Bill Frakes Discusses Workshop, Assistants & Photography

[ Posted: May 12, 2006 ]

[Assistants fill a critical role in the workflow of a busy photographer. We asked altpick member Bill Frakes, a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated, to talk about his use of assistants, what's important, and where he finds them.]

By Bill Frakes

In any given year I work as many as 320 days. Almost all of them on location. Demanding locations dealing with not only the subject matter, but often difficult logistics, tough climatic conditions, and crowds. Most of the time I get one chance at the image, most of my content happens in real time with little control. I have to get it right, and often a number of ways. Good assistants are critical to my operation.

I do a wide variety of jobs. My assistants primarily are responsible for helping me with lighting, logistics, remotes and so they need to have good technical photographic skills. Computer skills aren't mandatory in assistants (other than of course digital assistants, but that's a whole specialty group that deserves independent discussion), but they certainly don't hurt. Since I'm working on the road most of the time it's important that the assistant be very organized, and additionally help with the physical tasks of the job, the carrying of cases, driving, packing, the mundane tasks that are critical to success.

Last week at the Kentucky Derby I used 31 remote cameras strung out over a half mile, some on the ground, some on a roof six stories high. I put the cameras in place, focused them, set basic exposures, and talked to each assistant about when to fire them. I had to rely on the assistants to think about everything going on around them, to make sure the remotes weren't jostled, nothing was blocking their view, and watching the ever-changing exposure. I was on the cell phone constantly talking with them about what changes needed to be made, how I needed them to react, but in the end, the last five minutes I had to trust them to do the right thing.

My assistants need to be engaged. They have to check their egos at the door and be team players. They have to comprehend how much I have going on and have the ability to listen and understand, unnecessary questions can cripple what we have going on.

A love of photography is not mandatory, but it certainly makes for more interesting and often more valuable exchanges. That's one of the reasons I get so many of my assistants from "Barnstorm," the Eddie Adams Workshop. At the past Derby for example my assistants Justin Stailey (Bogen Photo), Pete Keihart, Evan Parker and Matt Marriott I met at Barnstorm.

Barnstorm is a great place to make contacts. The students are given an incredible opportunity to network, and that of course works to the benefit of the faculty as well. Through the years I've used at least 50 people I've met at the Farm as assistants. Many of them only for a few jobs as scheduling permitted, but three of them have been fulltime and worked with me for years.

The first time I met Jason Burfield he was standing nervously waiting for me to critique his portfolio at the Eddie Adams Workshop. It was 2AM and he'd been waiting in line for a couple of hours. He handed me his book, bit his lip and prepared himself for the beating he knew was coming.

I looked at it, gave it back and told him it was really nice, very solid. He really had a strong style, good technical, a point of view. He blinked, fidgeted and said, "That's it?" I told him, yep that was it. Just keep doing what you're doing, you just need more, but the direction is just right. He kept looking at me, stunned, and said "I've been waiting to talk to you for months, and that's all you can tell me about how to improve? There's nothing else I can do? "I just shook my head and said, there is one thing, you can come work for me.

Hired him on the spot, and when he wasn't finishing his degree he worked for me as my assistant for the next four years.

Jason was the prototype classic assistant. Possessing the qualities I look for: stamina, honesty, loyalty, humor and excellent technical skills. It's tough to find that mix, but I'm always looking.

For a fulltime or first assistant it's important to meet them in person. A
recommendation from another photographer is fine for a second assistant or when I'm looking for basic muscle power. But not as a first, or to do portrait lighting with me. I need to meet the person and talk to them to find out what I need in that case.

Is not important that an assistant be a shooter. It can be helpful because
frequently it means a greater understanding of the process, but not always.
Consequently I don't need to see a portfolio, but I am always delighted to look at one. It gives me a good idea of the person's technical skills and artistic sensibilities. I think it's important that it be a two way street, the cross pollination helps both parties, and I want to know what I can teach, or what information I can impart that will help the assistant help me short run but additionally benefit them long run.

The good assistants make my life easier, the best ones make both of our lives better.

Bill Frakes is a faculty member of The Eddie Adams Workshop.
The deadline to apply for The Eddie Adams Workshop is May 15, 2006.
Registration and additional information, is available online at

Related Links

- Jason Burfield's Altpick Portfolio

- Bill Frakes Photography's Altpick Portfolio


- EAW Application