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PRO STORY: TESNI WARD

When injury cut short Tesni Ward’s promising athletics career it was a setback but it gave her the opportunity to re-focus and to explore her love for wildlife photography, and it’s given her a passion to make a difference.

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Those who become successful wildlife photographers universally have a innate passion for their subject, and the more time they spend out in the field with their cameras the more they see first hand the pressures and challenges that are facing pretty much every species bar man these days. It’s the reason why virtually every person that ever focuses on nature is, or quickly becomes, a committed conservationist, with a drive to use their skills to not just make a living but to influence others and to make sure there is still a diversity of species out there for the next generation to train their cameras on.

Tesni Ward is no different, and having cut her teeth training her camera on wildlife that could be encountered close to her Derbyshire home, a short trek from the Peak District National Park, she found a cause close to her heart by joining the fight to resist the badger culls taking place locally.

“I speak out against the badger cull whenever possible because the science is not in place to support what’s going on,” she says, with passion in her voice. “I think it’s terrible what’s happening: we’re losing tens of thousands of badgers each year, but instead of killing them we need to looking closer at how we test for TB in cattle and the biosecurity that takes place on and around farms.”

A few years ago it was passion of a different kind that was motivating Tesni as she was pursuing a promising athletics career that held out the potential to take her to the very top. Competing in the UK championships she won the shot putt, javelin, and discus events in her age group, and then went on to represent Team GB in the Loughborough International competition. When injury cruelly cut her sporting career short she was faced with the prospect of finding something else to do that similarly inspired her, and photography helped to fill the void.

“I’d always been interested,” she recalls, “ever since my parents gave me a DSLR to take on holiday when I was a teenager. But then life got in the way: I discovered sport and was training several times a week and then university came along and I just didn’t have time to go out looking for pictures any more. It all went on the back burner for a while, but I always thought I’d pick up a camera again.”

When she finally did it was wildlife that captivated her and, having taught herself the basics through shooting pictures of local subjects, such as a mountain hare she affectionately named Hamish that she came across in the Peak District, she developed the urge to travel and would save up to take occasional trips to exotic places such as Alaska and Africa. Here she acquired a taste for shooting creatures that were on a different scale altogether, such as the famous Alaskan coastal bears, but the frustration was always that the trip would come to an end and she’d be heading back to reality again.

Finally three years ago she took the bold step of going full time, and was plunged immediately into the helter skelter life that comes with the territory when you’re self employed. However, after a few slow months things started to pick up and slowly but surely she started to find her feet and the original nature of her work began to get her noticed.

Tesni has a particular love for striking, frame filling face-on portraits of her subjects and has the long term aspiration to achieve a shot of this kind with all of the subjects that she photographs regularly.

Shooting Olympus

One of Tesni’s big breaks came when her photography was spotted by Olympus, who invited her to become one of their ambassadors. At the time she was working with a much larger DSLR system and a bag full of unwieldy and heavy telephoto lenses, but it wasn’t something that particularly bothered her since the assumption was that this was what wildlife photographers had to put up with if they wanted to get close up to some of their more elusive subjects.

“Because of my background in sport I was quite fit,” Tesni recalls, “and I didn’t really have any issues with carrying around such a bulky bag, but when I saw what the equivalent Olympus outfit was like it was revelation. It was just so compact and lightweight and yet it provided me with all of the same tools.”

Starting out using the OM-D E-M1 Tesni struggled initially to come to terms with her new system, but the subsequent launch of the Mark II version of the camera solved pretty much all of the issues she’d been facing and she quickly warmed to her four thirds workhorse and grew to throughly appreciate everything it offered her. The subsequent introduction of the OM-D E-M1X moved things on still further and now she’s got a fully fledged system that can cope with pretty much everything the natural world has to throw at her.

“I’ve got a full contingent of lenses,” she says, “which, being the four thirds format, are effectively twice the focal length while still being compact and fast. The lenses I use most when on a wildlife shoot are the 300mm (600mm) f/4 and 40-150mm (80-300mm) f/4-5.6. Usually from the get go I’ll use the 300mm with a 1.4x converter in case there is any wildlife at a distance that I want to focus on, while I’ll have the 40-150mm on a second body so that I’m prepared if I want to shoot some closer imagery.”

