KARWAI TANG – FREELANCE PRESS PHOTOGRAPHER
Published 13th Mar 2017
Karwai Tang’s eye for an image has led to multiple awards and regular stints capturing the royals – most recently William and Kate in Canada, with the new flagship D5.
Working in the highly pressurised world of press photography for the last 25 years, and a Nikon man all his photographic life, Karwai Tang has won numerous awards for his images, including Royal Photographer of the Year in 2003 and 2006, and BA Olympics News Photographer of the Year 2012 for his split-second timed shot of William and Kate hugging and kissing in the Olympic Velodrome to celebrate Sir Chris Hoy clinching gold in the Keirin. His work takes him all over the world covering high-profile events from sports to the Oscars, Cannes and the Venice Film Festival, as well as royal photography – including the recent eight-day tour of Canada, as he explains…
This was actually my first major royal tour in seven years, since I went to photograph Prince Harry in New York in 2009, and it went really well – it couldn't have gone any better, in fact. I was shooting primarily for the Metro newspaper in London, and I got good coverage, including a few front covers. And I've always wanted to go to Canada, so it was the perfect recipe – taking prop planes to little towns you'd never find on your own, and getting great shots. The press were out there for ten days, and we worked quite long hours, with lots of early starts and late nights, and then of course when you get back to your hotel room you have to edit your pictures. They weren't the longest hours I've ever worked, but it was still hard work, especially with all the travelling.
There were lots of little pictures that I thought were nice, particularly Prince George laughing and looking into the camera – that made the front page. Then there was the last shot at the official departure, just before the royals got on the seaplane at Victoria Harbour Airport, prior to flying back home. They were all standing together, waving to the public, but the fixed points we'd been allocated as press weren't great, so we took our chances and stood with the crowd instead, and it worked – I got the shot I'd been banking on, of them all waving. I also got some after they'd boarded, of Prince George pushing his nose up against the window and Prince William waving behind him.
Travelling to the remote Haida Gwaii archipelago off the coast of British Columbia was also really interesting. The press pool had to be at the media hotel for pick-up at 5.10am, and we were flown out there in two C-130 Hercules cargo planes – these are huge, with seats made from nylon webbing strapped to metal benches, so it was quite a nerve-racking flight, but I enjoyed every minute of the day.
I borrowed the D5 from Nikon, and used it with the new 200-500mm f/5.6. It's more of a consumer lens, but it's so good I used it for most of my shots. It's an amazing lens – so sharp through the range, and very flexible, which means you don't have to lug around as much kit. It's great having just one lens that covers so much range as well as the 200-500mm does, and at such a decent price, too.
The D5 is amazing. You imagine it's going to be a small jump up from the D4S but it's huge. It's everything – colour, speed of focus, focus points, ISO range – it's like a completely new start. I've been using the D4S for the last two years and I love it, but the goalposts have moved with the D5. With the D4S the images were great and only needed a slight tweak in post production, but with the D5 I really don't need to bother as the colours are so good. Nikon cameras just get better and better. I've now got two D5s on the way; I'm just waiting for them to land!
Probably 90% of my work is entertainment and portraiture, so my go-to lenses are the 70-200mm f/2.8 and the new 300mm f/4E. I also have the new 24-70mm f/2.8, and the 24-120mm f/4 – again, it's so good for a consumer lens. The 1.4x converter is really nice, too. I do sometimes think of getting a couple of longer lenses, but it's not really worth it as I'd probably only use them once or twice a month.
When I was 16 I had darkroom lessons at school, and that got me interested. By 17 I was out shooting the odd job, and I photographed the Queen Mother's 90th birthday from the back of the press pen. I entered one of the pictures into a competition, and it was selected by Lord Litchfield for the front cover of his hardback book on the Queen Mother, which was a real kick-start into my professional career. I did get a place at college, but an agency job came up at the same time, and I decided to go for it, so I basically learned everything on the job. My first camera was a Nikon F301, and I went digital with the D1, then got the D1X, the D2X, the D3, the D800, the D4, the D4S and now the D5.
All the work is very seasonal – it's the awards season from January to March, then it goes fairly quiet from June to August, then picks up in September, with things like the London Film Festival. In London on a good week you'll get on average one or two premieres to cover. There are a lot of royal events, too: later this week I'm off to the Netherlands to photograph Kate on her first solo engagement, while today I photographed William, Kate and Harry, who were at the London Eye supporting World Mental Health Day.
I've been freelance since 2013 and it's going really well. I don't regret going freelance for a moment. Being your own boss, not having people telling you what to do or when you work… my 'office' is everywhere, and no two days are ever the same. And I love having the freedom to do the school run for my daughter; it's so important to spend time with your family.
I love my job. Yes, it's a tough market, and no, it's not glamorous – it's a lot of hard work, and when you're waiting for hours in the cold and wet to get your shot, it doesn't feel like fun – but I still get a buzz out of getting a good shot and seeing my pictures in the papers.