Is assisting really necessary?
The short answer to this is no, but by spending a couple of years assisting you can learn a wealth of photography skills and other skills relevant to running a photography business that it could take you years to pick up on your own.
But I just want to get out there and set up my own photography business without sweeping floors for 2 years!
Let’s assume you’ve just finished studying photography, or you’ve decided on a career change & you want to make photography your sole source of income. It’s understandable that you would be itching to just go out there and jump straight in feet first to find work for yourself. Well, for some people this may well be the best option. For a small few who already have experience in other fields such as marketing or business, or who may have already worked in professional photography environment, it’s possible you’ll survive without drowning. But be warned, you’ll need to have a good business head on you, you’ll need to be extremely entrepreneurial, you’ll need to be mature, have a sound set of negotiation skills, and obviously it helps if you can take a good photo. But have no doubt about it, while you might be able to make a living as a photographer if you’re an average photographer and an excellent businessperson, you’ll struggle if you’re lacking in business skills, however good a photographer you are. (There are of course exceptions to this but for 95% of people starting out, it’s unlikely you’re going to have clients banging on your door from day 1).
College is great for developing your photography skills. It can also give your work a certain amount of exposure to commissioners of photography, and it’s a fantastic environment for working on your own ideas and experimenting with different styles of photography. But it’s not necessarily going to prepare you for survival in one of the most competitive industries out there (and it’s becoming increasingly so as the market for commissioned photography is shrinking).
Also, even if you do launch yourself straight into photography as a career, it can take years to build up a solid enough client base to allow you to make a decent living from photography. Although photography can be extremely well paid when you do get work, getting that volume of work up to a respectable level is a real challenge. Many new photographers will earn income from photography on a sporadic basis and find they need some other means of earning a living to survive. So unless you’re a real hot shot at marketing yourself as a photographer, why not make life a bit easier for yourself by doubling your chances of work of some sort and work as a freelance assistant? This will help take the pressure off while you’re looking for those first photography jobs and give you time to build your portfolio.
Tip the odds in your favour
The key to assisting is that it’s basically the education you don’t get at college. It’ll provide you with priceless experience of the workings of the photography industry, and you’ll get paid at the same time – you can’t say much fairer than that. It’s only when you start assisting that you’ll realise how much you didn’t know, and how much more you can help your own chances of being a successful photographer by soaking all this stuff up. It’s a bit of a case of the hare and the tortoise too. Sure, if you go straight into photography as a career you’ll be off the blocks without any hesitation, but it could take you years of jobs here and there plus the fair few mistakes you’ll inevitably make to gain the sort of industry experience a good assistant will get in a couple of years.
Think about it – if you manage to get yourself established as a freelance assistant you’ll be gaining experience of not just one field of photography but a whole number. From a few jobs with one photographer you might learn tricks for lighting still life that it’s taken them years to develop. You might then find yourself working with another photographer who’s an incredibly talented self-publicist, and learn lessons there. Most importantly, you’ll see that there are no hard and fast rules in photography, and by seeing how different photographers approach jobs in different ways you’ll build up an invaluable library of information that you’ll be able to draw upon when it comes to working on your own.
There are plenty of other benefits to assisting. Once you’ve worked with a photographer for a while, the chances are they’ll be happy for you to borrow their studio or their kit for test shoots or for small jobs of your own. They might even give you advice on how to shoot if they’re feeling really generous. You’ll get to know their clients and, while the last thing on your mind should be pinching your boss’s work, you might find yourself eventually getting the odd job here or there thrown your way. Basically, if you’re a good assistant and work with good photographers, you’ll find yourself with a rock-solid support structure and custom-made mentoring scheme for when you decide your time has come to go it alone. If you keep in touch with your ex bosses, you’ll find that you’ve got an instant helpline just at the other end of the phone or email pretty much for life – and that is something that money can’t buy.
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