As I’m sure most of you know, aside from being a photographer, I’ve been the first assistant to long-time photographer, Joe McNally for the past 3+ years.

Last month, one of our other assistants, Michael Cali and I taught a class at Dubai’s Gulf Photo Plus Expo, called “Building a Career in Photography”, and we had an amazing response– so thought I’d try to do a bit of a blog series diving in a bit deeper.

This is an experiment of sorts, in that I’m turning a class/lesson plan into a couple of blog posts- and we can go any way you’d like with this– so please comment as to what stands out, what you’d like to hear more about, etc.  Happy to mold it any way you’d like.

Essentially, in the course of a couple of blog posts, here’s the basics of what I’ll be covering:

  • Starting out in the Photo World
  • The importance of becoming a photo assistant
  • What exactly does a photo assistant do?
  • Opportunities I’ve had working with Joe/a BTS look at working on-assignment
  • Personal Shooting/Portfolio Building
  • Taking the next steps in the industry

Part One: Starting Out in the Photo World

I got interested in photography when I was starting high school.  I had always been a big music fan, was constantly seeking out live shows, and I happened to be family friends of an up-and-coming band called Guster.  I simply thought it was a cool thing to capture photos of a band I loved, and they gave me photo passes anytime I wanted to shoot- which in the end, was something like 50 times.  Most of that black and white film was completely awful (and by that I mean lots of completely blank negs), but that’s how I learned the technicalities of taking a picture.

I ended up going for my BFA in photography and graphic design in college, and while there, I interned for two prominent NYC-based photographers, Joe McNally (National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, LIFE), and Danny Clinch (Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair) and had an absolutely amazing experience with both.  For a young photographer, they were the best contrast in technique and overall style of work I could possibly experience.

The first question a lot of young shooters ask when I mention these internships is “How the hell did you pull that off?”  It was surprisingly easy, and really came down to persistence.  Each Fall/Winter, I’d start flipping through the Communication Arts Photo Annual, bookmark NYC-based photographer’s work I liked, and gave them a call.

I found that making calls and setting up interviews during the Fall/Winter put me way ahead of the pack, and by the time everyone else started looking, I already had my plans set in stone.

I finished school in 2005, was playing drums in a Philly-based rock band (which lasted for almost seven years), and started freelancing in the photo world.  I was living and working in a relatively small market, an hour north of Philadelphia, and made the better chunk of my income as the head shooter for a local wedding company.  Though it’s not exactly what I wanted to be doing, it did enable me to make my entire living as a working photographer- which was a very big milestone to achieve.

My schooling left me ill-prepared for the marketplace, and I knew I needed to start looking for a change, so in 2008, I started applying to grad schools for photojournalism.  I had always kept in touch with Joe’s studio manager, Lynn, and during one conversation in late Summer, she asked if I’d ever consider assisting Joe.

Brad Moore, Joe’s assistant at the time was looking for a bit more of a normal lifestyle, and took a job assisting Scott Kelby, so the doors opened for Joe’s first assistant position.

Joe was a bit apprehensive at first, as I was shooting full-time, and this would force me to put the camera down for a bit.  We spoke, and after a short phone conversation, offered me the job as his first assistant.

At the time, it was a big move for me..I was essentially breaking up my band, which had seen some mild success, and leaving a relatively well-paying freelance gig to put down my cameras, and schlep gear for another photographer.

In retrospect, I can’t believe I ever had any second thoughts (I was naive), as it’s turned out to be the absolute smartest career move I could have ever made.  Not only have I learned more than I ever thought possible (and still have tons to go), but I’ve gotten to travel the world, and it’s positioned me in the marketplace somewhere I couldn’t have ever dreamed of being in four years ago.

Stay tuned for part two in this series: The Importance of Assisting