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What it’s like to work as a royal photographer, from travelling the world to capturing an iconic snap

Katie O'Malley

A bead of sweat trickles down Chris Jackson’s forehead as he steadies his forefinger over his camera’s shutter-release button. His steely focus narrows on a set of brown wooden doors. Around him, the hubbub from fellow photographers, the police and crowds of fans crescendos to a dull murmur as he waits for “the” moment.

In just a few seconds, Jackson will have taken hundreds of photographs capturing the first moment the world sets eyes on the newest member of the British royal family outside the Lindo Wing, St Mary’s Hospital in London. Minutes later, his photographs will have been published on websites from London to Tokyo.

This scene is a world away from the photographer’s student days studying for a degree in Physiology and Psychology at Cardiff University.

“Much of my time was spent developing photos in my home-made dark room in the cellar,” Getty Images’ royal photographer tells The Independent. While at university, Jackson pursued his ambition to become a photographer after securing a graduate loan (“on top of my student loan”) and has been working with the visual media company for 15 years.

“The role of royal photographer developed organically over the years and it seemed the perfect job that encapsulated everything I loved about photography – travel and the opportunity to document history in the making,” he says.

Earlier this year, Jackson – who is married to the Duchess of Cambridge’s personal assistant Natasha Archer – was gearing up for the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s royal baby, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. In October 2018, Kensington Palace confirmed Meghan was pregnant with the couple’s first child. The duchess gave birth to their son on Monday 6 May.

Two days after the child's birth, the royal couple posed for photographs with their newborn during a photocall in St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle.

For Jackson, capturing the moments surrounding royal births are an “exciting and joyous time”.

“There is always an electric atmosphere around these moments, it’s amazing to be at the epicentre of an exciting story everyone is talking about,” he says. But he isn’t immune to the stresses of capturing some of the most important images in British monarchic history.

“Despite the positive nature of the story, you still have huge pressure to document the event in the best way possible and transmit these images around the world in the quickest possible time,” he says.

“Images are with our clients within minutes and these days are sent straight from the camera to a remote editing team, then around the world.”

Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge depart The Lindo Wing (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Whether it’s documenting royal visits on the side of Kilimanjaro or in the middle of Lesotho in South Africa, Jackson says it’s a fine art refining what kit he’ll need to take with him to a photo opportunity with the royal family.

It’s amazing to be at the epicentre of an exciting story everyone is talking about

“It’s always the balance of taking spares and lenses you ‘might need in case’ with the balance of travelling light,” he says. “I’ve had so many equipment disasters around the world that I generally carry spares of pretty much everything!”

Having photographed royal appearances, weddings and birthday portraits, Jackson believes the golden rule when it comes to snapping the royals is to “be prepared and be early”.

“Taking the photo is only about 40 per cent of my job, the other 60 per cent is making sure you are in the position to take it,” the photographer explains.

Royal photographer Chris Jackson goes over medal ceremony order with Prince Harry (Getty Images)

“This could involve everything from arranging the travel to making sure you are on top of the diary and event, down to being ahead of the game with traffic. Travel, visas, permission and accreditation are all integral parts of getting to that ‘moment’,” he says.

In April, Kensington Palace announced it had launched a verified Instagram account, under the handle @sussexroyal on behalf of the royal couple. The account accrued one million followers in five hours and 45 minutes, according to the global authority on record-breaking achievements: Guinness World Records.

Speaking about the effect of social media on reporting the royals, Jackson says he thinks the various platforms help, rather than hinder, his profession.

“I photographed the Queen sending her first ‘tweet’ at the Science Museum in 2014 and since then we’ve seen a steady increase in the importance of platforms such as Instagram and Twitter,” he says.

“I certainly embrace these forms of communication and it’s a great tool for getting some of the ‘story behind the image’ out there as well as engaging with people around the world.”

Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, in Stockholm (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

As the family has learned to change with the times in order to become more relatable, Jackson says he has noticed the royals adopt a more relaxed behaviour when it comes to interacting with the public and lifting the veil on their private life.

“There have certainly been changes to the formality of royal photography. Of course ceremony forms an important part of what the royal family does on a daily basis and it goes a long way to making them who they are,” Jackson explains.

“However, these days we see much more relaxed and candid images of the royal family that members of the public can associate with, be it Prince Harry playing rugby to the Duchess of Cambridge hitting a six in a game of cricket during a tour of India. And, of course, the Prince of Wales dancing a traditional ‘sword dance’ in Oman.”

The Duchess of Cambridge at a dinner at the Royal Palace with Prince William (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Having forged a close yet respectable professional relationship with the royal family over the years, Jackson says it’s near impossible to choose a favourite photograph of his, given each photo “is always an association with that trip or period in time”.

While photographs taken with the Duke of Sussex’s charity Sentebale in Lesotho “have a special resonance” for the photographer, he ranks pictures of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their wedding day leaving Westminster Abbey and the Prince of Wales’ 70th birthday portrait of the family in the grounds of Clarence House among his most cherished images he’s photographed.

“It was a privilege to be able to take those photos and something that will certainly be a highlight for me when I look back at my career,” he says.

The upcoming arrival of the royal baby this month gives Jackson an opportunity to reflect on the most challenging and rewarding moments of his career to date.

As with most jobs, balancing a personal and professional life is a constant battle. In December 2018, Jackson and his wife welcomed their first child.

Prince Harry shows children a photograph he has taken on a visit to Lesotho (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

“Managing the diary is without a doubt the most challenging aspect of my job. With all members of the royal family busy on a daily basis, it’s important to ensure you are available to cover as much as possible as well as making sure you have some time at home!”

That said, he continues to embrace the opportunity to travel the world.

“I’ve been to more than 100 countries during my time with Getty Images and it’s always exciting heading off on royal tour,” he says.

“The people I meet never cease to amaze me, from charity workers and fans of the royal family around the world to leaders of countries – that’s certainly an exciting part of the job.

“I also love the interest people have in the British royal family, it’s incredible to see my images published globally. The buzz that I had from seeing my first shots published in the student magazines at University has never worn off and I’m excited to see them on newsstands.”

Follow The Independent’s coverage on the royal baby here.