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Taking Pictures in: Bhutan


Monks, monasteries, and mask-dance festivals all played out in front of Kenna Klosterman's Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 VC G2 and SP 45mm F/1.8 VC lenses.


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By Jenn Gidman
Images By Kenna Klosterman


Kenna Klosterman always knew a life of photography was her calling, from the first black-and-white class she took in high school to her semester abroad studying photography in Austria during college, where she majored in cultural anthropology. But life took her on another path after graduation when she moved across the country from Los Angeles to rural Pennsylvania. "I worked for two fine-art photographers for a year who were incredible, but despite being published and collected all over the world, they still lived paycheck to paycheck. As a 22-year-old, pursuing a creative career scared me and I opted for what I thought was a more stable path," she says.

The next 15 years for Kenna were spent at a startup, pursuing an MBA and working for Fortune 500 companies in product marketing, all while still taking pictures on the side. Then, one day, it hit her. "Like so many creatives, I realized the corporate world wasn't for me," she says. "It can take you awhile to come back to who you are at heart, and I was fortunate enough to swing back around to a career in photography and photography education."

Today, Kenna is based out of Seattle and has been the host of CreativeLive for nearly a decade, an online education network with more than 1,500 classes focused on photography, film, art and graphic design, music, crafts, and the business behind these various creative endeavors. "Our tagline is 'There's a creator in all of us,'" she explains. "We serve as a champion to all creators to live their dreams, whether that's in your work, your hobby, or other parts of your life." She's also the host of the network's We Are Photographers podcast, which dives deep into the backstories of photographers, filmmakers, and other industry game-changers.

Kenna also leads photo tours, where she's able to indulge her love for travel, street, and portrait photography. "I see photography as a way of interacting with the world, and a way of interacting with new people and cultures," she says. "Being a visual storyteller goes back to my anthropology degree in many ways."

She has traveled to nearly 50 countries around the globe, but in February, Kenna co-led a 10-day photo tour to one she'd never visited: Bhutan, a small, landlocked nation nestled in the Himalayas between China and India known as the "Land of the Thunder Dragon." "Bhutan is a spectacular, magical place," she says. "We went with the photographic goal to take pictures of monasteries, dzongs (fortresses), landscapes filled with prayer flags, people, and the religious Tshechu (mask dance) festival in Punakha."

On her trip, Kenna brought along two Tamron lenses: the SP 24-70mm F/2.8 VC G2 and the SP 45mm F/1.8 VC. "For my travel photography, the 24-70 is my go-to walk-around lens," she says. "It allows me the flexibility to switch from wide shots to more intimate portraits with people in the streets. I tapped into the 45mm for portraits as well, but especially when I found myself in low-light situations and in need of that maximum F/1.8 minimum aperture."

Kenna and her group—led by a local guide appropriately named Karma—found the Bhutanese people to be friendly and receptive to having their photos taken. "The first thing I teach my students is to establish eye contact to forge a connection," she says. "You can almost immediately energetically read from someone if they're willing for you to make their portrait. It's also important to know when to let go of a picture, even if you think it would be an amazing image. If your subject isn't interested, it's time to walk away."

Read on for Kenna's stories on how she used her Tamron lenses to capture the nation known as the "happiest place on Earth."

© Kenna Klosterman
45mm, F/3.2, 1/320th sec., ISO 100
Click image to view larger

We were photographing the Tshechu festival in Punakha and were happy with our images from 1 ½ days of traditional dancing. We had noticed that down the road from the official festival was a makeshift carnival. We wandered around the tents where people were selling their wares and to our surprise also gambling, with monks rolling dice and throwing darts to hit a spinning wheel. I spotted a tent on the outskirts where they were serving food and tea, and this man was playing his flute.

In Bhutan there are photos of the Bhutanese royal family everywhere. So in setting up my composition, I wanted to make sure I included the photo you see behind the boy who's seated. The challenge for this photo was that it was dark underneath the tent, and blue—very blue. So I opened up to F/3.2, which allowed me to keep my ISO low.

© Kenna Klosterman
45mm, F/2.0, 1/640th sec., ISO 100
Click image to view larger

The image you see here of the little girl was taken at that same roadside carnival. One tent offered face-painting for the kids, which afforded me a wonderful opportunity to capture this colorful close-up. It's always desirable if you can achieve a portrait like this that's somewhat out of the ordinary.

This image also speaks back to what I was talking about earlier in using that 45mm lens to achieve gorgeous contextual bokeh. It allowed me to isolate my focus on the little girl, but also capture a sense of place by nicely blurring out the background, which was a woman in the back wearing a vibrant traditional Bhutanese outfit called a Kira. This lens helps me take advantage of eye-catching backgrounds like that. The photo would have looked completely different if I hadn't been able to shoot it almost all the way open, at F/2.0.

© Kenna Klosterman
24-70mm (33mm), F/2.8, 1/250th sec., ISO 1600
Click image to view larger

In Bhutan, you're not usually able to take pictures inside the monasteries during prayer time. That was the case at the Dechen Phodrang Monastery in Thimphu, so we hoped to find another photographic opportunity there in which the monks would all be assembled together. Our guide arranged for us to photograph at mealtime, which worked out perfectly.

