How Kate learnt to take the perfect family photograph

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The Duchess launched her own nationwide photography project in the midst of the pandemi called ‘Hold Still’ - Arthur Edwards - Pool/Getty Images
The Duchess launched her own nationwide photography project in the midst of the pandemi called ‘Hold Still’ - Arthur Edwards - Pool/Getty Images

When a young Kate Middleton agreed to marry the future King, she was signing on for many things, not least a lifetime in the spotlight. It wasn’t obvious from the footage in Westminster Abbey, but I wonder if “official royal photographer” was included in the marriage vows?

It might as well have been. Since the birth of her first child, Prince George, the Duchess of Cambridge seems to have taken on the role of the family’s resident photographer, capturing intimate moments and occasionally sharing the shots with the public on a birthday or another special occasion. There were the pictures of a little George cradling his new baby sister in 2015; the happy, candid snap of Prince Charles and the Duke of Cambridge wrapped up against the cold at Sandringham in three years ago; and, more recently, a never-before-seen photograph of the Duke of Edinburgh on one of his beloved horse-drawn carriages, his great-grandson sitting beside him, published after his death in 2021.

Today, a new photograph has been released of the Duchess of Cornwall, taken by the Duchess of Cambridge, at home in her garden at Ray Mill House in Wiltshire. Timed to celebrate her 75th birthday, the picture appears on the cover of a commemorative issue of Country Life (celebrating its 125th anniversary), which the Duchess has guest edited. It comes not long after a shoot she did for Vogue in which she looked, it’s fair to say, pretty regal. This latest shot may not be quite so stunning, its subject perhaps slightly less coiffed and posed, but it’s natural; she looks like the every-granny, smiling and relaxed, doing something she loves – pottering about her garden.

Country Life magazine - The Duchess of Cambridge/Country Life Magazine/Future Plc
Country Life magazine - The Duchess of Cambridge/Country Life Magazine/Future Plc

As PR strategies go, it’s a clever one. Take the pictures yourself and you can take them when you want, how you want and release them only when it’s convenient to you. You don’t have to put up with a stranger coming into your home, nor do you need to wrangle your children if they’re not playing ball and all sitting nicely for the shot (I seem to remember one tiny flower girl at the Sussexes’ wedding who was looking somewhere off-camera in every one of the professional pictures). Crucially, though, if you’re going to give yourself the task of taking pictures that will be shared around the world for years on end, you’ve got to be a relatively skilled photographer. So is she?

Catherine’s skill is her ability to capture a natural expression on her subjects’ faces, says Telegraph photographer Clara Molden, who photographed the Cambridges’ wedding in 2011. Take the picture of Princess Charlotte on her first day of nursery, for example, looking typically confident in a smart red coat on the steps. The composition might be a bit off, to an expert’s eye. “I would have preferred to put her slightly below the rail, so I would have come up a bit higher,” says Molden. “But what’s lovely about it is her face and the way she’s holding her foot in a funny little way. She just looks incredibly sweet and, for me, that expression is worth more than it being a perfect composition.”

A picture of her husband and father-in-law in the grounds at Sandringham at Christmas is similarly effective. It may not be the most brilliant picture technically, says Telegraph photographer Geoff Pugh, who has been photographing the Royal family for many years, “but the emotion in it and how off guard they are is just really charming. When do you see Prince Charles really natural like that? No one is going to get that who isn’t a member of the family. They’ve not prepped themselves. It’s not chin up, it’s just a lovely candid moment. And those woollen mittens…”

This is perhaps the beauty of having the Duchess of Cambridge take the family’s portraits rather than a professional – they are always going to be more relaxed with someone they know and trust. Take the picture released in 2020 on Prince William’s birthday, snapped in the grounds of Anmer Hall in Norfolk during lockdown. The children are haphazardly hanging off him on a swing; it isn’t the neatest shot, but it’s undeniably joyful. “It’s about a mood,” says Molden. “She gets that because she’s keeping it private within her family, and I think that’s really clever. That picture of them all on the swing: they are looking at her like they love her. And I think that is worth an awful lot in a photograph.”

“In a group shot, for no one to have funny eyes is really hard to do,” says Pugh. “You might take 20 pictures and get one and then someone’s expression or smile is going to be off, so she’s done a good job there. It’s a short telephoto lens which just puts the background gently out of focus, but you can still see where they are. They’re smiling for their mum, no one’s had to say ‘cheese’ to them. It’s just ‘time for a picture and here we go’.”

By having the Duchess behind the camera, the royal images are much more relaxed than any official photoshoot would be - Kensington Palace via Getty Images
By having the Duchess behind the camera, the royal images are much more relaxed than any official photoshoot would be - Kensington Palace via Getty Images

The Duchess, who uses a Fujifilm X-T3 digital camera (worth about £1,149), has been a keen photographer since she was a child. Her grandfather, Peter Middleton, used to show her his own photography slides and taught her to take pictures. An RAF and then commercial airline pilot, he died in 2010 at 90, just days before the Cambridges announced their engagement.

At university, she took her hobby one step further, writing a dissertation about the author Lewis Carroll’s photos of children. In her final year at St Andrews, Catherine wrote to the Lewis Carroll Society: “I am interested in looking at Carroll's representations of ‘the child’ and whether his photographs support or conflict our notions of childhood.”

She launched her own nationwide photography project in the midst of the pandemic. “Hold Still” encouraged people to share pictures that captured “a portrait of the nation”. One hundred made it into a book which the Duchess said portrayed “what everyone is going through at this time. Photographs reflecting resilience, bravery, kindness – all those things that people are experiencing.”

This year, she contributed three images of her children to an exhibition of royal photography at Kensington Palace, including one of Prince George in an England football shirt.

The Duchess uses a Fujifilm X-T3 digital camera which is worth about £1,149 - CHRIS JACKSON/AFP via Getty Images
The Duchess uses a Fujifilm X-T3 digital camera which is worth about £1,149 - CHRIS JACKSON/AFP via Getty Images

She seems to have a knack, experts say, for choosing the right backgrounds so that your focus is on the faces rather than being distracted by whatever is going on behind them. “In that picture of Charles and William, for example, the background and their coats are the same colour but that’s quite clever because what you look at is their faces,” says Molden. “If William was wearing a brightly coloured jacket, you’d look at that. It’s about drawing attention to the bit that matters.”

She seems to have a decent understanding of lighting too. “The pictures of Prince George with baby Charlotte, for example,” says Pugh. “It’s the soft lighting from the right side which puts beautiful light on George’s face.

“The baby isn’t looking at the camera but that’s almost impossible to do anyway. Her eyes are open, which is a winner, and they’re holding hands which just adds that intimate, familial touch.”

All that's left is to see how she’d fare photographing her husband's grandmother. Keep an eye out on the Queen’s next birthday – perhaps a Cambridge original could be on the cards.