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A Step-By-Step Guide to Photographing the Queen

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Every two weeks, we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in December of 2010.

This article will walk you through a 'typical' day in the life of a British press photographer. You'll discover what it takes to find stories, learn what images are required for the 21st century media, understand the importance of equipment and technical knowledge, identify what pressure exists and what can go wrong when photographing Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth during a regular visit.


Step 1: Research

Thousands of photojournalists around the globe provide a constant stream of imagery to the ever hungry media. From small feature stories on your local newspaper right through to breaking international news stories, the press photographer is usually at the heart of every story.

Newsworthy stories are everywhere, but there is no doubt that actually finding a story is one of the hardest parts of being a freelance photographer. If you make a living from your camera, finding these stories is crucial for your survival.

There are many ways to find and come across stories - you can trawl through local newspapers, look at up and coming events, read newsletters, visit websites, or even ask friends and family!

This particular story took no research whatsoever. Watching the breakfast news I learnt that The Queen was visiting Cambridge - today! So, when Queen Elizabeth II, one of the world's most recognised faces visits your local area, it's fair to say that you should at least make an effort and take her picture.

You've got your story, so the next phase of the research is to find out as much about the event and still make it to the location in plenty of time. Calling the relevant press office for information wasn't very successful - it seemed I knew more about the visit that the person on the end of the phone! Next port of call, the internet. Within 5 minutes of searching, I knew where the Queen was going to be, at what time, and why.

Websites and social networks like Twitter are a great source of story ideas.

Step 2: Preparation

Having your equipment ready at all times is priority number one for any working news photographer. Have at least a camera, a medium telephoto zoom like the 70-200mm, a formatted memory card, a fresh battery, a laptop and a card reader ready to go at all times.

If you prepare all of your equipment at the end of every day, why not store all of your equipment in a large container or pelican case that you can keep close to the front door.

Simple things like charging batteries, cleaning lenses, formatting memory cards and making sure everything is in place allows you to get on the road immediately.


Step 3: Equipment

It's in your interest to have the ability to cover all angles. Because the roll of a press photographer changes from shooting a portrait one moment to a murder scene the next, having a wide range of equipment available is key.

I recommend keeping everything in a large pelican case which you can then load into your car boot, padlock shut and lock to the inside. Along with the large pelican case, a range of empty camera bags and pouches go in the boot - from large Lowepro backpack's to small, discreet ThinkTank pouches - this ability to change camera 'setup' on the fly allows you to adapt to different jobs as things change.

A job such as the visit of a member of the royal family requires the photographer to stay flexible, move around discreetly while still been able to cover all eventualities. This lead me to take the following equipment in the following configuration:

  • 2 x Nikon D3's
  • 17-35mm f2.8
  • 50mm f1.8
  • 70-200mm f2.8
  • 300mm f2.8
  • Manfrotto Monopod
  • 1 x Flashgun
  • MacBook
  • A ThinkTank belt and pouch system holds the monopod, a pouch for each of the flash, the 50mm, spare CF cards, batteries, USB 3G Modem x 2 (different networks), card reader etc...
An overview of my equipment and vantage point during the second part of the job.

Step 4: Requirements

You know your story, your equipment is ready, the next stage is to understand your clients and the desired output for your pictures. In this case the output is all of the UK national newspapers to be distributed by the picture desk of a news agency.

Every job is different, however for the majority of scenarios the following image 'set' will keep a picture editor happy. Remember, though, it is important to shoot to heavily towards the style of your client - the images required by a local paper will be different to what is required by an international news agency.

The best time to go through shot ideas is during the journey to the event, assuming you know the location you can also pre-visualise some shots, however as with every shoot, always be ready to adapt and change at a moment's notice. This is one of the key skills for a photojournalist.

If you loosely stick to the following shot list, you will most likely be on the right track for most newspapers and media outlets around the world (covering all angles so to speak!)

  • Full length - free from a distracting background, objects. If possible shoot with a long lens to isolate your subject.
  • Head shot - a nice head shot with a fitting expression on the subject.
  • An establishing General View (GV) with the subject in the location/environment.
  • Interaction - your subject interacting with the environment or other relevant people.
  • Something different.

Step 5: The Event

As with all events of this nature, there is only so much that you can control - the rest is left up to intuition, luck and experience. You have been briefed on where the Queen and Prince Phillip were due to walk, from getting out of their car to entering King's College was about 20 metres walk during which they will briefly stop and greet a few VIP's.

The press were gaggled in the corner behind the VIP's. Unless your brief says otherwise, now is the opportunity to get your 'banker' shot's, a set of basic images that simply do the job at it's most basic. Obviously if anything out of the ordinary occurs, capture it; it may just turn a pretty low profile story into a top news story.

The walk in takes no longer than 50 seconds. In that time your minimum aim is to get a full length, a mid shot and a head shot of Her Majesty. It sounds simple and sometimes it is, but in this case I misjudged the point at which the car door would stop. Being out by a couple of feet was enough to throw the possibility of an entirely clean full length shot.

As she advances towards you, sadly the waiting VIP's block any more decent views. Immediately, Plan B should kick in and, depending on the situation, you adjust your plans accordingly. In this case plan B was to continue and get a nice clean mid and head shot, to achieve which I switched to the 300mm (from a 200mm) to create two nice clean images.

