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Portraits Under Pressure

Lesson 17 of 28

How to Work with Assistants: Skype Interview

Victoria Will

Portraits Under Pressure

Victoria Will

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Lesson Info

17. How to Work with Assistants: Skype Interview
Assistants help portrait sessions move quickly while under pressure -- but shooting with an assistant can be intimidating. Victoria dives into working with assistants and building a relationship through an interview with photo assistant Tim Young.

Lesson Info

How to Work with Assistants: Skype Interview

So now I wanna talk to you about having an assistant, because they're the backbone of your shoot when you're on set. How many of you guys work with assistants? Two people. I think that's very telling, and I totally understand why you do, and I understand why you don't. But I'm curious, I think I'm gonna sort of guess a couple reasons why the people who are here who don't work with assistants don't and the first reason I would guess is sometimes they're expensive and you don't have budgets. And that's a real thing. The second thing, is that working with other people can be challenging and sometimes it's easier to just do it yourself than have to explain it to somebody else, right? And then the third reason, which was a big hang up for me when I was starting is that I was really intimidated by the fact that it was very likely that the assistant knew more than I did. And I didn't know how to handle that. And the reason that I'm bringing Tim on today, is because I really wanna emphasize to...

you guys, if you want to take your work to the next level, at a certain point you're going to have to start working with assistants. And having that relationship and learning how to navigate it is incredibly important not only for your work, but also if you have that skill, you will also be able to handle a producer, you'll be able to handle an art director over your shoulder, a creative director, a really, you know, bridezilla situation, it really, it allows you to to just really have control over the team. And if you're team is really great, then you can focus on the art and on the work and on the portrait, and that's what you want. You want, when you walk on to set and when I walk on to set I know that Tim has my back, he and I are working together, in a very intense collaboration. And I actually hate the term "photo assistant." I really do, because not only is Tim and most of, or all of my assistants are terrific photographers in their own right, but he's not assisting me, he's actually my teammate that day. And what he's bringing to the set is invaluable. Alright let's bring him on, I'm gonna, just to give a little introduction. Hi, how are you? Good, good to see you! Yeah, you too! Thank you so much for doing this. You guys this is Tim, and as I was, could you hear what I was saying earlier? I've been watching the whole time. Alright, okay. So Tim has assisted now brace yourself here, and if you don't know these folks you need to Google them. Annie Leibovitz, Norman Jean Roy, Thedaw of Candor, Brigitte Lacombe, and that's just to name a few. Now let me tell you about that roster of photographers. They are the top of the top of the game. They are you know I look at their work for inspiration all the time. They're inspiring and I would love to be at that level and this is the guy who makes their shoots run. Now that being said, I have also worked with him, and I can tell you he knows more than I do. And that's okay because we're working together as a team. So, Tim thank you so much for being here. My pleasure, anything for you, Victoria. (laughs) Thank you. So tell us, the relationship between a lighting assistant and the photographer, as I've mentioned here is very important and probably the most important on the set from the get-go. And when you're building your team. So that being said, what elements make up a successful relationship? Well I think you have to know the photographer's work, and you have to have a passion for this business also, especially commercial photography. You have to listen to the photographer, know how they'd want to execute their shoot, and then as that synchronicity begins, you're gonna have that communications can be really easy and the execution of the images and the shoot will be a lot easier. I think you do need one person that's kinda like the alpha dog, that is able to control the rest of the lighting team together, and as it goes on, as the shoot develops, the photographer is able to do the other things. Talk to the producer, talk to the art directors, because it is very difficult to be a photographer and have 20 people behind your back watching you shoot. You need to have that team that backs you up. Absolutely. And you talk about you're talking about a big set with well you'll be the first assistant, that's sort of the alpha dog you're describing which I think is very accurate, and you'll have other support behind you. Will you work with a photographer if it's just the two of you? I have. And a lot of times, even on a commercial shoot that requires reportage, where it's just the two of us, no lights, just cameras, it's pretty essential. And you see the dynamic of something that can be a small, intimate shoot like that, running around a location the two of you, versus a set that has over 20 people. Right 