12 Tips for Entering the Commercial Photo & Film World [Hint: It’s Not What You Think]

Hi folks, Megan here, long time staff Producer for Chase. We get a ton of email inquiries every day from guys and gals looking to “work their way into the industry” or utilize skills learned while at school. Most inquire about being a photo assistant. And while that’s certainly an option to learn a ton on-set, it’s not the only path you can take to get your feet wet in the business of commercial photography and film. It’s not often discussed, but as valuable as a good photo assistant is to a photographer, a good production assistant can be just as clutch. And it’s a way to ease in the biz without the same level of knowledge as the photo assistant gig, because a production assistant is even more about the hustle.

So I thought I’d have a little fun here and describe to you the Best Production Assistant in the World. This is all hypothetical, but if you think these are all qualities you possess, please, feel free to give your local photographer hero (or heck, even me) a call..

…are the 1st person on set
One of my favorite sayings in photography + film industries: If you’re early to the set (or location), you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. And if you’re late, you’re fired. You should be standing around waiting, long before you’re supposed to arrive. You might not get fired the first time you’re not early, but the point is, don’t be late. Ever. Ever. Ever. Trust me, the producer doesn’t care if traffic was bad, or if your dog threw up. Be on time (= early).

…know when to be quiet
We champion the concept that a good idea can come from anywhere, but there’s a time and a place. The best PA knows when to chime in to their peers (almost NEVER directly to the photographer or director with a “creative idea” unless they ask but ALWAYS as a matter of safety – “hey that light is about to fall!”). So you’ve primarily got to know to stay quiet and observe. Getting caught chatting with the crew and making a bunch of noise is a quick way to not get hired again. Don’t be a know it all, but offer solutions to your peer group on set if you have a great idea. Generally speaking, keep your nose down and the work ethic up.

…have a car
And a decent driving record. A big part of being a PA is running errands, which is hard to do efficiently if you’re always waiting for the bus. Public transport is acceptable in NYC, Paris, London, etc, but usually frowned upon in non major-metro areas.

…are able to lift 50 lbs… easily.
There’s a lot of schlepping that goes on. You need to have some decent bicep strength and a healthy back. Be in shape, don’t be a slacker. If you’re not tired after a day of work, you either a) didn’t work hard enough or b) got lucky with a slack job. If b), don’t count on getting too many of those and don’t build your mentality of how in shape you should or shouldn’t be around the b) scenario. Be at least moderately physically fit – it will pay off.

…have no ego
Being a PA is not glamorous. At all. You’ll be asked to do things like take out the trash + clean up spills, all with a smile on your face. But doing so with pleasure and expediently is sure to get noticed and respected. Seriously. And in fact, I’ll add to this category… maybe even the most important thing… Have an amazing attitude. Nobody likes a whiner, a nay-sayer, a negative Nancy. Be a yes-boss, with a smile and some skills. Be positive. Oh, and be polite too. It’s amazing how far that goes.

…have a strong work ethic
You are working your tail off from the moment you walk on set, until you step out the door. The best PA is ready to work as hard and as long as it takes to get the job done. If any other PA or assistant is carrying stuff, cleaning, etc and you’re not, you’re not doing your job. Know when you need to steer clear of certain roles (Gaffer, Grip, etc) especially on union jobs – and know when to help. The more you’re around this stuff, the more you’ll understand the subtleties here.

…have a slight case of OCD
Attention to detail is the name of the game in production. The best PA is super organized and on top of his or her stuff. Always. If you’re a flake or even moderately poorly organized, this will show up quickly. Respect gets doled out if you can take on a project and complete it without being micro managed. On the contrary, no one wants to have to tell you the best way to “get coffee”. So you have to be able to figure it out. Efficiently and effectively.

…anticipate what needs to be done
See that the recycle bin is full? You empty it before being asked. The coffee pot is empty? You brew another pot before another crew member goes to refill his or her cup. Find yourself with nothing to do? Start making the rounds and ask if anyone needs a water. Anticipation shows that you understand what the heck is going on. Which, in turn, is the fastest way to get respect, a raise, a promotion.

