Why you need an assistant, if you’re a mobile studio photographer


Since this year, more and more of my photography challenges have shifted to studio photography, or rather, portraits with a mobile studio.

I worked with available light for most of my professional carrier, so working in a studio environment instead of “the real world“, is a nice change of pace and delivers new opportunities and professional input for me. As well as new challenges.

What I did underestimate, was the change in communication and the organization needed, when differing between available light or working with studio equipment. And with that, the pleasure of having a great assistant, that is giving me a helping hand.

But let’s start with some general explanations first and for that, we need to dive into the opposite of studio photography first.

The opposite of studio: Available light photography

Available light for photographers simply means working with the light, that is provided by your environment. Naturally, this includes all natural light sources like sunlight shining through windows or directly unto your subject, but also artificial light sources like led-lights from ceilings, lanterns or headlights of cars in the night.

Working with available light strips photographers from the necessity of having to carry and setting up flashes with soft boxes or floodlights. At the same time, it limits them in their compositions, because you’ve to work where the light is, you don’t control it. Which leads to a very flexible, less static and improvising work flow.

To me, available light photography includes at least some shaping of the light, in a sense that you should consider using reflectors or diffusers to not be completely at the mercy of Apollo. But some purists might disagree. In the following example, I used a diffuser to soften the mid-sun.

Job for the Lawyer firm Paustian and Partnes in Munich, late summer 2022.

And this is basically the most intense light forming that most available light photographers touch in their craft. Most of them don’t use flashes at all, and rather rely on cameras with low light compatibility and editing tools to get good results. And there is nothing wrong with that. I couldn’t disagree less with the opinion, that photographers who don’t work in a studio, are lesser photographers than professionals who do.

Because every second you spend outside the studio, you hone your skills elsewhere and these days photographers are not all-rounders anymore, but rather specialists for different sets and situations.

That being said, studio photography is worth exploring, because while available light photography is in a sense managing the chaos, studio photography is setting the perfect arrangement.

What are studio headshots and how are they different

Firstly, studio headshots take a lot less time to actually take the portraits, if set up correctly. Because if you don’t have to worry about the background, the technical adjustments or the light anymore, you can easily focus completely on the subject and the pictures itself.

Furthermore, working with well-adjusted flashes gives you very high quality digital files, which in turn leaves a lot of room for editing. That being said, controlling all aspects of the lights, also introduces a LOT of responsibility.

Because if you misplace your tools and don’t light up the face in a flattering way, use bad settings and end up with a wrongly exposed portrait, or just forget any of the many components that you need for an intense studio session (tripods, backup batteries, soft boxes, receivers, etc.) you’re going to have a bad time.

While, the missing equipment risk might be more relevant for photographers who work with a mobile studio, like I do. Working on location, instead of playing for a home game in the safety of your own controlled environment, also introduces another factor: Chaos. Yes, that same chaos that you would expect in available light photography, but now you can’t just walk to your next location or position yourself in a different angle but instead, you are stuck my dear.

Most available light photographers know subconsciously how light works in portrait photography and where they need to arrange themselves for a nice portrait. In this one, I have a window behind me for the face and a light in the background for the outline of my subject.

Some challenges I faced with a mobile studio solution

During my last professional Headshot Gig, I found out on location that the blinds for the windows don’t work (it was noon on a bright day on the sixth floor). In case you’re wondering, having stray light from something like windows flooding into your room, is quite the opposite of what “controlling” the light means.

Additionally, the room had no air conditioning, introducing something I did not think of. Turns out, firing flashes for a couple of hours in a mostly closed of room does create a lot of heat, turning your set into a literal sauna. Meaning, as soon as someone enters your room, you better get your shots within a couple of minutes, because they will start sweating (while yourself and your assistant, spending hours in the sweatshop, look like you’re on an expedition through the Amazonas).

You need to deal with those of situations on location, spontaneously and improvise as good as possible.

For me personally, this means that I take at least one hour to prepare before the job and if possible one hour to set everything up on location, that I have some leeway if an unexpected scenario should happen. But sometimes one set of hands is just not enough.

With this, we finally enter the actual topic of this blog post, where a good assistant makes your life so much easier.

The pleasure of having a good assistant

Having someone by your side, who is having an eye out for the organization of the timetable, motivating your subjects in front of the camera or just to spot that open button on the jacket, is more than just a helping hand. It can make the difference between a mediocre job and an amazing one.

