After many hours of thought, concern and general fizz, the day of the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was quite definitely the biggest rollercoaster that I’ve ever been on. Thirty six hours after the day ended, I’m just starting to get a clear idea of how the day went.

The problem with this job is that a photographer puts so much time, effort and emotion into capturing a high-profile event that it becomes truly mentally exhausting. To an outsider, it may simply look as though I turn up and click the shutter a few times and head home for tea, but there really is so much more to it than that.

The day started at 5am with a taxi to the Queen Victoria Memorial, opposite Buckingham Palace. With the streets closing at 6am, it was important to get through the traffic and be slotted into position before the chaos began. Thanks to a stroke of luck with the positions, I managed to get a really strong spot to shoot from, so simply had pass the seven hours away with getting my gear set up. AFP had arranged for me to have a fast network cable to my position so, combined with Nikon’s WT-4, I could transmit my images straight from my camera as the kiss was actually happening.

Thankfully, the staff provided us a chance to see just how much of a throw this would be when they came to set up the balcony drapes. As you can see from the pictures, the shot below is the area between the two columns in the centre of the frame above. That’s quite a distance.

A downside of drawing the central position was that I was “trapped” within a mass of tripods, bags, cables and sandwich boxes so was unable to shoot many feature shots throughout the morning. This only added to my apprehension as I had nothing to distract me other than wondering about my camera configuration. As I’ve previously mentioned in rule 2 here, the longer a photographer has to wait for an event to occur, the more he or she will begin to doubt their kit choices. This results in a near-constant swapping of converters, lenses, clamps, cables or camera bodies.

With the use of a helpfully placed PA system, the photographers on the stand could hear the BBC’s coverage of the event, so we had an idea of when to expect our first view of the newlyweds. Thanks to a combination of the commentary and the roar of the crowds as they came down the Mall, I knew when to wrestle my way out of the pack and round onto the corner to get a shot of the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge arriving at Buckingham Palace for the first time. As a colleague later pointed out to me, of the two “footmen” on the back of their carriage, one is an actual footman and one is a close protection officer, ready to dive in front of a miscreant’s bullet at a moments notice. Can you guess which is which? ;)

Once safely inside, the police began to slowly filter the public out from behind their security fencing and along the Mall. With the possibility of a crush or stampede, the sheer volume of tens of thousands of royal supporters and tourists were thankfully held back by a thin blue line of police.

With the public in position, the time had come. After weeks of planning, meetings, equipment tests, logistical headaches and sleepless nights, it was the moment to see if it had all been worth it.

With a twitch of the curtains and a cheer from the crowds below, William and Catherine were there on the balcony. With my final decision being to opt for a Nikon D3x, I had to watch my shooting speed as the buffer fills up VERY quickly and takes an absolute eternity to clear. All around me, photographers who had opted for lower resolution, but higher speed cameras, rattled through their shots at nine frames per second. Being used to that kind of speed myself, the urge to gun it and hose them down as soon as they appeared was immense but I forced myself to shoot single frames at what I hoped would be the key moments.

Then, there it was; the kiss. After noticing an earlier look from Kate towards William that had been met by a whispered “No, wait a while longer”, he turned to her and they kissed. The crowds cheered, the cameras exploded into action and the adrenaline surged.

After what seemed like ages (but looking at it afterwards, was really quite fast), they separated. I quickly hit the transmit button on my camera and returned to shooting. Following a fly-past by a variety of aircraft that I didn’t even look up to see, a second kiss came.

With more cheers from the crowd and a final wave, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge turned and with a final look over her shoulder, they walked into the Palace and the doors closed.

I immediately scrolled through my frames and selected the kiss pictures and hit transmit again. By this point, four or five of my shots had left the camera and were back with the editors in London’s Centre Point. Relieved to have caught the moment, I phoned back to the office to check that they were seeing the frames. “Did you get the second kiss?”, I was asked. On telling them that I had and it was coming shortly, I was told that they needed them fast as the first pictures of the kiss were soft. It was round about now that my heart just crumpled. The problem with the WT-4 system of transmitting pictures is that I don’t get to see them or work on them at all; what I shoot is what the editors see with no chance to check my production or tweak the pictures in any way. While everyone else was sat around me discussing their shots, I was just left standing there in shock.