…think on your feet
We’re always dealing with real-time problems on-set that need real-time solutions. The best PA is able to go with the flow and help resolve the issues at hand in a timely manner.

…remain calm under pressure
In the immortal words of Jimmy Dugan, “there’s no crying in baseball.” Or on photography sets. Be clear headed. Like Fonzi.

…value presentation
Sometimes there’s a designated Craft Services professional on set, and sometimes it falls on the PA to shop for and put out breakfast, lunch, snacks and bevies. The best PA has a keen eye for presentation, whether it’s food, a pile or cords, a stack of apple boxes, or whatever. Make stuff look nice. (You also hopefully have a sense of style, whether it’s food or design. Understand that setting down a can of Cheese Whiz and a pack of Saltines OR wearing your flip flops to a celebrity shoot is usually no bueno.)

…are resourceful
Perhaps the most useful and prized of all PA attributes, this one will help you out in any and/or all facets of the creative industry. You know who to call, where to go, how to make it happen, or you can figure it out without much oversight. Try to “know people” who can get shiz done – whether it’s a welder or a car wash, the owner of a photo store or the guy behind the rental counter. Make an effort to know people. And know how to do stuff. Lots of stuff. Sure you can make coffee, but can you properly coil cords and cables? Can you paint (as in walls)? Can you parallel park? Can you fix broken stuff? Can you MacGyver your a$$ off? The more stuff you know how to do, the better. BE RESOURCEFUL.

Of course having some experience is preferred in every line of work, but it’s not 100% required when starting out. There’s something to be said for possessing the innate ability to “figure it out.” If you’re eager to please and ready to work your booty off, starting as a PA might be a good entrée to the industry. You’ll certainly get to see the underbelly of the photography + film worlds, which is often a good thing if you’re wondering if this photography thing is a good line of work for you. Gotta see the sausage being made in the basement to know where all that industry flavor comes from…

Everybody’s gotta start somewhere.

Lucille says:

September 9th, 2008 at 9:21 pm

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Adrian Farr says:

Great article, Chase/Megan. Just wondering what advice you can give for standing out as an assistant when contacting photographers/producers in the first place, when so many people are sending emails for assisting work? Obviously it would be a good idea to concisely present that we have all the skills listed above, but what would specifically grab your attention?

Personally when I have wanted to reach out to certain pphotographephotogra

Adrian Farr says:

Sorry pressed enter too early.

Great article, Chase/Megan. Just wondering what advice you can give for standing out as an assistant when contacting photographers/producers in the first place, when so many people are sending emails for assisting work? Obviously it would be a good idea to concisely present that we have all the skills and qualities listed above, but what would specifically grab your attention?

Personally when I have wanted to reach out to certain photographers, I have spent a long time trying to get to know them on a more personal level, reaching out to them via social media and constantly praising and sharing their work. I like to send birthday and Christmas cards (if I am able to find an address for them, if they have a studio), then by the time I reach out to them, they know who I am and I have gained a little trust. I also prefer to send a letter rather than an email if I can get a postal address, because it is more personal. This has led me to assisting some great photographers. However, despite my commitment, persistence, working extremely hard and exceeding expectations, I have still not yet been able to get regular assisting work, or any actual paid assisting work. It seems many photographers/producers will only use an assistant once or twice, and move on to the next person, so that they do not have to pay them for regular work.

What can I do to find and reach out to top photographers who would want to keep me on once I have proved my worth and value to them, who will appreciate my contribution and not take advantage? And once I do have a foot in the door, how can devise an exit strategy so I can progress my own career as a photographer and not be caught in the trap of growing into a ‘great assistant’ and being stuck in that role?

Thank you.

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letao says:

have you ever had someone working for you with back issues?
was their attitude that made the difference?
this really holds be back, because I’ve seen assistants on film sets carrying around gear that I doubt I can lift.
I wont give up though.