'cause sometimes it's better to just break it down and simplify. Oh yes. If a photographer comes to you and they have an idea, and they don't know how to execute it, is it helpful if they show you lighting examples, is that a good way to have open communication? It is, it's a good start. You're not trying to take it literal, the image. But what it does is it gives you a good start so that as you start sculpting your light, in the next steps you can develop it into something else that's your own. That's pretty important. So, I had addressed earlier how I was pretty intimidated to start working with assistants. And You know I was actually intimidated to work with Tim because I knew he had worked with so many photographers that were so talented and prolific in their work. So, if a photographer is intimidated, and perhaps doesn't know as much as you technically about lighting, how do you handle that? And any suggestions. You actually really do listen even more. Uh huh. I think as time goes on, when you work with a photographer even more, you kind of already know what they want. But when it's in the beginning stages and you see that they are struggling with lighting a little bit, or they don't know how to execute it, you listen more and then you give quite a few examples of different options that they can use. And then the confidence grows between each other. But it doesn't bother you if they don't know it does it? Not at all. Not at all. Not at all. That's right. There's a lot of artists out there that don't really know how to execute their art. They have somebody else helping them sometimes. I mean that's part of the team. That is the team, that's really important and something that I want to get across to you guys, I think that if you have an idea, that's what you need, you need to have the core of the image as the idea, and then I think you should reach out to people to figure out exactly how to execute it. I know that when I was came up with the idea to do tintypes I certainly didn't know how to do them, and I read books and tried to take tutorials and things but one of the key things is that I reached out to other tintype photographers. And reaching out to a lighting master like Tim is, should be at the top of your list of things to do. So I know you are obviously a photographer in your own right Tim, do you use assistants for your sets? Definitely. There is, I can't be thinking, even though I know how to light, I don't really wanna be thinking about that most of the time I actually need to be focused on other elements of the set and if you can go back to your set, and I see that my guys have actually put together a good series of options of lighting for me to choose from, I can't tell you how easier that makes your shoot. Absolutely. And what do you look for in your own assistants when you're getting ready to hire them? They gotta have a passion for the industry. Mmhm. They gotta know the history of photography, like we can talk about photographers, whether its Cartier-Bresson or Brigitte Lacombe, or you know, it's a lot of these other people. And also, are they good listeners, and then can they take the image to another level. Mmhm. If I choose a certain type of light quality, as the shoot's going on they step in without even me asking, and they're able even to take the image a little bit further. Oh that's terrific. So one other question for you before I open it up, and let our audience ask you some things, if you're on set as a first assistant and you're working with a photographer and they said that they would like a specific quality of light, and you've set that up, and then the photographer walks on set and says "you know what this isn't it at all," how do you how do you have that conversation? I guess it's a question about managing personalities. It can be, definitely. There's a lot of personalities on set and the one you're dealing with, your boss, the photographer, you gotta listen even more then. If it's not the right type of light quality you want, it's time for the assistant not to say anything anymore and actually listen and execute. I love the idea that that it's a team, and I hope that I've really expressed that to you guys, that's why I hate the term "photo assistant," because in now way is he an apprentice to me, which is what the term "photo assistant" sounds, 'cause that's just not accurate. With that being said, you guys have any questions for Tim? He's worked with some of the world's greatest photographers, I mean I would like to pick your brain about what it was like to be on set with some of those guys for sure, Bring it on. we'll have to do that at a later date But do you guys have any questions? Do you wanna grab the mic? Yeah okay great. Oh. Go ahead. Does the agency pair you guys up? I'm just wondering how you would go about so if you didn't want to be the main photographer, but you wanna be a part of the team, how could you be an assistant photographer? How did you go about doing that? So the photographer almost always picks the assistant and the team he's working with. However, sometimes if I was gonna be shooting in out-of-state somewhere and there's people I don't know, I'll reach out to people, and I'll reach out to other photographers, or other producers who do work in that area for suggestions, but I would also, If I called Tim and he was booked, he knows a whole load of people that will