The next fifteen minutes were possibly the longest in my life. As the frames slowly dropped down the line to the office, I could only sit and work out what had just happened. Had I screwed up? Was it the set-up? Was it the heat haze? Were the second kiss pictures any better? Slowly, as the other photographers around me filed their frames, the phones started to ring and suddenly I was noticing that they were all saying a very similar thing. It seemed that a combination of the heat, the pollen in the air and the distance had caused trouble for everyone. With those people shooting on higher burst-rate cameras having more to choose from, they could pick their choices a little easier but we were all suffering.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge drive to Clarence House

Even with the knowledge that nearly everyone was in the same boat, I can’t begin to describe how low I was feeling. After such a huge amount of effort and time in getting the pictures, to hear that things weren’t perfect was heavy blow. It seems odd to admit this but it’s only a few days later that I’ve come to look through the raw NEF images and can see that the photos are actually pretty good but, at that moment, I hadn’t had chance to sit down and properly look through them. With no chance to check my output, the day continued with comings and goings from the Palace and lots of running around, laden with satellite phones, long lenses and tripods. It was well into the evening when I finally got into the office and saw the frames. It was a hell of a relief to see the results. With the situation magnifying itself in my mind over the afternoon and evening, I’d imagined the shots to be seriously ropey but in the end, a bit of considerate editing with the haze being taken into account had produced a decent set. This job really is not good for people who can’t handle stress.

Now this may seem like an odd post but I don’t want this blog to live up to it’s title of being just another “vanity project”. This job provided some real highs and some incredible lows but three days later, I can stand back from the heightened emotions and pressure of the day and see that I actually ended up getting the shot after all. The image of “The Frowning Flowergirl” Grace Van Cutsem covering her ears as the couple kissed has done very well, and other moments have made front pages in various countries around the world. As I said in the opening to this post, the photographer can get so unbelievably attached to an assignment that it will always have the potential to leave them feeling less than chipper. Combining this close emotional bond to the work, with the fact that the job itself is so full of variables and unpredictable events, means that I’m sure this won’t be the last time in my career that I get side-swiped by a job. Thankfully, the years have taught me that every dip has a peak waiting at the other end. Bring on the rollercoaster!

43 Responses to “This just might be a one shot deal…”

  1. Amazing work as ever!!

    I was editing and keeping one eye on the tv… I did try and spot you but alas some old bird in a white dress was hogging the cameras!

    Posted by Lee Allen
  2. As ever a fascinating insight into the hard work behind the pictures. And a fine set they are too – job well done. :)

    Posted by Mark
  3. kicked ass :)

    Posted by Emma Case
  4. Fabulous insight to a fantastic day, see some made it to big picture too. Well done

    Posted by Paul thurlow
  5. I’m biased of course, but I thought he did brilliantly.

    Posted by Kirsten Mavric
  6. Congratulations Leon. I can’t imagine the amount of pressure you were under, in those circumstances and how much depended on so few frames.

    A great insight, once again, into a side of the event so few can really appreciate.

    Posted by Jonathan Yearsley
  7. A great bit of work as always (photos and the blog in case you were wondering!) It’s really interesting to get a bit of the behind the camera detail.

    Posted by Ben Armstrong
  8. Fantastic set of shots, I don’t think many right minded people would envy you being out on the QVM. I sure as hell don’t!

    Posted by James
  9. Your bog should be required reading for every wannabe pro out there to see just what it takes to get some of the most jaw dropping images we see in media today!!
    In many ways its the photography industry masterclass….keep it up !!

    Posted by Keith Last
  10. As Kate gave that look over the shoulder on leaving the balcony, I gave a thought to you, wondering if you got that. I shouldn’t have ‘wondered’! Very nice work as always, love the kerb shot. Not sure about the last one though :)

    Posted by Jools
  11. What a fascinating insight into the day and the emotion invested into the job of press photographer at such a huge event. Excellent photos and I will be checking out your other blog posts too.

    Posted by Sarah
  12. Thank you for showing us behind the scenes and for the insight into what you went through on the day. I can only imagine how high the stress levels would be at an event like this – well done for getting such great shots. I take my hat off to you!

    Posted by Eleanor Gannon
  13. The last look one is utterly gorgeous! You must be so proud to come away with these pictures.

    Posted by Tracy
  14. Excellent work and a pleasure to read your blog…. seemed like a tough day but loving what you captured

    Suzanne

    Posted by Suzanne Kentish
  15. I am so glad it all ended well; some very fine shots indeed.

    Posted by Bernice Neal
  16. Fantastic shots – you were in the perfect spot. I can’t imagine, you used single shooting. Big respect

    Posted by lukas
  17. Great stuff. Loved the shot of the guard on the back of the carriage.

    I can’t believe how long you had to stand around in one spot. I think I would have been seriously loopy by the time they came out on the balcony, and then the stress of getting the ‘kiss shot’ would have done me in.