Marco says:

I read this post when you posted it back in 2013. I found it to be mostly reasonable, apart for being a bit… you know what, most of the posts on this blog feel a bit like elitist. It’s fine! I know you guys do not feel entitled, you just are so proud of what you do!

More than one year later, I look at it and find myself thinking, yeah, sure, in the land of dreams.
I’ve been at “the other end” of this discussion more than enough times, and I found people to be vastly late, vocal, distracted and whatever, both assistants and “professionals”.

So I would substitute everything in that list with “just try not to be a shitty person, and focus being someone you would like to work with”.
(I guess the productions I’ve been into don’t handle enough RED gear to be worthy of professional behaviors. When I’ll get there, you’ll get an update.)

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Pedro Santos says:

Hi Chase
When you will need an PA i will fly right away from Portugal :)

Erik says:

Tip #13 – never let the need for money from PA work trump what you have in mind for your career goals. You can be a great PA forever, but you’ll never become that photographer if you begin to rely on PAing.

Clayton says:

Where’s the best place to learn? Or how can you learn when you’re not in a city with a lot of production? Should you move?

Anonymous says:

I think that this is right on information.., as I have seen PA’s come and go and rise and falter in this industry.

Larry Arnal says:

Great article and comments about it also being fun! My only addition, and the thing that will make me apoplectic when I see an assistant doing it is texting/checking Facebook or virtually ANYTHING else with their phones! You’re here to work, not connect with social media or your friends.

Sorry for the rant, but if you’re thinking of being an photo assistant, LEAVE YOUR PHONE IN THE CAR until you’re on a lunch break.

Having a strong work ethic(stamina in willing to work) and knowing when to be quiet(not using phones for anything at all) are two that I would consider most important. On another note, I have had an assistant look at me baffled when asked to do something, but I would still count him as having an ‘amazing attitude’ otherwise. Great article Chase. Lets all aspire to greatness.

BTW. I am thoroughly enjoying that ‘Into the Mind’ and ‘All.I.Can’ are on netflix. GoPro movies with a message!!(mostly)
Im on the fence as to whether it’s ski porn, but lean towards “NOT”

Kelly says:

I’m just sad that we need a video to show how to coil cords

David says:

I would add – don’t blab about the details of the shoot outside of the studio when you are all wrapped; also, know when to quit assisting, have an exit strategy and a time frame for moving on.

Kelly says:

I think I just found my perfect job. Completely serious. I joke that I’m the MacGyver of troubleshooting (at my job, but I’m also damn resourceful elsewhere). Totally into prep, organization, helping out and would majorly dig setting up a b-fast or lunch table. Only thing I would need to do is get back to pushups and such to build up my strength. I can live 50 lbs but I don’t know how repeatedly I could do it. Awesome post – thank you!

Biznard says:

Fuck that. I don’t want to get your coffee and clean up shit. Don’t listen to this shit people.

Tom Marvel says:

Kind of sounds like “life”
Learned most of that 35 years ago as a laborer/gofer for an old italian carpenter/mason
“I pay you to use the tools, not find the tools”
Saw a lot of sunrises hand mixing mortar for 3 masons & a lot of sunsets cleaning up their tools

Sara Allen says:

I’m going to go with some of this stuff being bogus. You can’t be a perfect kiss ass all the time so these kinds of articles just makes people feel crappy for being human. Also, assisting isn’t anyone’s lifelong career so if you’re not think, “clear headed” maybe it’s because you’ve outgrown carrying somebody else’s bags.

Lee Kane says:

Well i’m not entirely convinced about being an assistant doesn’t sound like much fun. Think i shall just concentrate on being a photographer. Being on time is an essential in all types of work as it shows commitment to employers and clients. Great story Keith Winsor. And well written post Megan.

Landry says:

I would add, Don’t be on your cell phone, even if you don’t think the client is looking….
I think being friendly is as important as being quiet. My clients love my assistant, he is an extension of me.