help. Or, if it wasn't the right situation for him he would say "you know what, I'm not really good at perhaps still life" I don't know if that's actually true or not, "but you know who is a great still life photo assistant? This guy." Absolutely. I mean there's a lot of work. It's a lot of word of mouth, surprisingly. Yeah. And this business is a small industry so you just get into your Rolodex, or your contacts in your phone, and you share a lot with people in this industry. We can't all be in the right place at the right time. Does that answer your question? I think did you have a second part of that was, no? It makes clear sense, it's just networking, word of mouth and making friends. It is. Terrific, okay lets see. Since you're both creative people, particularly for Tim, how do you handle the situation where when you're going over the vision of the photographer, you may have a difference of opinion on how that should be either executed, or conceived, how do you share that, your opinion, do you share it before, during, after, what are the nuances there that you kind of pull that off with? Well over the years I've definitely learned how to navigate through those conversations a lot better. You know you definitely want to give them options, and I think if they feel that they have those options, then that communication and developing that quality of an image is a lot easier and you really do have to listen and that for some people, is a little bit tougher because you're right, there are different of opinions on how an image should look. And it's not always pleasant, sometimes you do have little, you know, little discussions set aside away from everybody then you come back, you hug it out, you love each other and the shoot's over and you're like "great job everyone!" (laughs) Well listening is key for sure and it's a lot about what we've been talking about over the last few days because as a portrait photographer you have to listen to your subjects as well, and of course as any successful photographer you have to listen to the needs of your client. I just have one last question for you, are you, I see a seamless behind you. That is. And a Sarah Oliphant seamless. Sarah Oliphant, yes she makes the world's greatest and are you in your home? Do you have that up 'cause you shoot personal work in your home? I have this up in my home because my storage space, even if I were to put this diagonally, it's not big enough. (laughs) Great. So, I like it in the house. Yeah. And if I need it, I've got my Tenba case downstairs, I have it custom made and I roll it up and I travel with it. And we have one last question. I'm glad to hear that and I like that you can turn around and make a shoot happen at any moment. But I'm gonna have one more question over here. One more question and Tim thank you again for being with us today. How do you prepare for, how would you prepare for walking into say, a small, new environment for a shoot with regard to lighting, that you had never seen before, because that's actually what we're going to do next with Victoria, but curious if you've been in that scenario and what would be your go-to sort of lighting to have? Well, if you're going to a location, the first, and it has windows and natural, ambient light, you kind of wanna take your camera and see where the general direction of light is to begin with. And you have to decide do you want to continue that lighting and what we call kind of feather it a little bit, sculpt it a little bit so its a little more flattering for the subject's skin, and if that doesn't work, it's always nice to have a smaller backdrop. The one I have behind of me is nine feet wide but if you had your backup backup plan, you have this six-foot backdrop, you know at least you can nail that if other things are not working in the room. You actually just described the first shoot that we did where I you know we had a big window, so I brought in a light, and we brought it in from the same direction, we saw what we were working with, and then we also I sometimes work in such small spaces I have to use the four, four-and-a-half-feet seamless, just really get in in there. Yeah. You gotta have it. So if you were, here's my last question: if we were, if you and I, I'm about to go into a shoot where I don't know the space at all and they're actually trying to challenge me, and it could be the trunk of a car, or a storage room I don't know, but if you and I were walking into that shoot and I had a vision, and we walked in and it wasn't possible, what would you say to me? I mean how would you, I think I think how would you tell me to simplify it? Definitely a black and white image can always simplify it. You can get away with a lot more shooting black and white. But if we had to shoot color, then we either overpower that quality of light and maybe we do something that's a little more off the cusp, a little more contrasting light, maybe something you know, over camera, if we don't like the available light there, and take it to a totally different direction. And are you comfortable working on the fly like that? Oh yeah. I've done it many times. Excellent. That's what I wanted to hear. I really appreciate you coming in. My pleasure. Making time for us on Skype, thank you and I will talk to you later. See you soon, Victoria. Alright take care. Take care.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.