    I also thought of you at the moment Kate looked back, it was a great look. I’m no royalist but she has a winning smile. Her sister’s not bad either…

    Posted by Miles
  18. Well done Leon. Astounding stuff. My heart went faster just reading your account – if I’d have actually been in your shoes I think I would have exploded/collapsed into a gibbering, rocking mess/run away!! I’m very proud of you, bro! :oD

    Posted by Beth
  19. I like the footman ‘who’s who?’ dilemma, by the way. Hmmm…?

    Posted by Beth
  20. Fantastic insight, I’d been looking forward to this blog entry before the wedding had even happened, excellent stuff.

    Posted by Ben Davis
  21. Fascinating article, great pics. What a day!
    On that last pic, coulda used a Panasonic TZ20 compact, has a 24-300mm lens and fits in a pocket…. ;)
    Seriously, why can’t/doesn’t Nikon make a fully pro D300 size camera? Surely can be done. I remember when a simple, little FM2 and MD12, did the job.

    Posted by Andrewhiggins1
  22. excellent work!
    i recently “discovered” your blog after browsing in your flickr stream since long time…
    amazing stuff as always.

    Posted by Paolo Manzi
  23. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: when I grow up, I’m going to be Leon Neal! Outstanding shots, My liege. Thanks also for the previous blog about the gear and set up. Oh, and thanks for pointing this out: (Paraphrasing: ‘As simple as clicking the shutter a couple of times and heading home for tea’. The worst culprits who have that mindset who ought to know better are journalists!

    Good work, my liege. We still have to meet for lunch!

    Posted by pixgremlin
  24. Great job Leon, congrats. Quite a privilege to be so intimately involved in documenting an(other!) great historic moment – both in our national press and on your blog! Fantastic post.

    Posted by Richard
  25. Beautiful images – enthralling insights! x

    Posted by petra
  26. Really gripping read Leon!

    Posted by Will Strange
  27. Fantastic images and post. Sounds terribly hectic, but you’ve got some classic shots there. Apart from THE image on the balcony, I also like the kid in the crowd and the one with the car in particular. Although I do feel sorry for your back after seeing the last image…

    Posted by Michal
  28. Can you describe (PM message on twitter) focusing settings with 2 cameras? Are you prefocused? Thanks a lot.

    Posted by lukas
  29. OMG you must have been exhausted, but you nailed it good and then some. Congratulations.

    Posted by Juliet McKee
  30. Really enjoyed reading your account of the day and the back story of all that it entailed to get that kiss shot. The images are great, really great – thanks for sharing

    Posted by Catherine
  31. Terrific job. Saw the spread in the Sunday Times – pointed it out to people saying “I know him! I know him!”

    Very well done. Historic stuff :)

    Posted by Liz
  32. Compelled to leave a comment this time – this is awesome, and so is your blog. The amount of planning and preparation which is going into these pictures is amazing. I would like to know the shutter time to preparation ratio.

    Thanks for these great insights.

    Posted by Arend
  33. These are a fantastic set of photos from a superb day. When I was watching the coverage on the TV I anticipated the look over the shoulder from Kate on her way back in from the balcony as being one of the photos of the day. Glad you captured it but I didn’t see it in the papers. Surely you should get a knighthood for services to photography now?

    Posted by Smon
  34. Thanks so much for all of your exceptionally kind words and comments. It makes the trauma worthwhile. Well, almost. ;)

    In answering some of the questions asked, I’ll try to point them in the right direction.

    @Lee – Tell me about it. It was “Kate this… Catherine that…” Anyone would have thought it was HER day!

    @Jonathan Yearsley – Thanks Jonathan. That’s what I try to set out to do with these blogs. It’s so easy to simply write about either where you’ve been or what kit you used but I really try to make it interesting for anyone that stumbles across it. I’m glad this one seems to have hit the right balance.

    @James – It was one of those options where I was all for it at first then, as the logistics became clearer, started to wonder if a nice day of features could have been a little more relaxing!

    @Keith – Ah man, that’s ridiculously kind but I think I’d turn more people off the idea than encourage them, depending on what the day’s weather and assignments were like. :) As for the required reading, I agree entirely. Spread the word… ;)

    @Jools – You mean I’m not quite as glamorous? How very dare you…

    @Sarah – Thanks for checking the blog out. I hope I can keep up the interest levels.

    @Tracy – As I explained above, it took a day or so to “decompress” before I got a chance to look at the pics and, in the end, I’m actually quite pleased with what I got. The problem is that after a month or so of planning, you can’t settle for anything less than perfect in an imperfect situation. It’s a recipe for disaster.

