Photographing Princess Diana and the Royal Family, Part One

When I was fifteen years old and living in England (where my father had been transferred for work), the Queen of England drove through our town on a cold, grey afternoon. I brought along my Super-8 movie camera, and as her Rolls Royce slowly drove down Park Street, I ran alongside the car, stopping at gaps in the crowd to point my camera at the Queen, in the hopes of getting some good footage. In the end, I got one single frame of the Queen’s face, out of hundreds I shot. But I was hooked on the adrenaline rush.

Queen Elizabeth, London, 1986

Queen Elizabeth, London, 1986

A few years later, I was going to college in Chicago, returning home for the summer breaks. I couldn’t get a summer job and spent most of the time bored with nothing to do. But one day when I found out that Prince Charles and Princess Diana were going to be at a polo match a few miles away, I packed my camera bag and drove over to see them. Surprisingly, I was able to get some really nice, closeup pictures, and had fun doing it. I had finally found something to occupy my summer, and practice my photography at the same time.

Diana and Charles, Cardiff, Wales, 1987

Diana and Charles, Cardiff, Wales, 1987

Unlike ‘common’ celebrities, the royals were special. No matter what they did or how old they were, their ‘star power’ never faded. Musicians and movie stars come and go, and the vast majority are forgotten, but the royals are a part of British history. I knew if I got some good pictures, they would always be valuable and of interest.

That summer (1986) was significant in the life of the Royal Family. The Queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, was getting married to Sarah Ferguson, and news of the wedding was in the papers and on TV every day. I’d met a few fellow royal-watchers at other events, and together we made plans to scout out a good vantage point to see the wedding, and spent the night on the streets holding down our spot along the processional route.

The wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, London, July 23 1986

The wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, London, July 23 1986

I’ll save the details about shooting the wedding for a separate blog post, but suffice it to say that I got hooked on getting good photographs of the Royal Family– all of them, young and old, mega-famous and virtually unknown– as well as the celebrities and royal “culture” that followed their every move, and spent two whole summers and part of a third doing it.

The next summer (1987), I had an agreement to shoot for one of the most prestigious photo agencies in Britain; it was only months later that I found out my pictures were no good to them unless I sent them immediately after each event, which they neglected to tell me at the start of summer. The story has a happy ending now though, as I still have all my pictures, instead of them gathering dust in a London office.

Princess Diana, Kew Gardens, London, July 1987

Princess Diana, Kew Gardens, London, July 1987

I stopped photographing the royals when I finished college and stayed in the States permanently. I had taken thousands of photos of everyone from the Queen (35 times), Princess Diana (52 times), Princes William and Harry, Prince Charles, on down to Princess Michael, the Duke of Gloucester and Lady Marina Ogilvy (google them if you’re interested). On top of that, I was able to see and photograph events and people that most of us only see on television: I attended several international film premieres, photographed many of the leading celebrities of the late 1980’s, shot at Princess Anne’s home in Gloucestershire, watched Prince Charles play numerous games of polo (I still have a couple polo balls he used), stood with Prince Andrew as he watched his new wife ride in a steeplechase, and met Princess Diana twice. I also saw her marriage to Charles fall apart, and photographed their strained kisses and awkward body language on many occasions.

Princess Diana presenting Prince Charles with prize, Cartier Polo Tournament, Smith's Lawn, Berkshire, July 1988

Princess Diana presenting Prince Charles with prize, Cartier Polo Tournament, Smith’s Lawn, Berkshire, July 1988

In the end though, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about photography. Patience was a big one– sometimes it took 6-8 hours of waiting just to get my pictures, and twenty-four hours in the case of the wedding. But I also learned to expose film correctly or I’d end up with nothing to show for my efforts. As a photographer, it was good to cut my teeth on film; most photographers who have come up in the digital age rely on software to get the picture looking right after it’s been shot. It’s hard to imagine taking a picture now without looking at the LCD screen and checking your work right away, but back then, you just had to wait– usually days or weeks to see your pictures. I also learned to think fast while shooting. Unlike the professional press photographers, I didn’t have access to the press pens in the choice locations. But I learned to pre-visualize my photos and figured out where the best spots would be when the car would pull up and one of the royals would step out. And I learned to recognize their cars, their drivers, and their detectives (plainclothes policemen assigned to the royals), so that I could anticipate what was about to happen. All in all, the things I learned on the streets those summers were better than all the classroom lessons I learned in college, and I still use those skills in my job today.

Princess Diana, Brixton, London, July 1987

Princess Diana, Brixton, London, July 1987

Finally, I learned that the royals were just people too. Sure, they had fame and fortune and glamour, but in the end, it didn’t buy them real happiness, and I came to see them just as ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. But it was a golden age to follow them. A few years later, most of their marriages had broken up, and less than ten years later, Princess Diana was dead. Today, security is far tighter and in this digital age where everyone has a smart phone and photography is instant, things just aren’t the same. But I’ve still got all my pictures, and lots of great memories.

Princess Diana at James Bond film premiere, Leicester Square, London, June 1987

Princess Diana at James Bond film premiere, Leicester Square, London, June 1987

 

 

The Adventures of Mike’s Camera is the blog of freelance photographer, Mike Hudson. He is available for commercial photography assignments– marketing, corporate, editorial, annual reports, lifestyle, web page photography, and events. His clients have included many regional and national magazines and newspapers, several healthcare providers, colleges, hotels, architectural firms, small businesses and more. Visit MichaelHudsonPhotography.com to check out his portfolio or contact him via email.