Mark Buckner says:

Great article. I passed it along to the assistant that has been on the top of my list for many years, Jim McAfee, telling him that it reads exactly how his resume would read if resumes were this detailed. He has made himself to be what I consider the best assistant in the St. Louis region. I’ve traveled the world (literally) with him and can always rely on him because he embodies these qualities.

Chris Renton says:

Nice article – “if you’re early to the location you’re on time” is a great piece of advice!

Luis says:

These articles just perpetuate the notion that PAs are expected to do all the dirty work. I will never understand why in the film/photography/TV business egos are so inflated they forgot how they started and rather than treating new comers with respect and dignity, they use the “gotta pay your dues” card to have someone else do all their work while they receive all the accolades. I am a strong believer in hard work and experience will get you to the level most of these professionals achieve. However, this should not make the learning curve a humiliating experience just because the guy before me had to deal with over inflated egos to get where he/she is now.

Kate, Executive Producer @Team Chase says:

@Luis Definitely not supporting what you describe at all. On our set at least, we are a team and value every single player, because without all of us the job can’t happen. each player works incredibly hard and we all get our hands dirty. the PA role most certainly does not have to go hand in hand with being treated poorly. it does require elbow grease and doing the very best you can in your role, which as a PA is to be a utility player.

Rico says:

A great place to get Photo Assistant skills is here http://www.photoassistantbootcamp.com
It’s an outstanding workshop.

JW Lee says:

Never underestimate the value of offering a water to someone. I was doing some DP work and it was hot and we were working hard (and fast). I was so focused i wasn’t paying attention to staying hydrated. One of our PA’s saw this and came over with a bottle of cold water, a god send. I was very thankful and never forgot that. I appreciate PA’s that are always looking for what needs to be done next and paying attention to the shoot, not something else. What I think some people don’t realize that when you’re a PA, you’re being evaluated for future work.

Great post. Thinking about sending this to all my assistants and PA’s :) One thing – if you’re that guy (or gal) you describe here, you’ll have the pick of photographers and crews to work on, since everybody wants to have that person on set.

Peter Lyszzkiewicz says:

Finally I have strong motivation to buy a car.

Coiling cords:

Coil them round by round as you twist them a little so the inner cord won`t twist around itself and brake.
Do not coil them from your hand over your elbow, please.


Jeremy says:

Great list, Meg!

From now on, when people ask if they can assist – I’ll just send them here and see if they’re still interested :-)

Casey says:

You spelled option wrong.

Megan says:

Doh! Should have copy edited myself a little better. Thanks for catching the typo!

faisal says:

Wow, that is a whole lot of work.

Jon Lewis says:

Loved the article but now you have me worried that I have my cords coiled wrongly.

John R. says:

…….and DO NOT Blog, text, make or receive personal calls.
BTW, when work with a new assistant or PA one of the first things I do is show them how I need my cords coiled for storage and retrieval purposes.

Roman says:

Looks like job for me, except knowing people… I don’t even know anybody who needs PA :D

Kelly says:

Same here, Roman! :)

Holli says:

Great article, Megan. I think many of us forget that most jobs aren’t just about the technical skills, especially in production.

Having a good attitude taking out the trash, and always keeping busy at my first job got me my next job, and the next.

Although I was a teenager at the time, I have chosen to keep the same attitude, because then everyone has more fun!

Keith Winsor says:

I wish I had checked spelling! oh well!

Keith Winsor says:

The chord thing is too true almost no one knows how to deal with chords nowadays.
Quick story about thinking on your feet, I was assisting a photographer in Prince Edward Island Canada many years ago.
It was a shoot for the Canada food inspection agency… I think. Huge seafood processing facility, I am re organizing from the previous shot, photographer is sizing up the next shoot. Out of the corner of my eye I see him reach for a rack of lobsters that were just pulled from a flash freezer. I dove and stopped him at the last second. -100 or lower would have been bad. We have remained friends 20+ years later, he laughs and says he has fingers because of me.
Thinking on your feet is good for relationships.


Meg Davis says:

Great story! Hilarious!

~ M

Swade says:

Know hot to properly coil cords… I doubt most people know how to do that.