As fast as she had appeared, she was gone - knowing in the back of your head that the full length wasn't great, that shot becomes priority number one when she leaves the university. But for the time being it becomes a matter of upmost importance to file (send to the picture desk) what you have immediately. When there are 6-8 fellow photographers all in competition, sometimes the first picture in, even if it isn't the best, can make the cut.

Before going onto the specifics of sending your pictures to an agency and the remainder of the shoot, step 6 will talk about dealing with problems as they arise, coping with the ensuing fallout and making sure you do your best to rectify the problem

The event - arrival of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Step 6: Problem Solving

Nothing ever runs smoothly. Life is designed to throw obstacles your way, even more so if you're a photographer working on deadline!

I've always worked off the premise that if you are honest with yourself that you have tried your hardest to achieve everything possible from that job, that is all that matters. You should never have to make excuses. Excuses are nothing but little lies reasoned by yourself as to why you never achieved your best - there is no such thing as excuses in this job. You either got the shot or you didn't and as long as you tried your hardest your boss or editor will take your word for it (they might still be a little angry!). Integrity is vital.

So, here I am about to file my first set - with a not so great full length, I would always advise to send it, followed up by a quick phone call to say: "First set coming in, full length not so good, it's my priority when she comes out". That's it, no excuses about why you missed, no one needs to know that you picked a not so great position - deal with it and fix the problem as soon as possible.

Montage of two very different full length shot's and two differing exposures as the Queen travelled under a dark archway.

Step 7: Wiring Your Pictures

Workflow is a digital photography buzzword that all photographers should constantly adjust along with technology to achieve their ultimate aim. For a press photographer, there are two key points with a workflow - speed and accuracy.

Getting your pictures out first is fantastic, but if anything is wrong with those speedy images you begin to look unreliable. The accuracy of an image really comes down to basic editing only - crop, levels, resize and a correct caption - no typos, succinct and correctly formatted.

A press photographer's workflow is enough to warrant it's very own article, but just like in real life, you need to get back to taking pictures as soon as possible - so for this article at least I will just go over a typical setup of software and the order in which each is used. Remember by no means is this workflow exclusive.

  • Photo Mechanic from Camerabits to 'ingest' all of the images from a CF card.
  • Typical folder structure: {YEAR}/{MONTH}/{DAY}.{JOBNAME}/{EDIT_STAGE} - eg: 2009 / 12.DECEMBER / 04.TEST_JOB / RAW.
  • Each image has basic IPTC data applied on ingest - such as a basic caption, photographer, date, location, copyright.
  • Images are tagged in Photo Mechanic (T).
  • One run of 'selects' - no maybe's - it's either going or it's not.
  • Select all tagged (CMD+T).
  • Copy selected images (CMD+Y) to 'EDIT' within the job folder.
  • Open all of the images to 'EDIT' in Adobe Camera Raw.
  • Make individual adjustments, saving each image at JPG Level 12 into a 'SENT' folder.
  • Open 'SENT' folder.
  • Make final unique caption adjustments for each image.
  • Re-order the images how you want the picture editor to see your pictures.
  • Rename (CMD+M) to {INITIALS}_{JOB_NAME}_{NUMBER} eg. MK_QUEEN_001.jpg
  • Upload images using Photo Mechanic's built in FTP client (CMD+U)
  • Re-sizing each image to 2800px longest size, jpg level 6 on upload.
  • Call the desk to confirm arrival.
Screen shot of Photo Mechanic in action with pictures ready to wire to the picture desk.

Step 8: Look For Angles

We've already established that you still need a decent full length - you have about three hours until the Queen is due back out the same door, so priority one is to get facing directly towards those doors.

Fortunately, directly opposite those doors are shops, and above those shop's are a set of flats - time to turn on the charm and blag your way into a stranger's front room. The gift of the gab has to be second nature to any photographer working with people, you need to know how to ask the right questions the right way at the right time to the right person!

Press photographers are notorious for been 'pack' animals - sticking together seems to bring a sense of security about our position's - even if it is entirely wrong!

It takes quite a brave (read desperate) photographer to leave that pack - you need that full length after all.

After confirming the use of a particular window on the first floor, over the next three hours you drink plenty of coffee and chat to colleagues, eyeing up your 'bagged' window. As time draws closer, time to jump to action, stake your place - with the grandeur of Cambridge Univerity, the sun dropping and the waiting crowd the view from the window makes an interesting wide angle shot - but don't forget the full length!

You note that the exposure under the archway is approximately +1.5EV more than the exposure in the open - remember to adjust your exposure as she walks under the door.

A different, wide perspective shows the Queen leaving Cambridge University to crowds of people.

Looking through the 300mm, the Queen rounds the corner into your view finder. You see the eyes of her personally security flow past you - making their decision in milliseconds as to whether you are a threat. You're not, and by the next frame their eyes are at the next window.

Meanwhile, the subject temporarily has a clean(ish) background, so you take two frames and follow as she walks under the archway. Adjust your exposure by opening up your aperture from f6.3 to f4 - just enough to lift the shadows of the short arch.

As she gets closer, you switch lenses to a wide shot of the University, the crowd, the queen and her car - the establishing view of the subject and the location. As she climbs into her car, you switch to your 200mm zoom, taking window shots as she waves at the ecstatic crowd.

Within 1 minute she was out of sight, onto other engagements around the city. Your priority has switched again, you need to get those images out as fast as possible!

Share Your Thoughts

I hope this article has helped to illustrate the process, thinking, and workflow of a press photographer. Have you ever been in a similar situation? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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