The Assistant’s Manual: Experiencing the Experience with Alissa Zimmerman
Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the January issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.
In the world of professional photography, the experience you provide your clients is sometimes just as important, if not more important, than the final images you produce. The client experience is something Sal has been teaching in the industry since day one. What is your x-factor? What is it that keeps your clients coming back?
For us, it’s all about the full experience we provide—and every person who is a part of the process plays a very important role in the overall experience, including the assistant. In fact, a good assistant can make all the difference to the client experience.
I am a hands-on learner. I have to be in the action and gain the experience to ensure I am able to fully understand whatever it is I am learning. Well, how do you learn how to be the best assistant possible and provide the best experience for your clients? I wasn’t able to shadow and observe during my training—that’s not how we operate around here. Sal threw me in as his full-time assistant almost immediately. My training was very much a “figure it out” type of process—he and I both knew I would fail, but it was those mistakes that I learned from the most.
After about a year under Sal as his assistant, I realized that in order to be able to get inside the mind of an actual client, I needed to be one. Well, obviously, I had no intentions of being a bride anytime soon, so my next best option was to get in front of the camera for a portrait session.
I have always hated being in front of a camera, and am not a huge fan to this day. But I knew I needed to experience being a client before I could ever understand how to be the most helpful assistant to Sal. The first time I had my photo taken by Sal was on my one-year anniversary with the company, in Hawaii. This was not a scheduled shoot for me, but a day that was set aside for photo shoots for everyone on the trip, and I decided to get out of my own head and in front of the camera for once.
I think we’ve been cursed from the very first shoot—if you follow our work, you’ll know that almost 90 percent of the best shots we get from my shoots are taken at the very last minute left of available light, or there’s some kind of chaos going on around us. Well, this first shoot had both: We were scrambling trying to find a location we had stumbled upon a few days before (no one took note of the actual location), and by the time we finally got the whole crew there, we had about three and a half minutes left to get this one shot I wanted.
Remember, this was a last-minute idea for me—I had been assisting on the three other previous shoots. Needless to say, after I saw the results from this shoot, I was hooked. I wanted to create more and more memories through creative shoots everywhere we traveled, and over the years with Team Cincotta, I’ve had every opportunity to do so.
So let’s take a look at some of the most memorable shoots I’ve done, and what I learned from each.
About the experience:
A few months after we got back from Hawaii, we decided to try launching a glamour line under the Salvatore Cincotta brand called Allure. I wanted to stand in as a model so I could give them feedback on how they could make the experience for the client better as we built the Allure brand.
I was nervous and self-conscious about doing a boudoir shoot with my bosses. I had high expectations of what kind of images I wanted to get from the shoot, but was still so new to being on this side of the camera that my expectations only led to disappointment and more insecurities during the shoot. At the time, I was envisioning myself actually looking like the models in the images I gathered for inspiration, and, as Sal was showing me the back of the camera, I wasn’t liking what I was seeing.
Assistant takeaway: Forget about the lights or the setup. Focus on assisting your client and building her confidence.
This is where it’s your job to be connected to your clients and understand their facial expressions and body language. You have to make sure your client is comfortable and confident, especially with such a vulnerable type of photography as boudoir.
There’s no doubt in my mind that both Sal and Taylor (assisting Sal that day) knew I was uncomfortable and unhappy with what was coming off the camera, but I think they were both caught up in the chaos of not really knowing what they were doing to be able to gear their attention toward me—to make sure I felt good about myself and was having the best experience possible.
About the experience:
In Ireland this past July, we chose three northern locations to shoot for our portfolio. I’d called dibs on one of those locations, Giant’s Causeway, for a personal shoot.
I spent months researching how to get to this place, best time of the day to go, best spots to shoot from to get the right angle. There was also a lot of planning that went into the design of the parachute dress for this shot.
This shoot was going to be epic. Until, of course, we arrive at the location to find thousands of tourists. We decided to wait it out, and noticed the majority of tourists clearing out by 5 p.m.
Assistant takeaway: Always go the extra mile to make sure every detail is perfect.
On location shoots, it’s not convenient to bring a giant mirror for touch-ups. We had a short window once the crowd cleared to get my makeup touched up and hair right, and to get the dress on and adjusted. Remember, this was a real parachute on a really windy day—there was actually genuine concern of the dress catching the wind and, next thing you know, I’m flying off into the sunset.
This is where Taylor, assistant for the day, really stepped up. She could have let me do everything on my own, but instead, she got me into the dress and made sure the top looked right and my hair wasn’t all over the place—with no hesitation. That kind of support makes clients feel like they’re a part of the team and the creation process, and that we’re all in it together. Taylor was with me at the top of the rocks to fluff the dress (in all honesty, she was really up there holding the dress down so I didn’t fly away), and was hopping back and forth between dress duty and fixing my hair and all of the other details. This allowed me to focus on getting the right expression without getting frustrated with the wind.
About the experience:
While we were in Scotland, we scheduled a photo shoot at Fairy Glen (which turned out to be the shoot for the cover of the August 2015 issue of Shutter Magazine once our plans fell through at the last minute for the originally planned cover). Let me paint the scene for you: cold, windy and rainy, and a team of people who would have much rather been cozied up next to the fire at our rental house.
We waited out the heavy rain, which luckily caused all the tourists to leave, so we practically had the place to ourselves. Once we got dialed in to the position we had originally envisioned, Sal took a step back and realized it just wouldn’t work for the cover. Time to pivot. Same location, new concept.
At this point, the rain was coming down hard, and at an angle directly into my eyes, but I knew I had to push through it and keep them open to nail my expression for the shot.
Assistant takeaway: Be up for anything—especially a challenge.
Every photographer understands the reality of the saying “What can go wrong, will.” In the intensity of that moment, looking back, almost everything was going wrong—the wind blowing my hair into my face every time we reset it, the bottom of the chiffon dress getting destroyed by the muddy path when we still needed motion out of it . . . and the list goes on.
Through it all, however, I watched Sal, Taylor and Laurin work as a team to figure it out, seemingly unscathed by any of the chaos going on around them. Not only were they able to solve the problems, they were all excited about coming together as a team to create something magical out of a disastrous situation.
It’s so important to have these experiences, both as an assistant and a photographer. Knowing what it feels like to be a client pushes you to provide the best experience possible. And the experience you provide is what your clients will remember for the rest of their lives.