Photojournalism

Misadventure: The Royals

Note: this originally appeared in Photo Life Magazine.

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One of the most memorable assignments occurred in 2011 when I was asked to be the official photographer for His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, and Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton’s three-day visit to northern Canada.

This was a pretty high-profile task, and one that I was excited to shoot. It’s not every day that you get to spend documenting two of the most famous people in the world.

I handle stress pretty well, and never really let the pressure of any assignment get to me, but this assignment started out with one of the most stressful moments in my entire career in photography.

The evening the Royal Couple was due to arrive, my first tasking in my role as official photographer was to take a formal portrait of William and Kate, along with a number of dignitaries. It would be done in a secure hotel meeting room, and would be their first order of business when they arrived from the airport: briefly meet all the dignitaries and then sit down, with me directing, while they all posed for a portrait.

I was given about 90 seconds for my image.

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Earlier that day, I had spent a couple hours setting up for this 90 seconds. I brought in all my equipment, including studio lights, light stands, modifiers, cameras, lenses. I carefully set everything up and then did what any photographer worth his salt would do: I tested.

I tested everything, multiple times. The angle of light. My camera settings. I even had 10 hotel workers take ten minutes out of their day to come and sit in the seats that would later be filled by the Royal Highnesses and the dignitaries.

Everything was perfect.

Fast forward to 20 minutes before they were due to arrive. Again, I tested everything. Again, everything perfect.

Then, I hear Prince William and Kate Middleton arrive. A cheer goes up down the hallway. I’ve been instructed to go down the hallway and take some frames of them greeting hotel guests as they arrive in the lobby. I scurry down the hall and catch my first glimpse of them. I fire off 40 or 50 frames and then return to the meeting room.

They arrive behind me in the room, and shake hands with the small crowd of dignitaries. I wait at the end of the line, where I’m to direct them to their assigned chairs, and then, gulp, tell them the process.

My voice cracks, but I get it out. I tell them all that I plan on taking about ten images, total. I want to keep it way less than 90 seconds. I figure I can have the photograph I need in less than 30.

I put my camera up to my eye, compose, and fire.

And fire. And fire.

By frame four I get the sick feeling that something’s wrong. I’m not seeing the tell-tale flash of light out of the corner of my eye.

My flash is not going off. My heart sinks.

The very last thing I want to be doing, now - now, of all times - is to troubleshoot. I have 90 seconds. This is one of the biggest moments of my career to date. And I feel absolutely sick to my stomach.

I keep it cool. Okay, just a hiccup. Shoot some more. My radio wireless triggers are bound to kick in. They’ll be okay. I press the trigger. No light. I press it again and again and again. No light. They’re not firing.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to take a look at the images and make sure I captured one with no one blinking.”

This is what I tell the group, who are waiting patiently. They have no clue anything is wrong. William and Kate turn to each other as I turn to my camera.

I hit the play button with dread. I know I’m doomed. My nausea is getting stronger.

I look at the last image I took. Black. With no light from the studio lights, the exposure is completely black.

I flip back to the image before. Black again.

Flip, black.

Flip, black.

Flip, black.

I’m dying.

I’m already making excuses in my brain. My brain has turned to mush.

Flip, black.

Flip, black.

Flip, light.

Wait, what?

I see an image appear on my screen. It’s the group. The group in front of me.

On the first frame I took, the studio lights went off! My heart’s pounding. But that doesn’t really mean anything. It may have went off, but what are the chances that ten people will have given me perfect expressions, with no one blinking.

I zoom into the image, quickly and furiously scanning all the faces.

Prince William’s look is perfect. As is Kate’s. Of course theirs are. But what about the others? I look at each and every face, and perfect, all.

I nailed it.

“Thank you all for your time, I have what I needed.”

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Over the next two days, it was all a fun breeze. Everything went perfect. Exhausting, thousands of frames, but all pretty much perfect; nothing in the next two days compared with that stress of that first 30 seconds, thankfully.

PS - I still don't know what happened with my lights that evening. As soon as they left the room, I tried firing them again. And of course, they fired perfectly.