How I Photographed the Strahov Monastery Library
by Randy Van Duinen
During high school, my dream was to become an architect. But after picking up my grandfather’s old Argus rangefinder camera, I realized that I wanted to take photos instead. That fascination soon involved photographing architecture images and I soon decided to make it my career, a profession I truly love. I’m now an architectural photographer, photographing interiors and exteriors of buildings for architects, builders, and related industries. My most recent photographic passion is travel photography, although the last year and a half has taken a toll on that.
“I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to see, experience, and photograph in such an incredible piece of history and beauty. “
For many years, I’ve sponsored landscape photography workshops to places like Yosemite National Park, Death Valley, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks, and Olympic National Park, but lately, my travel photography has taken me to Europe, and my last trip before Covid-19 was Prague in the Czech Republic.
Prague, nicknamed “the City of a Hundred Spires,” is one of the few cities in Europe that was not bombed during World War II and has retained its baroque buildings, Gothic churches, and castles. The image I wanted to capture in Prague was of the halls at the Strahov Monastery Library.
Before telling you how I took these images, let me explain the process used to gain access to the library. Whenever traveling to a new location, I do some extensive research on the area and images I might want to capture before leaving. Some of the resources used to research my trips include 500 PX, Google Images, travel publications/websites, Pinterest and Locationscout.net. All of these websites will get your creative juices flowing and get you excited to photograph in unique locations. In some cases, you can get the GPS coordinates which I like to use to create a Google map and PDF to quickly locate each location.
Usually, when photographing at the Strahov Monastery Library, you are allowed to take a photograph from the hallway through two open doors for both rooms. However, my goal was to get access inside the rooms to photograph from a different angle and show more dimension to the room. To accomplish this, I first went to the library’s website to see if there was any special way to pay or take a tour for photographers. There was a small fee “if” you wanted to take any photos at all, but nothing for special access.
From past experience, I’ve learned that, if you show up at a location like this, you will have a tiny chance of getting in to take a picture. So it was now time to do my research. I found the information email address for the Strahov Monastery Library on their website and wrote an email asking for permission to photograph inside the library. I explained who I was, my credentials as a professional photographer, and the purpose for taking the images. Google Translator was used to create the same message in the Czech language and I pasted it in the same email, hoping it would work without insulting anyone.
After sending the email, I waited for a response. Nothing happened. After a week and a half, I went back to the website and looked for other email addresses, and found the marketing person’s email. After sending the same email to both addresses, I waited another week. Nothing. The departure time for leaving to Prague was getting close, so I searched and found the email address of the Director of the Monastery and crossed my fingers that this would work.
Less than a week before departing for the Czech Republic, I received a response from the assistant of the Director of the monastery that I had been invited to photograph inside the library for one hour and one hour only on a specific date and time. I think I danced a little jig around my office.
The night before the shoot, I wanted to be sure all my equipment was ready. I had decided to take my medium sling bag with me to keep everything smaller rather than taking my larger camera bag. My camera of choice was the Sony a7r III, an excellent camera for both architectural and travel photography. Even though I was not bringing my big bag, the Think Tank Photocross 13 bag had room for my Sony a7III backup camera. I wasn’t taking any chances of not getting the images I wanted.
This trip was my once-a-year photography trip with no students or my wife, so I brought a couple of lenses that I might not have taken otherwise. In this case, I preferred one of my tilt/shift lenses and decided to take my Canon 17mm tilt/shift f4.0 lens with the Metabones Mark IV adapter for my Sony. This lens was used for most of the images, allowing me to capture these large spaces. I also used the Sony 24-70mm G Master f2.8 zoom lens for some detail shots at the end of the shoot. There was room for my 70-200mm G f4.0 lens in the bag, but I did not use it. To keep everything steady, I brought my Gitzo Mountaineer carbon fiber tripod that I have had for the past 18 years.
When arriving at the Library, I paid my entrance and photography fee and showed the woman behind the desk the Director’s email. She pointed me to the stairs and said to see the guard up there. I offered the guard the letter and my paid receipts, and he looked at me and said I should not have paid as a guest of the Director and he proceeded to go and obtain a refund for me. After returning with my refund, he took me to the library, looked at his watch, and said I had one hour!
There are two different halls in the library: the Theological Hall with its Baroque interior, built-in 1679, and the Philosophical Hall with a walnut interior installed in 1797. I knew I wanted two big photos from the Theological Hall, one from the right side with light coming through the windows and the classic shot down the center. There were small paper tags on some of the globes, and I asked the guard if I was allowed to move them. He replied that I could and it helped clean up the photograph. I thought an angled view for the philosophical Hall would work best and give the room some dimension. All the images where available light as strobes were not permitted.
My time was almost up when the guard opened a secret door revealing a circular stairway up to the second floor, and I got very excited. However, after asking if I could go upstairs and photograph, he informed me that it was for the Director and Monks only. He was just showing me the stairs, which was a slight letdown.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to see, experience, and photograph in such an incredible piece of history and beauty. None of this would have happened if I did not take the time to research the place I was traveling to and have been persistent in asking permission to access the library. I hope this will inspire you to try this the next time you travel because the worst they can say is no, and the best might get you some incredible images.
Randy VanDuinen, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, of Belmont, Michigan, is a nationally and internationally award-winning architectural photographer, who specializes in Architectural, Interior and Exterior, and Healthcare Photography. He is widely recognized for his digital imaging skills. He will be teaching a class on “Architecture Photography – Business and Photography Techniques” at the 2022 Texas School of Professional Photography.