Steve Fairclough spoke to top photographers to discover their stories of photographing HM The Queen over the decades
From 1952 to 2022, Her Majesty The Queen was one of the most photographed people in the world. From the first portrait sitting, on 26 February 1952 with Dorothy Wilding, to the final photograph of The Queen shot by Jane Barlow at Balmoral on Tuesday 6 September 2022, Queen Elizabeth II has been photographed millions of times in her 70-year plus reign.
Indeed, to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee in February 2022 the official Twitter account of The Royal Family released a previously unseen Wilding portrait of HM The Queen from that historic first portrait session.
Throughout the 2022 Platinum Jubilee year more photographic tributes have been paid to The Queen, including a special tribute collage which recreated one of Dorothy Wilding’s iconic portrait from 26 February 1952 by using a photomontage of 207 individual portraits of The Queen, including photographs by the likes of Tim Graham, William Horton, Frederick Thurston and many unknown photographers, plus some paintings and illustrations.
But to get a real sense of exactly what it’s like to meet and photograph Her Majesty The Queen we spoke to a number of photographers who have photographed the legendary monarch from the 1950s onwards…
The famous portrait and fashion photographer Rankin photographed HM The Queen for her Golden Jubilee in 2002. Here’s his story…
‘I was given five minutes and I shot it in four. It was good and unusual for me to be able to shoot her. I remember when they called me up I was like “Really? To photograph The Queen? Are they sure?” I did a double take.
‘I photographed her in Buckingham Palace. It was probably the most intimidating commission I’d ever had, but you’re not going to say “no” to the most famous person in the world. I really researched her and I empathised more with her afterwards. Prior to the commission I’d just seen her as a monarch and then, when I researched her, I thought, “Wow! She’s committed herself to a life of service, that she had no real choice about.” It made me respect her.
‘I read that she had a great sense of humour, which is what I tried to capture in the shoot. It was kind of weird because I’m Scottish – my parents are Scottish and I was born in Scotland – so essentially I’m a bit of a republican, in the sense of not being a royalist, but I just really respected her as a human being. She was an incredible human being; an incredible woman and she had a wicked sense of humour. She was very funny when I met her and I can’t really speak more highly about the person.
‘One of the old sync leads that just slips into the lens on the Mamiya… that fell out of my camera when I was shooting her. Those sync leads would always get loose and fall out. It fell off and The Queen laughed and when she laughed that was it, it was very funny and I needed to get that. But what was even funnier was my assistant at the time was trying to get that sync lead back in and his hand was shaking as he was trying to get it back in the lens.
‘When I went into this shoot I was a massive Sex Pistols fan so there was kind of an ode to [record sleeve designer] Jamie Reid going on and the Sex Pistols for me. I wanted to use that [flag] iconography because I thought it was humorous and, obviously, she is the monarch of the Union and the Commonwealth. So, it was relatable, there was an essence of it being very “Pop” and I wanted it to be a bit like an Andy Warhol – that was what I was really pushing.
‘I’d never met any of the royals before that and I’ve only met Prince William since. I’m kind of a bit ambivalent towards it now but I really liked her [The Queen] and I’m very annoyed that people are getting arrested and suppressed for being a republican. You should be able to demonstrate against whomever you want in Britain and I don’t even think she [The Queen] would have agreed with that. But now it’s a different time, a different Prime Minister and a different monarch.
‘After I’d photographed her it was really easy to get commissions because whenever anybody said, “Who have you photographed?” – because that’s a question you get asked by publicists – I’d say, “The Queen, Madonna, the Rolling Stones…” Once you’ve done The Queen, Madonna and the Rolling Stones you’ve pretty much got the triumvirate of fame at that time. I’ve always thought I got lucky in my career with things like this. I owe Camera Press – they were the people that got me in and I definitely appreciated them getting me the opportunity to photograph her.
‘She was a great collaborator and you could tell that she knew what I was doing and what I was trying to achieve. I think by the time I photographed her she was like, “Yeah, five minutes. That’s all they’ll need if they’re any good.” I don’t think I’ll be photographing King Charles, but the offer’s there Charlie… if you want me, I’ll make the effort.’
