Many of the well respected photographers I know out there learned their trade through second shooting and assisting professional photographers. I, myself ,combined my time studying a degree in photography along with assisting as many photographers as I could, which ultimately lead me into Wedding Photography. Finding assisting and second shooter jobs is usually easy enough, if you're willing to work for free, but it's how you grab the opportunities that makes the experience successful or not.
To Assist or Second Shoot?
When I use a second shooter or assistant, the title usually blends into one, I would expect my second shooter to be on hand to assist me and run errands. The same principle applies for an assistant, I may ask them to pick up a camera from time to time.
Some photographers keep the two completely separate, an assistant's sole purpose is to run errands, carry bags, make the coffees and sometimes drive the photographer around. Some photographers have a second shooter and an assistant, so it's important to know what is exactly needed from you before you turn up for a job.
Learn, Learn, Learn
I have had many second shooters come and go, and it's fairly obvious who is using the opportunity to it's full potential. The idea of second shooting for me was to gain experience, learn new skills, watch how the photographers interact with clients and network. The job on hand is to capture awesome portraits, but as you're usually providing your skills for free, make sure you take something away from second shooting.
Assisting and second shooting doesn't always mean the photographer you're working for is higher up the photography 'food-chain'. It's not uncommon for seasoned photographers to hire second shooters and assistants who are equally as good an image maker and business man, often photographers would prefer a similar skilled or even more skilful photographer working with them. If this is ever the case, it still doesn't stop the learning, I've learnt plenty of new skills from professional photographers I've assisted and photographers who have assisted me.
What You Should Come Away With
If you're just starting out in photography, then most photographers will be higher up the 'food-chain'. It's important you come away with a few new bite size pieces of information from each opportunity. Make mental notes on anything from how the photographer interacts with his/her clients, what equipment they use and how frequently the are using it, their timetable of the day, how they direct the client be it the Bride & Groom or a Model and dates of any future assisting roles the photographer can offer you.
Do you have any tips from assisting photographers? What makes a good assistant or second shooter?