The Gold Edition Meets… *Millie Pilkington*
The Gold Edition Meets… *Millie Pilkington*

The Gold Edition Meets… Millie Pilkington

Millie Pilkington is one of Britain’s most prolific photographers – especially when it comes to portraiture. Famous for taking the private photographs of the Prince and Princess of Wales on their wedding day in April 2011, we sat down with her to talk big breaks, career highlights and what goes into making the perfect picture.

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Where did your love of photography start?    

My mother gave me a camera for my eighth birthday. It was a 110-instamatic camera, which I quickly became obsessed with, taking photos of almost anything that moved, albeit predominantly my dog and horse.  Then, when I was about 15, I upgraded to a Minolta SLR which is when my love of portraiture really started.  I loved taking portraits of my family and school friends. After my degree, I worked for about ten years as an account director in a brand design agency, but I was almost never without a camera, capturing candid photos at friends’ weddings and portraits of my nephews and nieces. When I got married in 2000, I decided I’d like to try doing photography as a full-time career. I retrained and started booking weddings and taking children’s portraits. By the time my first daughter was born, I had a semi decent portfolio and never looked back.   

Tell us a bit more about some of your early jobs…

My first jobs were predominantly photographing weddings and children’s portraits – all through word of mouth. Then, I offered to do front covers for a local family magazine called Families South West in exchange for free advertisements – and it was from one of these front covers that Carole Middleton spotted my work and booked me for a shoot for her company, Party Pieces.

Do you consider that your big break?  

Well, I’m not sure you can ask for a bigger break than being asked to capture the private wedding photographs for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding in April 2011. This was definitely a turning point in my career.

What can you tell us about that experience?   

If I had to describe it in three words, that day was surreal, magical and terrifying! And the most incredible honour – I still struggle to believe I was there. I started at The Goring hotel at 8am and, with the exception of Westminster Abbey, which I didn’t cover photographically, I was taking photographs throughout the day and night, finishing at the after party back at The Goring in the early hours. It was a long day that went by in flash – but the memories will last forever. 

I’m not sure you can ask for a BIGGER BREAK than being asked to capture the PRIVATE WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHS for the DUKE and DUCHESS of CAMBRIDGE'S WEDDING in April 2011.

You’ve also shot a lot of the royals when they’ve been out and about, right?

What people often forget is that they may be royal, but they’re also human beings like any of us. So, whereas you might expect them to be intimidating because of their titles and responsibilities, they are actually more humble, kind, thoughtful and approachable than many far less important people.   


Your work with Country Life is also prolific – what do you enjoy about working with the magazine?  

It was a magazine I had always wanted to work for and I approached them a few months after the Royal Wedding. I started out with their frontispiece portrait shoots and then gradually, over the years, they’ve sent me out on a variety of feature and portrait shoots. They are my most regular editorial client – so much so that the picture editor Lucy Ford has become a good friend, and I was the photographer for the editor Mark Hedge’s wedding last May. It has a real family feel, the team is great to work with and I love the variety of commissions – one day I can be rolling around in a field capturing livestock, the next taking a portrait of a celebrity or a member of the royal family.

Who would you say has been your biggest influence creatively speaking? 

Jane Bown, who worked for The Observer for about 60 years. She shot primarily in black and white, using natural or ambience light, and had an uncanny ability to capture the character and the moment within a compelling composition. Indeed, she wasn’t called ‘a kind of English Cartier-Bresson’ by Lord Snowdon for nothing. Be they candid snaps, such as her portrait of three Beetles fans or Cilla Black sipping tea, or even a close-up portrait of Mick Jagger laughing, her striking portraits all contain an honesty which I aspire to achieve in my portraiture.    

What do you think goes into taking a good photograph?   

First and foremost, it’s about having a good eye and then it comes down to technical know-how – the ability to previsualise a strong image, or to ‘see’ something interesting and be quick to capture it.   My best portraits are either pre-planned or just a stroke of luck – being in the right place at the right time and being quick. For the former, I will assess the location, previsualise the image I have in mind – taking into consideration light, colours, backdrop, best lens and camera settings to suit this end composition. When all this is in hand, I then try to create a moment so I can capture something ‘real’ within the perfect setting. In the latter, I’m just quick – be this with my professional cameras or my snapshot or even my iPhone.

Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Shutterstock


My best portraits are either PRE-PLANNED or just a STROKE OF LUCK – being in the RIGHT PLACE at the RIGHT TIME and BEING QUICK.

What are some mistakes you see people make when they’re taking photos?  

Using built in camera flash. Nine out of ten times it’s better to use natural or ambience light than a built-in camera or iPhone flash. Also, not thinking about the backdrop by moving a few steps to the side or getting higher or lower to frame the subject better. Lots of people place the subject in the centre of the frame – when it looks so much better placed slightly to one side or the other. The Rule of Thirds is probably one of the first and easiest composition tips to learn, i.e. not placing the horizon of a landscape in the centre, but in the top third or bottom third of the image – choosing sky or landscape to be the main feature. The same goes vertically – place your subject in the left third or right third of the image. If you split your image into thirds with horizontal lines and vertical lines, placing your subject at the intersection of these lines, it’s almost always favourable to putting them in the centre.

What equipment do you use? 

For my professional shoots, I have the new mirrorless Canon R5 and two R6s, and a large range of the corresponding RF lenses – the quality and speed to focus of these cameras has revolutionised my photography. I will often revert to these for private family photography as well but, when I’m on holiday, I often take a break from being ‘the photographer’ and just enjoy being on holiday with my family – in which case I’ll take my Sony RX vii, which is the best snapshot camera out there in my opinion. It’s really quick to focus and takes really sharp images, so it’s my ideal travel companion. Plus, it’s tiny so it fits in my handbag. 

What are some of your personal favourite pictures you’ve taken and why?   

That’s a tricky question to answer as I have favourites for different reasons – perhaps some of the private portraits I’ve taken of members of the royal family are ones I’m most proud of, and some of my work for Country Life, including portraits of Dame Judi Dench and Paul O’Grady. Personal favourites include portraits of my three daughters, Daisy, Grace and Flora.   

Do you have any tips for anyone looking to get started with photography?

I would suggest learning to ‘critique’ a photograph by studying other photographers’ work and assessing what they’ve done well or even badly, and guessing the light they may have used etc. Then, apply this same critique to your own work – what you’re pleased with, what didn’t work for you and why. What would you like to have done better if you took the same shot again? When I first started out as a photographer, I had this naïve confidence that all my work was brilliant. I just looked at what I had done well. This confidence was knocked out of me the minute I retrained – my tutor tore all my work to pieces! But he also taught me how to criticise my work and then improve it. To this day, I still find things I would like to have done better. I’m still learning and improving – in fact, the better I get, the more I realise I still have to learn.

Do SOMETHING YOU LOVE, and you will give it all the TIME, EFFORT and DETERMINATION to succeed.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?   

Do something you love, and you will give it all the time, effort and determination to succeed. I also love Dame Kate Bingham’s recent answer to the same question on a recent shoot I was doing for a Stonehage Fleming venture: “Always say yes.” It might be outside your comfort zone, but a new challenge is always good.   

Do you have your own life motto you live by?  

I have a life motto I try to live by and regularly fail by too. I have spent a lot of time in Spain, and I love the Spanish people’s ability to live for today and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Sure, sometimes they then come up short when tomorrow arrives, but the English are so busy worrying about tomorrow they often forget to enjoy today. My motto is to try and do a bit of both – I’m sure I veer more towards the English than the Spanish by nature, but I’m working on it…

Finally, if the house was on fire what’s the one picture you’d save?  

Probably one of my portraits I have taken of my three daughters for a Christmas card – it’ll have both sentimental and photographic value.  As to which one, that’s harder to say but possibly my latest one of the three of them in profile, or them doing the Ministry of Silly Walks, or the ‘vintage’ one of them in the hairdressers – all of which I love for different reasons.   


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