Second Shooter/Assistant Ethics 101

Perhaps it is due to this being a different culture from the one in which I grew up where the concept of ‘entitlement’ was foreign and where consideration of others was a given…  I don’t know.  But since I have students, most of whom have dreams of entering the world of professional photography, and that path usually begins with working as an assistant, perhaps progressing to a second or additional photographer on the shoot of a primary photographer, it is important to make sure they understand a few basic ethical and potentially legal issues when they accept such a role.

So to you photographers out there entering or getting ready to enter the real world of professional photography, it is important for you to know that you will be expected to already know and understand these rules.  And if a primary shooter hires you and you violate them, it is highly unlikely you will be asked to work for them again… or for any other primary shooters who hear the tale.  Violating these rules can be instantly FATAL to your career in your current venue.

RULE NUMBER ONEIT IS NOT YOUR SHOOT!  If you are hired to work in ANY capacity on the shoot of another photographer (the “Primary” photographer) then you must – MUST – get it through your head that IT IS NOT YOUR SHOOT!  You are not free to indulge your own photo desires unless specifically given permission IN ADVANCE and even then you do not exceed the constraints of that permission.

You have accepted work and tacitly promised to give all of your effort and energy to producing your very best work as instructed and for the purposes of the primary photographer.  Even if you are volunteering your services to get a foot in the door, once you accept the terms to work for someone, then you owe them 100% of your time, attention, and effort until that work has been accomplished and delivered as instructed.  It is THEIR shoot, not yours.  If you cannot accept that, then do not accept the gig.

RULE NUMBER TWOTHOU SHALT FOLLOW YOUR INSTRUCTIONS TO THE LETTER.  If you are told to be some specific place at some specific time, that direction absolutely defines both when and where you will be.  Period.  End of story.

Some shoots are very time precise and if the primary or the crew is left hanging, waiting for you and misses the opening action due to your tardiness you are in big trouble.  If they are expecting you to be somewhere to be picked up, or, worse yet, if you are instructed to pick up personnel or equipment at a certain time then you are to do that.  If you are asked to clean and prep gear for a shoot then make sure when the primary picks up that gear it is spotless and trouble free.  If you are told specifically what to shoot then that is what you will shoot.  Again, PERIOD.  End of story.  There are NO – ZERO – excuses for not following the instructions you were given except if life and limb are at risk.

RULE NUMBER THREE… THOU SHALT DELIVER WHAT YOU ARE INSTRUCTED TO AND HAVE AGREED (BY ACCEPTING THE JOB) TO DELIVER.  If this is a wedding, for example, and you are told you will be expected to turn in a specific number of individual shots of people at the reception having a good time, THAT is what you will be expected to do.  If that specified number is 50 shots, it does not mean 45 shots, it means a minimum of 50 shots.  And it sure as Hell does not mean 15 shots.

I also do not mean 50 frames of identical or even very similar shots from your motor drive, I mean 50 nearly unique views of whatever part of the event you are charged with covering.

That also means 50 properly exposed, focused, and composed shots.  Sometimes the common practice is simply to turn over your film or memory card to the primary where they can see exactly what you did.  They will not want to spend time doing serious retouching and editing just to make your poor shots useable.  Sometimes you will be tasked with culling down your total shoot into the specified number.  If you actually shot 1,000 shots then you might be asked to edit those down to the 50 you were asked for.

It is likely the primary shooter tasked you with a certain number of shots because THEY have committed to a certain number of shots of various types, subjects, locations, etc. and if they cannot deliver on THEIR commitments because YOU have not delivered on yours, your career is likely (and rightly) over with at that point.  They will take the hit from the client since it is ultimately their responsibility.  But they will never risk it again.  Consequently your future, at least with them or any other shooters they talk to, has just been decided and it will not look good for you.

RULE NUMBER FOUR… DEADLINES ARE ABSOLUTELY SACRED!  If you are told that the files from your shooting assignment need to be in the primary photographer’s hands the next morning, then that is what you must do.  If it means an all-nighter for you to prepare them for hand-off, that is what it means.  If it means missing a party or other event, that is what it means.  If it means missing your own funeral, that is what it means.  Get used to it.  Fairly quickly you will learn to better discriminate what makes a good shot or learn that there are times a high frame rate will work against you.

RULE NUMBER FIVE… THOU SHALT NOT SHOOT FOR YOURSELF.  This is a huge issue!!! You are working for the primary photographer.  Period.  Assuming you are getting some consideration for your time and work, no matter how high or low that payment may be, once you accept it and agree to the instructions provided, you are bound legally and ethically to those terms.  Any time you take your attention away from your assigned task you are cheating your employer; and in an event situation, may be missing a shot.

Missing a shot is bad enough but to then use, for yourself, shots taken during your services for another shooter, especially without permission and MOST especially if you have been told not to do it, is completely and totally unacceptable.

