The Assistant’s Manual with Alissa Zimmerman


The Assistant’s Manual | The Beginning with Alissa Zimmerman

As professional photographers and business owners, I’m sure you’ve poured your heart and soul into building a business that allows you the freedom to do what you want when you want, and live your creative passion every day. With the success of building that dream comes the reality of overloading yourself to the point where you can no longer do it alone. Enter your new photo assistant, right hand, second in command, etc. Whatever the title, if you’re at a point in your business where you are ready to hire the newest addition to your team, below are a few steps to take in the first few months to ensure a successful journey for both of you.

Whether you’re hiring part-time or full-time help, an assistant will help the flow of photo shoots, office management and daily routines, allowing you to focus on building and perfecting your brand even more.

The Training Process

About three years ago, Sal had the time to dedicate all his energy into training me to be the assistant he needed. Here’s how you have to think about it: You’re setting this person up for success. You are investing a lot of money in this person so she can be part of your team. You have to put in the time needed to train her.

Below are three steps Sal took in the beginning to make sure I was set up to be successful.

Step 1: Put your assistant on the bag.

When I first started working for Sal, he had me “on the bag” for about three months before I could really serve as any kind of beneficial assistant. I learn by observing, then asking questions. Having me sit back and watch the process to make sure I really understood his style of photography was probably the best thing he could have done to ramp me into the assistant he needed.

I had to give up every weekend during this training period to sit with a gear bag and watch how he and Gage (his assistant at the time) worked together on a wedding day. By doing this, Sal was able to not only show me the process and workflow, but he also built loyalty in me and used this as a chance to see whether or not I would last. If I could give up every weekend for three months to sit with a bag for eight to 10 hours a day, I had what it took to work side by side with him, and he knew he could rely on me.

Step 2: Be accessible and patient with your assistant.

Naturally, with any new hire, there are going to be a lot of questions, and even more mistakes made. What may be second nature to you seasoned vets out there may be a foreign language to your new assistant. Patience is key when it comes to hiring bodies, especially when hiring someone you are grooming to be your right hand. Making sure your assistant understands not only what you’re doing but why is the most important thing you can do while you’re still in the early part of training.

Sal has a three-strikes kind of rule for making mistakes. His motto is “Run into a new wall.” Meaning, don’t make the same mistakes over and over again. The first time, he’s very lenient—it’s a coaching moment, really. What happened? How did it happen? What is the solution to make sure it doesn’t happen again? The second time the same mistake is made gets a very firm correction from Sal (you don’t want to get the firm correction point, trust me). Third time? Welcome to your worst nightmare.

Step 3: Make your assistant uncomfortable.

Yeah, I said it. Make them squirm. Push your assistant to the edge, then push just a little harder and see how they respond. I hated every second of the training process under Sal, but it made me who I am today. You have to push assistants to step out of their comfort zone and feel the pressure. To some, this may seem like a sick and twisted way of training, but it is exactly how I learned.

I was convinced for a solid four months that Sal’s only mission in life was to put me in situations where I didn’t have the answers or any clue what I was doing just to watch me go into full-blown panic mode, for his own personal entertainment. Two and a half months into the job, I was on the bag for a wedding that allowed over three hours for creatives. Sal flew through the locations and got everything he needed, with over an hour remaining. As I sat by a tree guarding the bags, ready to switch lenses at any moment, Sal decided to change things up a bit.

“Alissa! Get over here!” I ran over to him, and Sal handed me his camera. In front of all 26 people in the wedding party, he said to me, “Your turn. Take a stab at it. Change the posing and show me what you can do for a group shot.”

I have no poker face whatsoever. I can only imagine the sheer terror that washed across my face in that moment as my heart started pounding, hands started trembling and armpits started sweating profusely. There was no way for me to recover from the reaction everyone had just witnessed, but Sal hopped in and walked me through each part. Step by step, he had me start with the bride and groom. He made me pose them, then he critiqued and explained what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong.

Constant and Consistent Communication

As the primary photographer, it is your job to communicate your expectations clearly and make sure your assistant understands what you need at all times. Sal has always been very clear about what he needs from me in any given situation. Maybe it’s the New Yorker in him, but I am never unsure what I should be doing—anything from what light setup he wants to when he wants his coffee. Be direct and confident in your direction, and always make sure your assistant understands what you need.

As the assistant, it is your job to be a sponge and remember to stay open-minded to critiques and direction from the primary. It’s very easy to get caught up in the stresses of learning your new role, and to start taking things personally. If the photographer you’re assisting tells you to go get the flash, trigger, battery pack and a different lens for a shot, go get it. Don’t read into it—they’re not being rude or treating you like less of a human being. That is your job. Do it, and do it with excellence.

As the assistant, it is also your responsibility to speak up when you don’t know the answer. Your job is to make the primary photographer’s job easier, so if you’re afraid to speak up when you’re uncertain, that is actually creating more work in the long run when issues arise. It is OK to raise your hand and admit you have no idea what your boss is talking about.

Establishing Process

We are such a process-driven company, it’s almost impossible for me to understand how companies can function without it. I remember thinking Sal was an absolute crazy person when I first started (who am I kidding, I still think that), but now I realize his OCD behaviors all serve a very important purpose. Process will always save you when things don’t go according to plan.

Establishing a process between you and your assistant is essential for all strategic parts of your business, and will make your life so much easier. You have taken the step to hire a new person to work alongside you; now it’s time to let go of some of the mundane tasks keeping you from doing what you love.

Every Friday night before a Saturday wedding, our gear-prepping process is always the same. It started with Sal doing it all by himself; then he let me sit and watch; then he let me do a few parts of the process; and now we each have specific duties within the main task of prepping gear. I know what I own and Sal knows what he owns. About a year ago, Sal was traveling home from a trip the night before a wedding and asked me to prep everything on my own. Guess what happened? I forgot to put the extra battery in the gear bag. It really is inevitable—you have to start implementing processes and operating under Murphy’s Law. If you do, your day-to-day workflow will become second nature and the number of things causing you stress will continue decreasing over time.

The importance of proper training when you are ready to hire your first assistant should never be overlooked. You’re taking a step in the right direction to build and perfect your business. You’re investing time, energy and a lot of money into this person. It is your job as the business owner, visionary and primary photographer to equip your assistant for success.

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To read the full article, launch the digital version of the August 2015 magazine.

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