Megan says:

@Swade: True enough. Coiling cords properly is a learned skill, but one that’s fairly easy to come by. And once you know how, it can be an asset that sets you apart from other PAs you may be competing against for jobs.

Shaun says:

Great article! Although I’ve been second shooting weddings for the past year, I’d love be a PA for a comercial photographer. I just don’t know where to start or who to contact.

alabi2k says:

I tried that route many years ago.
had I known then what i know now…I’d rather struggle as a freelancer than be treated like s#*t all day
. This is not “paying your dues”… this is abuse.

Megan says:

@alabi2k, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had some bad experiences. I did my time as a freelance PA, and was never treated poorly. For me, it was a great way to learn the ropes, and while I certainly worked hard, I loved every minute of my time on set.

Chase says:

alan – if you’re getting abused then you’re working for a-holes. we don’t abuse anyone on our sets. it’s literally a rule. we are professional. if you’re worried about the work being “hard” then photography isn’t for you. if you want to just slide in there and be everybody’s friend and “know” everything the way a pro does, it’s not for you. BUT if you’re truly being treated like dirt, then quietly finish that rough day of work, shake hands, say thanks and then just be “busy” everytime they call from there on after…

best, cj

Jeremy says:

Well said, Chase.

I started off as a PA in L.A. in the film / commercial scene. Worked for total a-holes a couple of times. Just made sure to avoid that A.D. or producer next time the call came. Rest of the jobs were awesome, and worked my way up.

If you’re working for d-bags – stop saying yes to them. A crap job where you’re treated with respect will always be better for you in the long run than a ‘great opportunity’ working for slave drivers.

Sam R. Fairchild says:

Chase, best advice I’ve heard in along time on how a “class act” performs under adversity! What is difficult is when you have to eat, and that bad gig keeps you from looking elsewhere and your self esteem takes a hit along the way. … Make contacts by making that smartphone pay for itself with multitasking and a deep contacts list…

Todd says:

I agree to an extent. I don’t agree that it’s abuse but I’m with ya on struggling as a freelancer as opposed to assisting. I’ve assisted a few times, enjoyed it a lot. Freelancing is tough though don’t get me wrong. It’s not easy having no job security or steady income.. But sometimes when it rains it pours.

I don’t think assisting is bad at all. I think it’s awesome. I just think you gotta do what is right for you. Whether that’s assisting or struggling as a freelancer. Both is always an option as well. Spread it out.

Kate, Executive Producer @Team Chase says:

@alabi2k I wanted to chime in too. Treating anyone as less than is just not acceptable no matter what the job is… In my opinion, those are the people that I would avoid working for. Choose instead the many, many people out there who value everyone that works for them, no matter what their role. really hard work and PA role does not have to go hand in hand with being treated poorly.

Jeremy D. Moore says:

David R. Munson has been writing about assisting in Chicago on his blog photo-otaku. You both cover a number of similar points like being on time, suppressing the ego, and anticipating what needs to be done. His series is here: http://photo-otaku.com/category/assisting/

runbei says:

I enjoyed this article, with slight reservations. It’s a very good description of the demands of the job. My slight quibble is that it doesn’t show how much fun such work can be. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “The best job is one where you help someone else do their job.” There are inherent joys in service performed with an expansive heart. For a person who can do that, it would seem a bit insulting to be expected only to perform to get ahead in the industry or for a monetary reward. But then, I reckon I’m speaking as a 71-year-old who’s a monk and learned about service the hard way. Hey, I can still deadlift 300 lbs… Oh never mind, I have a calling.

Kate, Executive Producer @Team Chase says:

@Runbei. You are so very right!!! We totally have a blast on shoots… they are always (or nearly always) really hard work, but that makes the accomplishment as a team even more rewarding. One of the things about production I love the most is bringing out points of flare… the little ways you can make everyone else’s days even more awesome, which in turn makes me happy. Megan wrote a great post about going the extra mile. Check it out here: http://bit.ly/AEDNgH

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