You may tell yourself it is a shot that they would not be needing for this gig.  That is not your call to make and it is also beside the point.  But to the point, if you are at the wedding and do an abstract of a church detail, knowing that such subject matter is part of the primary photographer’s business, you are not only stealing time, you are stealing and misappropriating imagery that should be turned over to them and is in direct competition with the person for whom you are working and to whom you owe at least temporary allegiance and loyalty.  And if, in doing that shot for yourself, even if the primary would have no interest in it, you have missed some viable shot you were SUPPOSED to be taking that happened when your back was turned (and how would you know? Your back was turned!), then honestly you do not deserve another chance.

You are perfectly free to come to another such event, on your own, and shoot all you want, but NOT when you are working for someone else.

And if you are inexplicably ignorant of the rules and DO sneak in some shots for yourself, it is never wise to go posting them on Facebook BEFORE you have turned in what you were tasked with, especially if you did not manage to complete the instructions as given.

RULE NUMBER SIX… THOU SHALT NEITHER SOLICIT NOR ACCEPT WORK FROM ATTENDEES AND EVENT PARTICIPANTS, especially if you are aware that the work would put you in competition with the primary.  This kind of thing is just sleazy and low class and is the epitome of unethical behavior.   Your soliciting work, even indirectly by just “happening to mention” what you do, is truly out of bounds.  And even if someone approaches you totally on their own, the proper response is that you are working for the primary and need to run that potential job through them.  Even if it is something totally beyond the scope of the current gig or beyond the interest and work of the primary, still, your time at the moment has been paid for by them and is not yours to be spent hustling, directly or indirectly, work of your own.

RULE NUMBER SEVEN… THOU SHALT DRESS APPROPRIATELY FOR THE SHOOT.  If in doubt, ASK.  If the shoot is a wedding or any sort of formal or semi-formal affair, follow the primary’s instructions.  If it is a location shoot where you have been asked to wade into the mud of an estuary for some reason, then fine, dress for getting filthy; but if you will be observed by event participants, much less the actual paying clients, then follow the lead of the primary and it is ALWAYS safe to wear clean, pressed pants and shirt and NOT raggedy cut offs, pirate pants, or T-shirts with pithy (and to some, potentially offensive) sayings.  This may come as a surprise but most clothes can be cleaned if they get dirty so don’t worry about it.  In fact for especially dirty environments it is wise to bring a change of clothes.

Not everyone has the same sense of humor or is of the same political persuasion as you might be.  That is their right and, as importantly, perhaps even more importantly, they are paying the freight for you!  So use your personal dress choices to show them some respect unless the primary directs you otherwise.

Until you are certain it is OK, wear clothing to cover up tats, especially those with inappropriate language or images.  If I have a client come up to me and tell me they or their employees or participants are bothered by your clothing or body adornment, your participation on that shoot will end at that moment.  Is it fair?  Who cares, THEY write the checks.  And they can decide when or if to use me or the crew for subsequent shoots.  And if it turns out I lose work because your personal ego outweighed your consideration of me, the project, and the clients, then be assured my personal economic interests will outweigh any interest I might otherwise have in your participation in future projects.

RULE NUMBER EIGHT… THOU SHALT NEVER – NEVER – MAKE NEGATIVE COMMENTS ABOUT THE PRIMARY, THE CREW MEMBERS, THE CLIENT(S), OR THE OTHER PARTICIPANTS WHILE ON THE SHOOT.  The primary photographer respected you enough to offer you this gig; the clients respected the primary’s judgment to hire good crew.  You often have no idea who might be among the participants or with whom they might be friends or to whom they might be related.  When you get home or are with the crew for a wrap get-together in private you can grouse about stuff (except the primary to whom you owe your employment).  I can guarantee that if I hear of some crew member complaining about me or publically talking trash about me or the crew or clients they will not be asked to return for another gig.

RULE NUMBER NINE… SUBTLE INPUT CAN BE HELPFUL, ATTITUDE IS NOT.  This is a corollary to Rule # 1: It is not your shoot.  If you have what you think is some input that can help improve the shoot, then without trying to show off in front of the client, quietly pass it on to the primary.  He or she is then able to take, reject, or modify the input as they see fit or think best.  If they want more detail they will ask for it.  But in the midst of a shoot they may or may not take the time to explain why if they chose not to do it.

This is NOT a time to get huffy or take it personally if your input is not used.  The primary photographer very likely knows information about the needs of the shoot that you do not.  Your suggestion might have been accepted readily for a shoot with a different need or intended use, but for this one it did not work   Working on tight schedules the primary does not have the time, patience, or need to argue the point with you.  When you get your own business going you can accept or reject the input from YOUR crew.  But right now you are simply a member of the primary photographer’s crew.  Pouting will likely get you erased from the crew list.


There are other rules predicated on common courtesy, standard business practices, and simple logic you should know.  Many will simply get a negative reaction from the primary and maybe a lecture for future behavior.  When that happens you are being presented with a potential educational experience; it will be up to you whether you use it wisely and learn from it, or in some immature spate of petulance respond in a poorly calculated manner and throw away your chances for future work.

But violating these rules above may rightly get your little rear fired on the spot or at least never hired again.  In tight communities such as San Diego, where most pro shooters know each other and get together at APA, ASMP, or other association meetings, you can count on word of your indiscretions spreading like wild fire and rendering you a pariah in the venue.

Trust me, you do not want that to happen.  Especially when it is so easy to avoid.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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