    @Bernice – Cheers Ma!

    @Lukas – Thanks but generations before the current one shot on single frame and caught every timeless frame you remember today. It’s only us current photographers that have become lazy. ;)

    @Miles – If you were ever to spend a reasonable length of time on a job, you’ll understand where the conversation comes from. It’s a hybrid of cabin fever, insanity and utter drivel. Some how it manages to work though and generally gets us through the hours! As for Pippa, I couldn’t possibly say. ;)

    @Beth – It is a teaser, isn’t it? :) I’m glad I managed to capture the stress in some way. It wouldn’t have been the same to write it in a straight forward manner. The next Jason Bourne will be a photographer, I tells ya…

    @Ben – Haha! Oddly enough, most of the bunting that was visible ont he streets of England wasn’t for the wedding but for the upcoming publication of this post.

    @Andrew – If only. The sheer bulk of gear that we have to carry certainly keeps my osteopath in business though.

    @Paolo – Thanks, bud. Welcome to the rambling nonsense.

    @PixGremlin – Maybe now this is all over, we can actually get that lunch!

    @Lukas – The 3LeggedThing tripod system held a 300mm f2.8 Nikon lens that was manually pre-focused to the balcony and a 600mm f4 Nikon lens with a 1.4x converter that was free-moving on a ball joint and set to autofocus so that I could follow the couple around the balcony if they moved. The pocketwizard automatically fired the fixed 300mm every time I triggered the longer lens. I hope that clears that up for you.

    @Liz – Eeeh, you make a grand cheerleader! :)

    @Arend – Wow, that’s a concept! Shutter time to preparation time? Sheesh… I think if I actually work that out, I may break down! I’ll need to sit in a darkened room with a chalkboard and an emergency maths teacher to begin on that one.

    @Simon – I know, you’d think they’d realise who they had on their doorstep, wouldn’t you? Tch! These Royals…

    Posted by tabascokid
  35. Excellent blog. Cracking Pictures. The shot of Kate looking back is absolutely brilliant.

    I was fighting my way through the crowds on the day with my camera gear and got caught in a near Hillsborough moment with the barriers at the LHS end of the Mall before the barriers gave way as everyone was surging into the main area. By then the area was jammed and you could not move anywhere.

    One thing people don’t mention is that you need strong bladder control when you can’t get out of an area because you are surrounded by millions of people.

    Posted by Craig Shepheard
  36. Leon,

    This article on the Royal Wedding is great. Fantastic to understand what goes on behind the scenes on such a big and important shoot. I was particularly interested to see whether anyone got the glance behind. You did and you nailed it. Keep up the good work.

    Posted by Stephen
  37. Utterly fabulous Leon. Reading through that I felt like I was in the seat behind you on that rollercoaster! The pictures are fantastic, you’ve recorded a serious piece of history there. I will be sharing this – it deserves to be seen! Well done!

    Posted by Tom
  38. @Craig – Yeah, that’s one of the early lessons in press photography; drinking is for masochists. ;)

    @Stephen – Thanks bud.

    @Tom – That was the plan so sounds like I managed to get the right feel to the piece. Thanks for sharing!

    Posted by tabascokid
  39. the bodyguard is the one padded out with the bullet proof vest and looks like a copper. ( ie the one not wearing glasses) … great job leon. well done…

    Posted by paul k
  40. The kiss! You got the shot! :)

    I love the black and white pictures, especially the one of Kate looking over her shoulder as they walk back into the palace. Great smile shot! I think we always judge ourselves a lot harder the first time we look at something we create. Then after time, when you look back at your work you see that it was a lot better than what you first thought.

    Posted by Fiori
  41. Dude,

    This post is in the ‘saved’ bookmarks and i keep referring back to it. I was shooting a wedding on this day in Italy and never experienced it on tv but just afterwards through looking at the images and how the day unfold from the newspaper.

    Anyway, looking back on the post again and again, I think time defines what you have achieved through some brilliant shots. Who cares about the equipment and techy stuff your work ooooozzzes emotion, passion and excitement.

    Thank you!

    Posted by James Cannon
  42. @Paul K – Well spotted. I’ll present you with the medal when we next catch up! :)

    @Fiori – Cheers, m’dears!

    @James – Thanks James. That’s a great thing to say. I was just thinking about this whole experience the other day actually and it’s fantastic to know that people are still reading about it here. Hope your Italian wedding went smoothly!

    Posted by tabascokid
  43. Yup, highest-res and crop – so often the right choice. The flower girl will surely stand the test of time.

    Posted by Sandeha Lynch

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