Background: I used to have an active Tumblr, but I got locked out of it and their support staff has been on vacation the past two years. Before that, I ran a site called Too Much Chocolate. Both were dedicated to being resource sites for the photo community and aspiring/emerging photographers. Unlike becoming a CPA, a dentist, or a paramedic, there’s not a direct path to becoming a professional photographer; the sites existed as a guide and an aggregation of information that might be helpful.

The following copy is revived content from my Tumblr, with some minor modifications, but most of this text is preserved and presented as it was on that site. A lot has changed (Instagram didn’t really exist in its current state, magazines were thick and lucious, content for social wasn’t yet a *thing*), but I wanted to re-post these musings, as a lot of it still remains relevant, no matter what freelance creative field you’re in. If you have a question, email me, and I’ll do my best to answer it if it’s not touched on somewhere on this site.

Hi. I’m writing a large 4 piece post on what I think are the four most important things you can do to become a professional photographer.

1. Assist
2. Build a network with other photographers/create a solid community around you
3. Intensively shoot personal work every week and work on projects
4. Start small (with commissioned shoots), even if they’re for weekly papers

Today will be about initiative #1, assisting. I will roll the other three out every couple days or so. They’re gonna be a bit all over the place but, hey, so am I. If you have specific followup questions, drop a line and I will answer them.

So here is what I have to say about assisting. People either love or hate assisting. I personally loved my time assisting. I always tried to come into shoots with the goal of learning at least one new thing by the end of the day, if not twenty. Now that I’m hiring my own assistants, here are some tips. First, stay off your fucking phone! Be observant. You’re getting paid to take in what you like, and what you don’t like, about the photographer’s shooting style, lighting, rapport with the subjects. Notice what you like and what works, and what you think he/she is doing poorly that you’d change when you shoot. Instgram will be there later.

Assisting is a great way to make rent, develop relationships, get to know gear better, learn advanced and nuanced lighting techniques, gather advice, observed how to problem solve, manage your time well before and during the shoot. I think it’s one of the best tools to learn how to become a photographer. So stay off your phone. Don’t tune out. See what can be done, and use the time to observe everything.

It’s remarkably easy to keep getting work from certain photographers when you do your job well. It’s also remarkably easy to never get called again if you’ve got a bad attitude, don’t work hard, space out, are constantly on your phone (can you tell it’s a pet peeve?). I was guilty of it too in my assisting days, but now that I’m on the other side, it’s just frustrating when something needs to be done, and I’m the only one notices it (strobes not firing, battery packs need changing, subject moved position), while the assistant is tuned out on her/his phone, not paying attention. Show intent, care, hard work, motivation to learn, and being a solid member of a team, and a willingness to make the shoot run smoothly. That’s all it takes. I assure you, you’ll get a solid rep around town and soon have more work than you know what to do with.

How to get assisting work: Network/work your ass off. Research every photographer you can in your city. Write them specific and personal emails to them, call out shots of theirs and why you like them. It is the only way you’ll get a response, and a meeting with that photographer. You know what sucks? Getting an email from a prospective assist or intern or college student that obviously is writing 15 different photographers with the same exact email. At the very least, address the photographer by her/his name. That shows you don’t care. Why would anyone want to hire/write back/interact with someone who doesn’t care?

Anyway, digression aside. Arrange meetings with every photographer who you can in your city. Even if you don’t love their work, have some respect for their work. Don’t meet with people whose work you hate. Not worth it. Meet with them for coffee, have a good attitude, demonstrate a solid knowledge of photography, show you know some gear. Ask them for 3-5 other photographers you should be meeting with in town. Reach out to those folks, meet with them, and do the same, until you’ve met with everyone.

Also important… very important: stay in touch with these people every other month or so, even if they don’t give you work. Don’t feel bad about it, or that you’re being pushy. Do this for at least six months. Photographers (and photo editors) get courted all the time. Often just once. Be the guy/girl who rises above and stays in touch. That signifies you care, you’re not a flash in the pan. Also, from personal experience, I need reminders from people…. I can have a great interaction with someone…. but if I don’t hear from that person for 2-4 months…. guess what? I forget their name. I remember they were rad, but I can’t look them up.

That’s all I have to really say about assisting. Oh, I will say I personally value someone who has a good attitude and is a good traveling companion over a person who has alot of gear know-how but I don’t really vibe well with. Preferably, the assistant will have both awesomeness and gear knowledge. If you’re looking to get into assisting, show this companionship side in your meetings. But even if you’re the coolest dude/dudette in school, it’s real hard to me to hire you for shoots, cause if you don’t know how to set up lights, build an octabank, or the right way an arm should go off a c-stand (clockwise, so the knuckle self-tightens), or meter lights individually, etc, I’ll be the one who’s gotta do it. Which spreads me a little too thin. They way to get to know gear is to offer to come work for free as a 2nd or 3rd assist and acquire gear knowledge, or work in a rental shoppe. Then, photographers will be calling you.