Because I was leading a photo tour, with multiple photographers taking pictures of the same scene, it was challenging to make sure fellow photographers weren't showing up in each other's shots, yet still framing the image so it was wide enough to include all of the monks in the photo. There was also a spot of bright light over on the left-hand side, so I had to try and create a composition that balanced out those distracting elements on the sidelines. It helped that some of the monks were glancing over at the camera—your eye is immediately drawn to other people's faces—and that we had the leading lines of the wood floor drawing the viewer's eye straight down the middle of the image, not off to the sides.

© Kenna Klosterman
24-70mm (29mm), F/4.0, 1/1000th sec., ISO 100
Click image to view larger

This is the same monastery in Thimphu as the last image. Our guide let us know that the monks were going to be coming out of their prayer session to head down to eat, giving us time to get into position to photograph them as they came out. Having that extra knowledge of what's about to happen allows you to pre-think what you want to do in a particular scenario.

There was no, "Hey, stop and pose, please!" in this situation. I was just in the moment trying to figure out something different so I could create a unique composition. The more obvious shot I was initially going for was them walking down the stairs, all facing me. But then I realized I could photograph them as a line curving around, so some of them would be heading one way, away from me, while the others would be coming back at me. I thought that would make for an interesting visual along that wall.

© Kenna Klosterman
24-70mm (56mm), F/2.8, 1/400th sec., ISO 100
Click image to view larger

Outside one of the festivals, this older monk was sitting and playing an instrument; spectators would gift him coins. He was very friendly, and multiple people were photographing him. My hope was to draw his attention and make that eye-to-eye connection. It was a challenging composition to make because of where he was sitting.

What the viewer hopefully doesn't fully notice (until I point it out) is that there's a van in the back. That's where that maximum F/2.8 aperture came into play on the 24-70. It can be difficult to achieve a composition you like when you can't ask people to move, as was the situation here. So for me to concentrate on my subject and make that van disappear as much as possible, shooting wide open at a close distance proved very helpful.

© Kenna Klosterman
24-70mm (27mm), F/3.2, 1/100th sec., ISO 200
Click image to view larger

Many people don't know much about Bhutan, but what is a fairly well-known fact about the country is its concept of "gross national happiness." It's a philosophy that guides Bhutan's government, with one of the pillars of that philosophy being to preserve and promote Bhutanese culture. That's often seen via their traditional dress (Gho for men and Kira for women), which come out in full force at events like the Tshechu festival. That's one of the aspects of the festival, and the culture at large, I was trying to document in this overhead shot.

So why did I take it from above? One thing I always encourage photographers to do when photographing events like this is to change positions and take pictures from as many different perspectives as possible. You may find yourself in a certain spot and think you've found the best vantage point, but perhaps just around the corner there's an even better one—you won't know unless you look! In this case, I found a terrific location on the second level of a structure at the festival, so I could shoot down and focus on all of the people in their colorful outfits, from a perspective you don't usually see.

© Kenna Klosterman
24-70mm (57mm), F/5.6, 1/100th sec., ISO 100
Click image to view larger

With a unique political history, the country itself has only existed as a hereditary monarchy since 1907 and became a democracy in 2008. Yet the people, religions, culture, and independence of Bhutan dates back to the ninth century or earlier. In the central part of Bhutan overlooking the Phobjikha Valley, we visited the Gangtey Monastery, which was built in the early 1600s.

I sought to do in this photo what I like to do in much of my street and travel photography, which is find a background I like, then wait for the action to happen in front of it. I wanted to capture this whole section of the monastery, centered exactly this way in my frame, and then see what happened. Eventually this monk went strolling by, talking on his phone, with that dog following behind him. You'll also notice diagonally to the top left of the monk is a little bird on the roof, which balances out him and the dog a bit. I wanted to show a sense of scale, space, and patterns, as well as that contrast of color between the yellow of the monastery and the red of the monk's robe.

© Kenna Klosterman
24-70 (70mm), F/4.0, 1/800th sec., ISO 400
Click image to view larger

Capturing the traditional images at this type of festival—such as the spinning dancers in ornate costumes and masks during the esteemed black hat dance—are wonderful photo opps. But I also love to turn the camera around to capture a more authentic reflection of the culture: What are the people attending the festival there for? What are they interested in? What are their reactions? What are they thinking?

That's what led to this photo of the people sitting and watching one of the dances. You can see so many different facial expressions, from the man covering his mouth to the woman holding her cellphone in one hand and her little Sony camera in the other. You can tell she's smiling and laughing at me, because we've made eye contact—I'm looking at her, she's looking at me. I find this type of photo just as interesting, if not more so, than focusing on the more formal happenings.

To see more of Kenna Klosterman's work or join one of her upcoming tours, go to www.kennakphoto.com. You can follow Kenna's new work on IG at @kennaklosterman and @cubaphoto for her Cuba-only portfolio.





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