Photographer Paul Ratcliffe Shares His Royal Encounters

A majority of the photographs seen by the public of the British royal family tend to come from events full of pomp and pageantry, such as the Trooping the Colour ceremony or a royal wedding. With the royal family as a whole carrying out over 2,000 engagements a year, the day-to-day work of the royals is often overlooked. In his new book Royal Encounters, photographer Paul Ratcliffe has captured the hard working side of the royal family carrying out their rounds of daily engagements.

Many of Ratcliffe’s photographs have never been seen before, providing a delightfully candid and fresh view of the world’s most famous royal family. Royal Encounters features of one-of-a-kind images and insightful anecdotes about the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and other members of the Windsor family. Spanning Ratcliffe’s 20 year career, his photographs and memories of the late Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana are especially touching and poignant. I especially enjoyed the many smiling pictures of the Queen, which show a more heartwarming and more joyful side of the Monarch.

Below author and royal photographer Paul Ratcliffe discusses his book, Royal Encounters, and shares insights about his life as a royal photographer.

Some of the earliest photographs in your book were taken when you were 16 years old. What made you want to become a royal photographer?
I can vividly remember going on my first royal visit at the age of eleven. Our local school was taken (with thousands of other children) to greet the Prince and Princess of Wales on a visit to a local park where they arrived by helicopter. Whilst the photograph I took was so fuzzy, it didn’t put me off!

I used to take a small camera that took 110 film (now quite obsolete), snapping away, and when I saw I got one great photograph, I wanted to get better ones. I used to then present the Royals with copies of the photographs I had taken, and hopefully they loved receiving them. Princess Diana was always so graceful, telling me she used to give her photos to the boys so they could remember who their mother is.  How poignant is that! Also, the Duchess of Kent used to always say what wonderful photographs I always took of her.

I am at my happiest with my camera, and in the digital world we now live in, the opportunities to take photographs and alter them has dramatically changed. I miss using negatives. There was so much anticipation: of the 36 photos I took on that roll of film, how many would turn out? Now you can instantly see the images you take on a memory card. A photographer’s life is so much easier!

I long admired the older royal photographers, such as Cecil Beaton, Lord Snowdon, Karsh of Ottawa, Marcus Adams, etc…Even Mario Testino, who was so famous for photographing Diana. The perception and image of royalty has altered from decade to decade. I love the PITKIN books of the 1950’s that covered the daily life of the royal family. A picture tells a story superbly!

Can you explain how your career evolved from photography to your photographs being used on commemorative items and postcards?
I first had a book of photographs published in 1993 by Robert Hale Publishers (that book shared the same name of my present book, Royal Encounters), and which led to opportunities to work with some companies. At that time the Royal Family were going through their annus horribilis stage and the interest in the Royals was more savage then it is now. I am really proud of all I have achieved, and hopefully there will be more opportunities yet to come.

Members of the Royal Family often asked royal photographer Paul Ratcliffe for personal copies of his photographs.

What were your favorite royal events to photograph and why?
I LOVE the Trooping the Colour ceremony, held annually in London every June to mark the Queen’s official birthday. Since I was a little boy, I loved seeing all the marching bands, and pomp and pageantry. Seeing all of the Royal’s go past in their horse drawn carriages, and then culminating with the traditional balcony appearance, with the Red Arrows and other aircraft flying over the Palace – makes you feel immensely proud.

I have also been present at many low-key royal visits, from the Duchess of York sitting astride a police motorbike and then helping serve on a supermarket checkout, to the Queen greeting the crowds on her 80th Birthday outside Windsor Castle. So many happy memories! I have been so lucky to have met and photographed so many Royals. Whenever I look back at my photographs it brings me immense pride and joy.

Who was your favorite royal to photograph? Why?
This is a difficult one! So many Royals were lovely to photograph. The Queen Mother was so wonderful – always ready with a smile and a wave. In her old age, she used the pauses to wave to the crowd to steady herself and it was a joy to photograph her. The same with the Princess of Wales. She loved the crowds, and that famous tilt of the head and smile were so special. It’s the same with William and Catherine – they are two naturals. William has his mother’s charm and humour. Catherine is a natural with the crowds. I met them both before their wedding in April last year and I can’t wait to see more of them!

Did you spend a lot of time waiting for royals to appear for their engagements? How did you and other royal photographers fill the time?
It’s amazing how much time you can spend waiting! The shortest has been a few minutes. I was heading for a visit by the Queen to Liverpool (famous for the Beatles) and found she still hadn’t left the first of her engagements, so she left that first engagement 3 minutes after I arrived.

I have been known to wait hours and hours. For example, Trooping the Colour, you get there at 9am, crowds have already built up, and the event ends at 1.15pm! With local visits it depends on the visiting Royal. For William ad Catherine’s pre-wedding visit, there were HUGE crowds in abysmal weather conditions, but that’s the joy of having a long lens camera. You can zoom in if you arrive too late for a front place. It’s amazing how time can pass so quickly, but hours of standing takes its toll on your back!

What is it about the royal family that you find compelling?
I was seven years old when at the end of the school term our teacher gave every pupil a poster. It was a lucky dip! The poster I picked was one of the Queen and Princess Margaret as little girls. It got me asking my parents questions, about who they were, their history, etc., and I was hooked. As I’ve mentioned before, I love the pomp and pageantry associated with Royalty, but I think the Royal Family are a unique family who have the ability to enchant so many others. I have seen even the most die-hard anti-royalist melt when the Queen or Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, walk past. That’s the magic of Royalty!

What are your thoughts on the paparazzi and their pursuit of the royal family?
I think in the UK the paparazzi have thankfully disappeared. I think their methods of getting images were totally distasteful, especially seen so much in the life of the Princess of Wales. She was hounded up until her death. Celebrity has always been about self-promotion, but when someone is off duty they have the right to remain anonymous and not have people chase them down a street or in a car for a picture. Things seem more controlled nowadays.

What are the biggest misconceptions about being a royal photographer?
When I tell people about which Royals I have seen or photographed, I suppose the first instinct is to ask ‘Do they know you?’ But it’s like anyone that you see a few times, you do become a familiar face. Royal photography can be compared to sports photography, I guess. You have to be quick, think about what opportunities there are, what’s the best place to stand and how warmly to dress. It’s not all glamorous! The next question is ‘you must be rich’ – sadly not – I reply I WISH!!

What do you want readers to get out of your book?
I hope they get a fresh insight into the lives of the British Royal Family, seeing them in informal settings and at formal events. I feel the Queen has the most amazing smile, and I hope people will see their normal side. I am so proud of my photographs and Royal Encounters only showcased a small selection from the thousands I have taken over the years. I hope they make people smile, and also bring back many memories of the Royals that are no longer with us.

What are your plans for the Diamond Jubilee? Will you be out with your camera?
Yes! I hope to be in London for the central part of the Jubilee weekend. I attended Golden Jubilee in 2002 and one of my fondest memories was seeing the Queen go past in the Gold State Coach whilst a choir sang ‘Zadok the Priest’. This year’s Diamond Jubilee will see the Queen and her family travel the globe. It looks to be a historic year, one to definitely enjoy and to say ‘God Save the Queen’!

Paul Ratcliffe’s book Royal Encounters is now available from www.amazon.com

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