5 minute read

Working on a Photography Set

In the second instalment of our series, Andrew Tomasino delves deeper into the role of first assistant, outlining the people on set, the process and essential etiquette, and how to find creative vision

Many roads lead to the same destination. The world of photography is no exception and, if your hopes are hung on an illustrious career of your own, your first question will undoubtedly be, ‘How?’ Becoming a photographer’s assistant is one way to get there, but as we learned in part one of this series, it’s a big undertaking.

To give you the best start possible, or at least a clearer understanding of what might lie ahead, Andrew shares more of his insight. This time, you’ll form a picture of what life on set looks like, beyond just the basic expectations.

Starting Strong

“In the early stages, you’re getting pulled everywhere, and that can be really confusing,” says Andrew. “Before you become a first assistant, as a PA for example, you are part of the team, and it is inclusive – but you’ll be expected to do many of the non-creative tasks.

“If you report to someone, it’s rarely the photographer, because they won’t want any distractions. You will most likely communicate with a first or second assistant. That’s always a safe bet. And they often have the answers to any questions.”

As a first assistant, Andrew’s now providing the answers to many of the questions on set.

“When I’m on set, regardless of how many junior assistants are with us, all of my communication with the team is delineated from the photographer. I just make sure they know I’m the one to come to for that help.”

This can make knowing where to fit in daunting, but as Andrew explains, it’s best to be attentive and willing.

“As long as you’re always acting under direct instruction or checking in with a producer or senior assistant as to how you can be helpful, you’ll be fine. There’s always plenty that could be done, even if it feels like there isn’t. It’s just a case of asking.

“So, absolutely avoid distracting the photographer unless directly instructed. Then, as your skill set grows, when you’ve set up your 10,000th light, they’ll finally ask: ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’”

Model in silver jacket glistening in light

Photo 2021 © Andrew Tomasino | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45-100MMF4 R LM OIS WR, 1/125 sec at F5, ISO 500

Dos and Don’ts

The occasional faux pas is part of growing in any role, but filling your head with the knowledge required to avoid them in the first place doesn’t hurt. On this front, 15 years of experience is second to nothing.

“The most important thing to always keep in mind is that the gig is not yours. If there’s a client involved, of course be friendly and polite, but a professional introduction is not appropriate. You’re there to support the photographer, not promote yourself,” Andrew explains.

In addition to overstepping boundaries with your employer and mentor, the result may not be good for your career on a secondary level.

“You probably don’t want to be showing your body of work to high-level clients at that stage. I’ve only reached that place in the last four years. But even if you know they’d love it, you can’t poach other photographer’s contacts.

“Getting distracted by your phone is another big mistake,” Andrew continues. “If your head is in the game, you can be the PA who hears, ‘I need an apple box’, and provide the assistance when it’s needed most. You’re stepping in because you’re paying attention – that kind of attitude gives you a big edge on the way to becoming a first assistant.”

When mastering other essential professional skills, Andrew credits good relationships and an interest in those around you.

“If you become a regular, trusted assistant, you slowly start to meet key figures. Established photographers often work with the same producers, art directors, and stylists – sometimes spanning decades. Eventually you’ll develop working relationships with everyone and that can often lead to having wonderful resources when you’re not on set. In the beginning, I had basic questions like, ‘Where do I find a model release?’ I’d ask our producer if we could chat about it sometime and it would either happen during lunch, or I’d get an email with all the info later in the week. The number of things I learned from those relationships saved me so much time, and it ultimately helped me focus on being a better assistant and photographer, because I wasn’t trying to research and find all the answers on my own.

“As a first assistant, you will often see creative treatments that have direction and notes from a creative agency. This is invaluable, because it will give you a map of how the images you’re helping to create came into existence. Gradually, through conversations and experiences, you will develop a deeper understanding of the creative process and start to think of ways to integrate what you are learning into your own creative process as a photographer.”

However, even with this support and access to these resources, much of the responsibility is on you.

“Assistants need to engage in personal education and look at resources in their own time. If you can do that and make good connections, you’ll go far. Being a team player is key. Trust the professionals you work with, show them they can trust you, and you will learn how to develop the sustainable career you want.”

Unlocking the Secret

With this under your belt, all that’s left is the small matter of finding your own unique voice and developing it into a shimmering career. Simple, right?

Well, Andrew has some handy advice…

“Predominantly, your role as first assistant is to support the photographer and stay true to their vision. However, I sometimes inject more of my ideas than I should,” he laughs.

“The problem-solving process, and being able to assess your communication, is key. You and your photographer may be working towards the same result, just through different means. It’s okay to ask, ‘What lighting look are you aiming for?’

“Also, use a strong point of reference, like a mood board. I get those very early, to really understand and align with the vision for the project. With many photographers, this material is almost a direct representation of the images that will be made on set.”

After a while, you will start to get a feel for the photographer’s creative style, which will lead to many more collaborative conversations with them. It also opens opportunities to start finding touchpoints to begin developing your own visual style as well.

Model with dark, curly hair in flowing, yellow dress leaning against pink glitterball

Photo 2021 © Andrew Tomasino | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45-100MMF4 R LM OIS WR, 1/125 sec at F8, ISO 400

But, that familiarity with your professional’s work can make it extremely challenging to develop a style of your own, because the urge to imitate what they do can be very strong. To keep himself from doing this, Andrew has a very simple process that he follows.

“When everything is finally set up, I usually sit next to the photographer, look at the frames, and make my own notes about what I think of the image and how it was executed. I’m also assessing the whole scene, determining what techniques were used and if I like or dislike the image. Over time, you’ll develop your own take on the techniques that you’re obsessed with – ones that work every time. You’ll also discover what techniques you don’t like, or don’t work for you, which is just as important.

“What I tell those on this journey now is: ‘Find five people you want to work for, with five styles you want to emulate in your own work.’ You may get sidetracked replicating those styles frame for frame, but eventually, through that analysis and some experimentation, you start to forge your own path.”

But it’s crucial to remember that these things take time, as Andrew concludes.

“Developing a style is the hardest thing in photography, plain and simple. I don’t think a single photographer will tell you they’ve truly found their style. I’ll probably be hunting for mine for many more decades. But stay the course and, eventually, it will reveal itself incrementally over time.”

Head to part three of this series, where Andrew takes a deep dive into techniques – and the gear he uses to create them.


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