Peter Dench is a documentary photographer and photojournalist. His first, and only, time photographing The Queen came in 1999 but it wasn’t a resounding success…
‘I met The Queen once… it didn’t go well. Aged 27, I was on assignment for The Sunday Times Magazine covering her 1999 tour of South Africa. At the “meet the press” evening, as Her Majesty approached the small group I was with, my gin had run dry. I briefly excused myself and turned to get a refill… she gave me a stare that still makes me tremble. When she moved on, I was pulled to one side by an aide and firmly told that no one excused themselves from The Queen’s company – EVER! Perhaps I should’ve offered to get her a gin? When my photographs were published I received a fax, which read: “The palace loved it.” I think I’ve been forgiven.’
Denise Maxwell is a Birmingham-based photographer who shoots a multitude of subjects, including sports, portraits, events, fashion and more. She photographed The Queen in 2015…
‘These pictures were taken in 2015 when Queen Elizabeth was in Birmingham to open our new tram system. As a photographer I honestly saw it as very similar to photographing anyone else. I look for the same things in capturing the image, the composition, expressions, smiles, looking down the lens… The main thing that made it different for me was the amount of security that preceded the shoot.
‘On this event I was shooting for a national agency, so hours before I had to collect my accreditation and be in position in the photographers pit against hours before they arrived. The protocol is you have to stay in the photographers official positions and not to call out or direct, as you would in other shoots, when trying to get the subject/person to look at you, you have to be very calculated and quick with your shots.’
Harry Benson CBE
Harry Benson is a legendary photojournalist who has had his work published for over 70 years. Now aged 92, he photographed The Queen on multiple occasions since the 1950s…
‘Whether standing in the hot sun or rain, I was always pleased to have the opportunity to photograph Queen Elizabeth II because, if she paused in front of you and smiled, it would make a good photograph that would appear the next day on the front page of the newspaper I was working for.
‘In 2009 I was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in The Queen’s Christmas list. Later I was privileged to photograph The Queen in Holyrood Palace for the Scottish Parliament. In 2014, at Buckingham Palace, I felt honoured to meet the corgis and take The Queen’s Official Portrait for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. She was obliging and wore a diamond Scottish Thistle for the photograph and her assistant let me choose the dress for the photograph. Later I was happy to see the photograph on the wall of the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
‘My favourite photograph [of The Queen] was taken the first time I photographed HRH Queen Elizabeth II. It was 1958 and I was working for the London Daily Sketch at the time. My camera back then was a plate camera called a VN … but the later photographs were taken with Canon 35mm cameras. Now I am working with a Canon mirrorless camera. The Queen had come to Scotland to open Rothes Colliery, a coalmine in Glenrothes, Fife. She dressed for the occasion in a white miner’s outfit and descend into the newly opened mine shaft, rather than simply remain at the top to cut the ribbon. She caused a sensation. She was young and exuberant and smiling. She took us completely by surprise by the way she dressed and that she actually was going down the mine.
‘Afterwards she visited the new town of Glenrothes, created to house the expanding work force. No one had ever seen The Queen dressed as a coal miner…and the good news was my picture made the front page of the Daily Sketch. Embarrassingly, the multi-million dollar colliery proved susceptible to flooding and had to be closed in 1962.’
‘Have you ever said something you can’t stop yourself from saying? Immediately I knew I should not have said it, but sometimes words come out and you can’t stop them. In 2014 Christopher Baker commissioned me to take the official portrait of Her Majesty for The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. In Buckingham Palace she had several dogs around her… if my wife had been there she would have warned me not to ask the question, but as I was trying to find common ground between the most important woman in the world and myself… all I could think of is that we both loved our dogs.
‘I blurted out, “Do you sleep with your dogs?” And her amusing, straightforward answer was a definite, “NOOOOO, because they snore.” Could not have been a better answer! On the journey back from Buckingham Palace, I reconsidered what I had said and thought, well, it was quite unexpected and funny, and when seeing The Queen’s reaction, I know she thought it was funny as well… especially since I sleep with my dogs… snores and all!’
Humphrey Nemar has worked as a staff photographer at what is now Reach PLC, for over 20 years. He shoots for newspapers such as the Mirror, the Daily Express and the Daily Star.
‘The Queen was very easy and straightforward to photograph. She knew cameras were around and just got on with it, if it was official visit or state event. Your concerns were always… Where can you shoot from? Are you going to get blocked? Are you in the right place? And, also, how am I going to move to get the pictures? If it’s a news day and you get sent to Windsor, or other such places, it’s about doing a little bit of research and knowledge, as well as making sure that you’re only shooting pics from where you are allowed to.
