Master Builder

Understanding the industry he covers gives Randy Van Duinen a solid foundation

From the moment he first picked up a camera, Randy Van Duinen, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, wanted to photograph architecture. His early pictures highlighted buildings and architectural lines, and he demonstrated an aptitude for portraying different types of spaces.

That aptitude led to a job in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, studio that specialized in photographing office furniture. On large-scale, custom-built sets, Van Duinen learned the intricacies of interior lighting and composition. His next career step was with an architectural photographer in Southern California, where he began as a studio manager before working his way into an associate photographer role. Van Duinen studied the art of architectural photography in great detail and also learned invaluable skills related to the business, including managing a studio, compiling bids, and negotiating contracts and usage rights.

After four years in Southern California, Van Duinen moved north and hung a shingle in San Francisco. Launching a business was a full-time exercise in networking, marketing, assisting established photographers, and perhaps most important, joining local builder and architectural organizations. “To succeed in this field, you need to be part of the group,” says Van Duinen. “Participation in groups for architects, builders, construction companies, and furniture makers is still a big part of my business today.”

© Randy Van Duinen

After the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s, building in San Francisco effectively went on hiatus. Since architectural photography is closely related to the building industry, business for Van Duinen slumped. He took that opportunity to relocate to Tampa, Florida, and make a new start. Since then, business has prospered, and Van Duinen even launched a series of landscape photography workshops in addition to his main photography business. His clients are architectural firms, interior design firms, and builders as well as the marketing agencies that represent them and the magazines that cover them.

Lighting the way

Lighting is one of the most challenging elements of architectural photography, both for interiors and exteriors. It’s also one of the elements that separates successful practitioners from the legions of also-rans. As complicated as architectural lighting schemes can get, Van Duinen tries to keep it simple. He prefers tungsten lighting for the control and variety he can achieve. It’s also affordable: An entire kit of tungsten lights can be had for the price of one strobe.

Residential and commercial buildings require different lighting schemes. For residential shoots, photographers typically bring their own lighting. Commercial properties usually have professional lighting in place for both interior and exterior spaces, and the photographer’s lighting is just a supplement to the existing illumination.

What can complicate residential shoots is the frequent client request for a twilight shot of the exterior. Many architectural photographers attempt to create these images without any additional lighting, trusting nature’s “magic” or “golden” hour shortly after sunrise or before sunset to illuminate the building beautifully. Van Duinen considers this a mistake in most cases. “The ambient light may be good, but that doesn’t mean you’re showing the building in the best light,” he explains. “There could be dark shadows masking part of the structure, and you run out of good light very quickly.”

© Randy Van Duinen

To guarantee a better-lit subject, Van Duinen brings at least three 1,000-watt lights to shine on the exterior of the building, plus several 250-watt lights to potlight specific architectural features. In addition, he adds small clamp lights inside the windows to bring out some illumination from within. This makes the house appear bright and welcoming as opposed to dark and foreboding. Van Duinen then makes at least three exposures: one early exposure with more ambient light from the sky, another with the deeper purple hues as the sun goes down, and a third with a darker sky and limited ambient light. Clients often choose the middle exposure, but having all three gives Van Duinen more options to create a variety of looks and apply different effects in post-processing.

Van Duinen also does a lot of light painting. Using big flashlights anyone could buy at a hardware store, he strategically lights the exteriors of buildings by passing over them with the flashlights during many long exposures. “If you don’t have all the expensive lighting equipment, a technique like light painting can go a long way,” he says. “You can get some great results with lights that might only cost about $35 or $40. And it opens up more opportunities to travel longer distances to jobs without needing to carry a ton of lighting gear.”

© Randy Van Duinen


Van Duinen’s capture and enhancement process begins with getting the image as accurate as possible in camera. He shoots with his camera tethered to a laptop so clients can watch his work in real time and give feedback on-site. Once he’s gotten the primary capture nearly perfect, Van Duinen then ups the ante with a set of enhancements in Photoshop and Lightroom to take things to the next level for his discerning clients. “I take out light switches, fire extinguishers, sprinklers on the ceiling, and other items that may seem completely normal but that aren’t part of the optimal view of a space,” he says. “That work is one of the things that sets me apart from many of my competitors. And it makes a difference. The clients notice it and appreciate it.”

This work is part of a larger understanding of his clientele that’s critical to success in this specialty. Architectural clients are often very technical people. They look at things in specific ways, and they often have different priorities for photographs beyond merely showing an interesting building. They may want to highlight features of the building for a marketing piece or document infrastructure items for their records. “Good architectural photography is not as simple as just taking a photograph,” says Van Duinen. “You need to account for the client’s perspective and what they need from the images.”

To get a better sense of this perspective, Van Duinen recommends walking a job site with the client before the actual shoot. Most clients in this field have an idea of what they want to show, usually related to criteria that they had to meet on the job—problems they solved, innovations they put in place, or unique qualities of the building. “Ultimately, you are helping your client tell a story about the building,” says Van Duinen. “Your pictures have to tell that story. Doing a walk-through helps familiarize you with that story. It also tells you what you need to bring to the actual shoot in terms of lighting, gear, and assistants.”

Beyond those specifics, it’s critical to keep up with the broader trends in the industry and what different types of clients typically want. For example, magazines tend to want tighter shots that can fit in an article layout. Architects often want wider shots that show a complete view of the building. “If you can put all these together—the specific client preferences, the industry trends, particular needs of each shoot—then you are well on your way to success,” says Van Duinen.

RELATED: See a gallery of images by Randy Van Duinen.

Jeff Kent is the Professional Photographer editor-at-large.