  • Leverage new techniques for choosing the light and locations for a successful portrait
  • Know how to build a rapport and utilize clear communication with your subjects
  • Set up a developed concept as well as how to light on the fly
  • Use successful strategies for marketing yourself as a photographer and how to get your work in front of editors


Portraits require more than just great lighting and equipment. Sometimes a shoot doesn’t go as planned. The location is drab, the client isn’t in the best mood, or you forget to charge your camera batteries. Great portrait photography artists are able to think on their feet, connect with their subjects -- and capture great images under pressure. The best portraits often come from portrait sessions that didn't go exactly as planned, when challenges turn into assets.

Celebrity portrait photographer Victoria Will shows you how to use your environment to capture a unique, sharp image that reflects the person in the portrait. She’ll also highlight how to quickly evaluate a less than perfect situation and make it work for you and your subject. Take your portraits from amateur to near Mona Lisa gallery worthy by learning how to shoot portraits under pressure.

You’ll watch Victoria photograph real people in limited settings, discovering multiple opportunities in a limited space. Learn her three portrait musts for preparation, point-of-view, and connection. Gain insight into how to make every frame count and how to get the shots the editor requested, as well as those that speak to your vision. Learn how to make your subject feel comfortable in only a few moments while capturing exquisite photo collections in Portraits Under Pressure.


The photographer looking to improve their portraiture through thoughtful lighting, creative techniques and leveraging the environment around you to get a consistent appearance.


Victoria Will’s background as an American photojournalist and celebrity photographer has helped her to develop techniques on editorial assignments to quickly connect with a subject. Her career began as a photojournalist for the New York Post and grew into a sharp portrait photography focus that opened opportunities to photograph celebrities. She continues to work in New York as an artist specializing in portraits and commercial work.


Helena Sung

This was a great class and I learned a ton! It was amazing to watch Victoria Will in action -- shooting portraits under pressure. I learned a lot watching her walk into an unknown situation -- not knowing the location, what the natural lighting situation would be, and only knowing she had 15 minutes for the shoot. I loved watching her problem solve on the spot with lightning and tight, dark spaces. She also taught a lot about how she interacts with her subjects -- always putting them at ease (like you're the host at a dinner party -- gem!) It's much easier for a photographer to take pictures in their studio, but this course was not about that. This was watching a photographer handle real world situations under time pressure and think on her feet. Loved it! I also loved the parts where she culled her photos afterwards and picked out the ones that caught her eye. In most instances, I found myself agreeing with her!! When she gets subjects to stand up and sit back down, it is the in-between moments she is looking for, or the moment right afterwards -- genius!! Oh, lastly, I loved how she went through stunning images she shot of celebrities like Brad Pitt and Janelle Monae and gave us the backstory of how she creatively problem-solved to get the shot! Hello, showing up two hours before a shoot and knocking on random hotel room doors for furniture?!! Of course she could do that because she has a lovely, warm personality! Oh, and by the way, the bits she shares about her early career path is very inspiring!

Robert Negrin

Great course! And the best part was the honesty. I was an executive in a fortune 500 company and what the critics watching this course missed is that there are a lot of talented photographers, actors, singers, accountants and even landscapers, but there are very few that are successful and accomplished. Yes, part of it may involve a certain degree of luck, but most of it is the drive and desire to suceed. It is obvious you have both. I used to beleive that a true image could only be captured by styling the shot, metering light and controlling the subject. (Yes, I shot film...complete with developing and printing all my images) Then, one day I realized that, if deliberate-shooting was the right way, why then most of the great images I have were the result of quick, rather than deliberate reactions. I get it Victoria. Love your style and how you get there. Three things I learned today are that the conditions... even the background, do not have to be perfect if the image is strong enough to carry the message. Second, setting up to capture the perfect image, misses all the imperfect, epic moments. Third, I disagreed with almost every image you picked until they were isolated from the rest. Then they made perfect sense. Well done. :) Robert Gabriel

Meredith Zinner Photography

I really love Victoria and her work. She's something suuuuper special and showed me a fab new way to look at portraits. I love her openness, honesty, the whole 'you're at my dinner party' intimacy, care and respect for her clients and am SO impressed at how quickly and reliably she's able to transform any location to suit her needs. She's super impressive, professional and inspiring thank you!