‘Funnily enough, my favourites are the recent pics on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. As part of the Royal Rota my position was on the Queen Victoria Memorial with about 12 other photographers. The Queen was calming looking on during the Red Arrows flypast with the grandkids misbehaving and worried other members smiling and pulling faces was one picture I really liked. It was on the first of four days covering the Platinum Jubilee. I’m not a royal photographer but, in my capacity as press photographer at Reach plc – which covers The Mirror, the Daily Express and the Daily Star and the Sunday versions of all three titles – I cover news, features, studio, sports and big events occasionally.
‘The kit I used to shoot the balcony pics was a Canon R5 plus wi-fi drive, with Canon RF600mm f/4 [lens] and a Gitzo tripod. I have always been aware when photographing The Queen that you are slightly privileged to be witnessing part of a 1,000-year history. And, since last Thursday, myself and most other photographers have only covered one story.’
James Watkins has been a pro photographer since 1999, shooting news, music, entertainment, celebrities and PR assignments. He has photographed The Queen at various events since 2003…
‘It was always an honour and special occasion to be able to photograph a Royal visit or event… none more so than when it was The Queen. There was always an extra special buzz surrounding her visits as she was so loved and adored. I would never say that shooting a Royal visit is easy, especially when there’s thousands of people about that could affect your shot at any time, but The Queen was one of the best in the business at giving you opportunities, whether wonderful smiles and waves or interacting with people as she stopped to talk or take gifts of flowers with many a group of children.’
‘My favourite image of The Queen has always been from the very first time I shot a Royal visit. She was visiting Ludlow in 2003 and I was offered a Royal Rota pass for the visit. I vividly remember the excitement, and extreme nerves, running through me that day as I arrived and was given the strict instructions to always stay at an appropriate distance back away from Her Majesty. We were walking through the small market stalls in Ludlow Square and she stopped to chat to a beekeeper, who was selling honey. Something made her laugh and she turned to me still laughing and smiling and the shot was in the bag. I turned around and realised that the Royal Rota group had been moved on and I was left standing in front of the Queen on my own. I bowed my head, smiled and turned around and swiftly removed myself back to the Rota.
‘The photo was used on the front page of the Ludlow Advertiser and Hereford Times that week with the headline “QUEEN OF SMILES”. The paper’s picture editor later informed me that Clarence House had requested a copy of it. This image was shot with a Nikon D1 and a very battered Sigma 70-200mm lens I was using at the time.’
‘Another fond memory was when working at Royal Windsor show in 2009 as an event photographer. I was discreetly asked to go to a certain field as The Queen was going to be looking at some horses she was interested in. She arrived exactly to the minute I was told to be there and very quickly I found myself stood in front of The Queen with nothing but a 70-200mm lens on my Canon EOS-1D Mark III that I was using at the time between us.
‘She looked to me and said, “Good morning young man – you must be here to take photos of the horses.” I replied rather nervously that I indeed was. “Make sure you get their best side,” she said. I laughed with her and thanked her as she then turned and proceeded to look at the horses. I took some rather soft photos if I’m being honest (damn those Mark III continuous AF issues), but it was the only time I ever spoke to Her Majesty.’
Tim Graham first photographed The Queen over 50 years ago and spent decades covering the tours and state visits of the Royal Family in over 100 countries.
‘Having taken my first photograph of Queen Elizabeth II more than 50 years ago, it’s difficult to choose one favourite out of my many thousands of images. They range from formal – Her Majesty as Head of State wearing the Crown at the State Opening of Parliament – to very informal, like The Queen unnoticed by passers by as she strolled across rough ground in Windsor Great Park in a headscarf and clumpy brogue shoes.
‘My photograph of the nation’s most famous amateur photographer shows The Queen attending the Royal Windsor Horse Show in 1982 and using her Leica camera to photograph Prince Philip. She was watching her husband competing in an equestrian event in the grounds of Windsor Castle driving a carriage drawn by a team of her horses. It was shot on a Nikon F3 with a 300mm f/2.8 lens
‘Another favourite photograph of mine, for two reasons, is of The Queen and Prince Philip laughing together in the carriage procession following the Garter Service at Windsor Castle in 1994. First, it captures their togetherness and, secondly, it’s quite a difficult shot as the carriage is moving fast toward the camera. It was shot on a Nikon F4 with a 600mm f/4 [lens], long before autofocus became so good. One of my photographs of The Queen at the Garter Ceremony had been chosen for The Queen’s Christmas card a few years earlier.’