it for good measure.

I get the film backs loaded up and the camera on the tripod ready for the photographer to go. I’ve got a bum bag round my waist that I keep a couple of film backs in plus the Polaroid back. I’ve also got a zip-lock clear plastic back that all the shot film goes in and a permanent marker to mark the film up once it’s shot and make sure it stays in order. Shooting at the beach can be an absolute nightmare when the breeze picks up and sand starts flying around. So I always make sure I load and unload the film in a sheltered spot as just the one grain of sand getting into it could ruin the whole roll.

I’ve also got a pack of spare film in my bag as there won’t be time to run to the cool bag every time I need to reload (the rest of it stays in the cool and dark as long as possible.) Plus I’ve got a spare pack of Polaroid at the ready. I’ve put the Polaroid back on the RZ ready for the photographer as I know they’ll want to do some tests first, and have a loupe ready to hand them to check the focus on the Polaroid once it’s pulled. As soon as it’s checked I’ll replace the Polaroid with the film back ready to shoot. (I’ve got pretty good at switching film backs leaning over the camera upside down while the photographer’s still kneeling behind it directing the models.) We’ve been working together long enough now for all this to be performed almost telepathically.

We start shooting. There are a couple of clouds so I’ve got Matt with the meter out constantly checking the ambient light levels. The flash exposure is constant so we want the aperture to stay the same but as ambient drops and rises by a third of a stop or so we need to adjust the shutter speed accordingly. It’s a fairly static shot this one so the actual speed of the shutter isn’t a big issue as far as motion is concerned which gives us some leeway. We’re shooting transparency so even a third of a stop overexposed is too much – we need to be absolutely spot on. As Matt calls out the reading I’m on my knees adjusting the camera settings while the photographer’s shooting away. At the same time I’m counting the frames so I know when to tell them the end of the roll’s coming up. It can be a struggle to keep up, so I need to make sure that when I replace the camera back, I’m able to empty it, mark up the film with the correct number then reload the back (without sand or bright light getting in it) as quickly as possible.

And so it goes on throughout the morning. It can be quite stressful making sure nothing goes wrong as we’re working at a cracking pace and there’s absolutely no room for error. I need to be alert to everything. I’m constantly watching the flashes to make sure they’re all syncing together and that the batteries aren’t running out. (Another job of mine in the evening is charging all the Profoto batteries and spares up – and if I forget to do this we’re in deep trouble). Sometimes the flash heads swivel in the wind and I need to keep checking that whoever’s holding the flash is alert to this as there’s no use having a perfectly lit sand dune if the model’s face is in the shade.

I’m concentrating so hard on the flashes that I make my first mistake. The photographer wants to quickly check the shot on Polaroid so I switch backs and they shoot a frame only to find there’s no Polaroid to pull as I hadn’t noticed it was empty. We lose a minute as I remove the Polaroid back, replace it with a film back to stop the sand getting into the camera, run to get another pack (I didn’t even replace the spare in my bag when it ran out), then fumble over opening it, getting it loaded into the back and replacing the film back with the polaroid on the camera again. I get a glare from the photographer – it’s not a major disaster but it’s interrupted the flow of the shoot and I feel like a bit of an idiot.

Apart from this, everything goes ok. We make sure everyone’s got enough water as it’s starting to get seriously hot. Despite this, at one point I need to find a jacket to put over the photographer’s head to keep the sun out of the viewfinder. I’m slapping on the suncream too which means that’s one more thing I need to make sure doesn’t get on the camera or the film.

Before we know it it’s lunch time. The production guys have come up trumps again and rustled up a fantastic spread of salad, meats and fruit. Time for a quick bite then Matt and I are off again shifting the kit ready for the next shot. The afternoon is as frantic as the morning and involves more action – to cut a long story short, there’s a big scrim that threatens to take off, lots of running along the beach with reflectors, constantly wiping sea spray off the lens while simultaneously trying to shade it from flare while all the time trying to make the kids look happy.

Finally it’s the end of the day – 6pm or so (thankfully kids have bed times or we might have been here all night) – so we lug all the kit back over the dunes to the van and head back to the hotel. We stop off at the lab on the way to drop off the rolls that need clip testing (I marked them as we were shooting). The lab have instructions to deliver the clips back to the hotel that evening so the photographer can go over them to decide how the rest of the film gets processed. It’s up to me to meticulously transcribe the processing instructions without mistake or there could be trouble.

While everyone else is in the bar before dinner I’m cleaning everything down. I’ve got all the kit back in the room again and am going over the camera, lenses, film backs and tripods with the air duster (I get through a lot of these) and damp cloths to rid it all of salt and sand. I plug the batteries in, double check we’ve got all the gaffer, film and other bits & pieces for tomorrow or it’s a quick call to Matt to sort it for the morning. Tomorrow is going to be another long day, but there’s some beer drinking to be done first…


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