Because no matter how big you are, you’re going to make mistakes and miss things, that’s natural with the limitation of our perception, the more tasks you have to focus on, the less attention you can give to details.

That is especially true, if there are details you just don’t pay too much attention to and this is where I’ll recommend you to work with an assistant that has a different sex as you do (hot topic, I know). That is because, from my experience, a woman has a much better understanding of the insecurities and details another woman might be worried about in front of a camera than I’ve.

I also experienced men feeling more comfortable with a woman giving them advices how to present themselves in front of the camera… So basically, just hire female photographers. But it is of course a subjective matter, also, please hire me.

If you stop hiring me, I won’t be able to go to Japan again and show you nice pictures. We wouldn’t want that now, would we? Where were we? Ah right, the assistant!

Things an assistant can help you with

To give you a couple of examples where an additional set of eyes (and hands) are useful and how you could benefit from those. I’m going to dig into some situations, that are a lot more enjoyable with an assistant helping you out. However, I will not go into technical things, like “set up your equipment“, “change your lenses” or “adjust your reflector“, since those would require a much more extensive post that I might write in the future.

They keep an eye on the process of the project

Especially on larger jobs, it makes sense to have some sort of document or list to keep track where you’re at, at the given moment. Which gets even more important if you are working on location and have, let’s say, take portraits of 40 people on one afternoon and everything is time scheduled.

An assistant can keep track of which portraits you already took, how your timetable is going and who is still missing. Furthermore, he or she can head out and find possible missing people (which you don’t want to do, if you’re in a hurry).

Imagine working with two cameras and your assistant is already making a selection with your clients on the spot, while you’re already taking the next couple of images, you’ve just saved a lot of time waiting for the preselection.

Spotting details you would have missed

I know I have sorta already spoken about this one, so I’m going to cut it short: Knowing the details that you’re likely to miss during a shoot is a lifesaver. Especially when you have someone keeping an eye out for those things.

For me, that could be if the hair is still perfectly in place or wrinkles on the clothing. A helpful assistant can always find details that you don’t have to edit out later on and lessen the quality of the image in the process.

Motivating your subjects and creating a fun atmosphere

This is top tier assistant quality for me. I’m a very positive and engaging person but sometimes, during a shoot, you need to concentrate on what you are doing. But try to image yourself in this position: You don’t like standing in front of a camera, you got flashed by bright lights seven times already and the room is pretty dark, so you got blinded quite good. Additionally, it’s warm, and you don’t know the person behind the camera. You just want to get it done with and want to leave. You would need a very charming photographer to make that bearable.

Working for Deep-C in Munich without the help of Chloe those pictures would not have worked the way they did.

In those situations you need your full social skills as a photographer, but the person in front of you might not like photographers at all, because they never got a nice picture for themselves in those kinds of situations. They might be tensed up, like a teenager locked in an office with their principal, who likes to speak with them about their attention in class.

And this is where the best kind of assistant comes in, in my personal opinion. Those socially sensitive professionals, sense that naturally and create a calming and fun situation with their present, setting the mood for good portraits and giving you the opportunity to focus fully on your craft. It also helps that they are not the photographer, who might be the “bad cop“, in this situation.

They give you valuable input for your own craft

This one depends a bit on yourself and how open you are to criticism. In my case, I can learn something new every time I work together with other people on a project. Be it smaller hints or larger eye-opener, there is always room to improve.

At the same time, I don’t think experience if necessary to give constructive feedback. Since I mostly work alone, I’m self-employed in a field that’s quite often a one-person job, I don’t get a lot of feedback, and mostly it’s praise… you don’t get better from getting praised.

So having an outside person and being open to their criticism/inputs can be very valuable, even or especially when they have a different background than oneself. Or maybe next time someone hires me for a Business- or Event coverage, I’ll beg them to criticize me as hard as possible.

That’s everything for the time being from my end on the subject. If you found this post helpful or want to leave some criticism, please feel free to drop a comment.

If you’re going to be more serious about studio photography, I would also recommend you take a look into the manual mode of your camera. You can learn more about this particular mode in my prior blog post: Using the manual mode.

Aufnahme aus dem Kaffeemaschinenverkaufs Betrieb Davide Constanza in München, geschoßen von dem Businessfotograf und Reportagefotograf Daniel Schubert aus Bayern.
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