Other regular optics that find their way into Tesni’s gadget bag are the 7-14mm f/2.8, 12-40mm f/2.8, 45mm f/1.2 and 60mm f/2.8 macro. Pretty much everything can go into a single Tenba Shootout camera bag, which is a huge bonus for a photographer finding themselves out in wilderness areas on a regular basis. Another big plus is the fact that the Olympus cameras offer an impressive level of image stabilisation, enabling Tesni to hand hold for most of the time, even when using longer optics.

“I’ll probably only work off a tripod if I’m going to be in one place for a long time and if my moving around with the camera might serve to scare off my subject,” she says. “Otherwise I don’t often travel with a tripod at all, which means that my bag then becomes even lighter to carry around.”

Tesni is always on the look out for striking portraits of her animal subjects in their natural environment.

Heading to Africa

One of Tesni’s latest trips was to Zimbabwe and the Hwange National Park last spring, a trip that resulted from a partnership between Olympus and local specialist travel company Wilderness Safaris, and it was a huge adventure. It was it her first trip to this part of the world – though not her first safari – and it presented an opportunity to spend a couple of days immersed in the spectacular wildlife to be found in this region.

“Wilderness Safaris have lots of initiatives they’re working on, such as looking after the park, running anti-poaching patrols and caring for the community that lives there,” says Tesni. “Because of their partnership with Olympus they asked them to bring a photographer out, to see what they do, to get some images and to feed back our experiences.

“So it was pretty awesome: we saw elephants, lions and pretty much every bird you can imagine. There were a few nightly visitors that were visiting the water hold that was right outside the camp, which was pretty cool, but in our few days there we also saw most of the general African wildlife that you would expect to see, even though we had such a short trip.”

It also turned out to be an opportunity to encounter one of the most epic sights left in the natural world. “The thing that struck me most about Zimbabwe was how many elephants there were,” Tesni recalls. “It was just an incredible number, way more than I’ve seen in any other location I’ve been to. I was so close to them at times when I was at the water hole that I was having to work with a wide angle lens, and I was at the water level with the elephants pretty much surrounding us.”

The Zimbabwean trip presented another challenge, one that the Olympus kit proved equally up to. “When you’re in Africa on safari one of the biggest issues is dust,” Tesni explains. “It gets absolutely everywhere and, of course, if you’re trying to change lenses then the last thing you want is dust flying into your camera and on to your sensor. But also if you’re working with cameras and lenses that aren’t sealed properly the dust can get inside, not a good scenario, but I had no issues at all with the Olympus gear I was using.

“I’ve also accidentally dunked my camera and fully submerged it in water more than once, and I’ve been using it when it’s so hot that I’ve had to run it under a tap to cool it off. Quite simply it’s the best weather-sealing I’ve ever experienced.”

On her visit to the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe Tesni was amazed by the amount of elephants she saw.

Shooting portraits

As her career develops Tesni is looking to create a signature style, and one of her favourite approaches is to shoot a powerful portrait of a animal where it’s looking directly into the camera.

“This is definitely one of my favourite approaches,” she says, “and one of the key things I want to work on. My aim is that when I get towards the end of my photographic career I’ll have a frame-filling portrait of every species I’ve ever worked with. It’s going to be pretty tough to achieve, but I’m gradually picking them off the list.

Another of Tesni’s striking full frame portraits.

“Sometimes it’s just pure luck that they happen to look your way. I’ve got one image of a cheetah from my first trip to Africa and he wouldn’t look at me. It was so frustrating because the setting was perfect, but he just kept panning his head from left to right, so I just tried to pick the right moment when he was mid pan and it just so happened that he was looking directly at the camera at that point.

“On other occasions it just happens that you’re with an animal for a certain period of time and it either looks in your direction or straight down the barrel of your lens. I really love those moments and try to capture them whenever the opportunity presents itself.”

For Tesni the opening of a fresh door when the one she’d initially set her heart on was painfully closed on her probably saved her from despair, and she’s poured herself into her new vocation with relish and a determination to succeed. Using some of the attributes – such as tenacity – that helped her to reach such heights in her athletics career have helped her to develop quickly into a well respected and talented wildlife photographer and she’s looking forward with anticipation to what promises to be a highly satisfying and successful second life.

Article featured in Professional Photo Magazine in Issue 161