“About 30% of getting a great picture is luck,” says Chris Jackson, who has been taking pictures of royalty for close to 14 years.
“Your pictures live on in history - if you get a good one.”
Two weeks before Prince William married Kate Middleton, Jackson scouted Westminster Abbey, making sure he knew where to stand and what lens he would need to get the right exposure on the bride’s dress as the couple walked out with billions of people watching.
He checked into a hotel next door, even though he only lives 20 minutes away. He was up from 2am on the day with nerves.
His employer Getty Images, which supplies images to major publishers around the world, had 30 photographers across London to shoot every moment.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW NEWS
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more
Technicians laid an ethernet cable that plugged Jackson’s camera to a team of editors across the road to broadcast his pictures as fast as possible to Getty’s clients.
He was in the right place: “They were looking straight at me.”
But luck couldn’t put him in two places at once. He regrets he could not snap the couple driving down the Mall in Prince Charles’ Aston Martin, covered in bunting.
“I’m a bit sad about that,” he sighs.
These two moments reflect the variety he says he loves. Jackson wants to combine the iconic, rehearsed moments with the spontaneity at the carefully-planned and closely-guarded events he captures. In the coming months ahead of another royal wedding, this time Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s, he will be especially busy attempting to do just that.
He is among the “official photographers”, as he refers to them at one point during our interview. Jackson photographs Britain’s Royal Family on tours and visits, not falling out of nightclubs.
You could almost mistake him for a royal. Well spoken, the 38-year-old is newly married to Kate Middleton’s stylist and his Instagram shows he is as much of a globetrotter as his subjects.
He once photographed Prince Harry visiting Nepal, then went straight to Kenya to follow Prince William on a tour that saw him fly rangers by helicopter as part of their anti-poaching mission.
He works to the royals’ timetable, not his own, and his work is closely tied to the Royal Family’s charities. He held an exhibition promoting the work of Prince Harry’s Sentebale, which helps impoverished children in Lesotho and Botswana, and produced a documentary about the prince’s Invictus Games.
He tells me the royals are “unique and powerful ambassadors for the country”.
This closeness to the royals and their issues can make him reluctant to go into detail interviewers relish probing for.
Before we sit down for our interview, I’m warned Jackson won’t discuss his personal relationship with them beyond his photography. Yes, he has seen The Crown, he doesn’t know if the royals have and thinks its set design is convincing. “No comment on the storyline,” he says.
He calls it a “real privilege” to be chosen to shoot Prince George’s fourth birthday portrait but won’t discuss what happened behind the scenes of the shoot at Kensington Palace.
When I ask if photography helps him to show the public the side of the royals he knows in private, he simply says “not really” and talks about his love of travel in Africa and taking pictures.
“Being a photographer is the most honest thing you can do... I try and create an honest archive of the Royal Family,” he says. “An honest and unique archive.”
His interest in photography began in his student flat at Cardiff University, which had a dark room. He soon had a sideline developing photos. After graduating, he did work experience for photography agencies before getting a job at Getty, one of the world’s best known photo agencies.
Jackson shies away from broader questions about his work but opens up as we talk about the photos he is proudest of.
Over the years, he has learned to scout venues ahead of time to know where to stand and has come to anticipate the type of person each royal tends to speak to. But luck is always part of it.
The Queen, whom Jackson tends to photograph in more formal settings, offers him the best chance of taking the historic picture he yearns for. But she can make it tough.
“She’s not always smiling. In fact, you can go a whole event where she’s not smiling,” he says. “She doesn’t always make it easy for you. But I like that.”
Jackson felt the buzz of anticipation when the Queen walked into a shaft of natural light during a visit to a school in Wales just as, luckily, she was smiling.
Prince Harry presents a different challenge.
Jackson says: “He’s a big hugger, wherever he goes. He’s always very touchy feely... You have to be quick off the draw to capture those... They’re all wonderful and lovely but you do have to be able to see people’s faces a bit.” Harry, like his father, has an “expressive face”, the photographer adds.
The four-year-old George, still immune to royal protocol, is a source of many impromptu moments.
Photo editors on the newspapers that publish his pictures don’t always share his eye.
At the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, Jackson took a series of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, illuminated by light through a clock face as they looked over the Seine.
He gets annoyed when publications use the image in which the Duchess is facing straight ahead, rather than the one where she faces left as the Duke looks on.
“It’s very subtle... She turned around slightly so she’s exactly between the spokes. For me, that makes all the difference.”
At least at Getty, Jackson is the one editing the pictures to send out to the media and put in Getty’s 80-million picture archive to “document the story” of royal engagements.
But the days Jackson documents are still only the ones where the royals invite publicity. What does he say to those who say he’s a stenographer, dutifully recording only what they want the world to see?
He ums, ers and fidgets with his pen while thinking, before saying: “They put the events in the diary that they want to do. They’re in control of that event and I just record that moment.
“People can have whatever opinion they want I suppose. I just record what’s in front of me.”
As we look over his photos, he describes his love of unexpected moments that no one foresees or controls.
Jackson was photographing the Queen at the Royal Albert Hall in her first public appearance after a BBC error triggered a scare over her health.
He pictured the Queen, her daughter Princess Anne and her daughter-in-law The Countess of Wessex all laughing as they cut a cake celebrating the centenary of the Women’s Institute.
“When you say ‘you photograph these moments that are scripted’ - this isn’t a moment that’s been scripted by the Royal Family.
“It’s something that’s happened very naturally, a family moment. She’s having a laugh here.”
He says he has never not used a photo for fear it would upset the royals. After more fidgeting with the pen, he interrupts a follow-up to say: “There are times when you put the camera down.”
Jackson remembers an event at a hospital with Prince Charles visiting cancer patients, when the prince entered one ward where patients were so ill, Jackson felt intrusive taking photos.
“It wasn’t going to produce an image that told the story any better,” he says, shaking his head.
He didn’t stop shooting when the Duchess of Cambridge she walked alone through a war cemetery in Singapore.
In a sombre moment, Jackson notes, “You could’ve put the camera down.” He didn’t. As she walked away, she turned to look at the graves and Jackson took the photo.
There are much more sombre moments in his archive. The Queen, 91, did not lay a wreath at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday last year for the first time ever, letting Charles lay it for her.
Jackson photographed her looking on, showing emotion with typical understatement.
“Quite often, you’ll find photos where they’re clearly not shedding a tear or crying but they might touch their eye... and people say ‘Oh, a member of the Royal Family is crying’,” Jackson says.
“But at that moment, you did sense there really was a moment of passing the baton on. She did look a bit sad.”
That photo was weeks after he photographed “the beginning of a new era”, as he calls it when Meghan Markle made an unscheduled appearance at the Invictus Games, the first time she was pictured with Prince Harry at an official engagement.
“We obviously knew they were an item but not officially,” he says. Paparazzi had already pictured them together, he adds. The actions of paparazzi is another subject I was warned off asking about during our interview.
Does he think he is creating a better record of the royals than rival photographers who operate beyond their sanction? Is an official photographer’s archive of them better than the paparazzi’s?
“Er,” he says, looking awkwardly at the press officer. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe come back to that question,” the press officer suggests.
“I’m creating a library, a record of the British Royal Family, in the best way I can, of their events,” Jackson adds.
Another of their biggest events is on the way.
There’s a lot to think about ahead of the next Royal Wedding in May. Another carriage ride, balcony appearance and emergence from St George’s Chapel in Windsor will all need photographing from every angle.
Given the choice, Jackson says he would want to shoot the newly weds as they first emerge after the service, just as he did at Harry’s older brother’s wedding.
Crowds and cordons will make it just as hard to move around Windsor on the day as it was at Westminster Abbey.
Jackson will have to pick the best spot to stand to get the shot he wants, wait for the couple to come out and “hope I’ve got a bit of a stroke of luck as well”.