We Interview Tesni Ward, One of the UK’s Leading Wildlife Photographers

There are some photographers whose work you can learn from. Tesni is one of those whose wildlife photography is worth following not only because of her eye for a great shot, but her enthusiasm and knowledge of the natural world that also shine through in her images.

Lots of us dabble in wildlife photography, but for Tesni it is her life. You can tell that from her outstanding images, and her enthusiasm for the natural world that becomes evident when you speak with her.

Wildlife is my passion and I get to do it with photography. It’s wonderful

How an Injury Created a Photographer

As a child, going on holiday with her parents, her stepdad would lug his camera kit around the amusement parks they visited. He would seemingly take forever getting a shot, while the young Tesni would be eager to get to the next roller coaster ride. You would think that would have put her off photography. Instead, to hurry things along, she would take out her point-and-shoot camera and challenge him to see who could get the better photo fastest.  

Other than family holidays, she didn’t have time to do photography because, on top of studying, she was training for athletics twice a day, seven days a week. She reached an incredibly high standard, but then a devastating sports injury in 2012 put an end to her athletics career. The injury was a “complete and utter bummer”. However, Tesni clearly likes to concentrate on the positives. Dropping athletics left the room in her life to pursue other things, especially photography.

Shortly after the injury, she took herself off to explore the Peak District, where she lives, and her love of both nature and photography spiraled from there.

 When you spend time with wildlife, you become invested in it. And I became very attached, very quickly. Now I am absolutely bonkers for wildlife.

Although she is driven to capture great images, she also wants to understand as much as possible about wildlife, learning about the animals’ behaviors. So, when she is running a workshop, most of the time she is not holding her camera. Her clients sometimes tell her she is missing out on great shots, but for Tesni, enjoying watching wildlife is equally essential.  She emphasizes that it is important to put the camera down and take in the view with your eye not pressed up against the viewfinder.

Although she does research before going out to photograph wildlife, she says that by observing the creatures she learns things that no books can teach. When she sees a behavior she doesn’t understand, it is something she can go away and research. She hates not knowing.

The Badger Diaries

Tesni famously studies and photographs badgers. It started five years ago when she was looking for an achievable one-year project, but she was immediately hooked and has been visiting the sett regularly ever since. She originally intended to be just an observer, but then a young badger, and then its siblings, came to investigate her, so her intentions went out of the window. She does try to photograph them behaving as naturally as possible, but in times of drought when water and earthworms are not available, she will take bowls of water and supplementary food for them.

Badgers get bad press here in the UK, but Tesni told me they are so much more than they are portrayed to be in the media; they are not the TB-carrying, aggressive pests they are made out to be. She told me that they are all unique individuals with their own personalities, sociable and playful creatures that love grooming one another and they sleep huddled together. She thinks the wrong impression that people have comes from Europe where badgers are hunted.

Like any animal, if you corner a badger, of course it’s going to defend itself. The poor thing’s terrified. But I’ve had badgers right next to me. I have never felt threatened, they have never shown any signs of aggression.

Last year’s lockdown meant that she could not visit the badger sett. This coincided with the controversial cull that’s happening in the UK because of an alleged, but widely disputed, link with the spread of bovine tuberculosis. At that time, she was really worried about the colony she was studying, but fortunately, it survived the cull. However, at the age of around two years, the young badgers left the colony, so their fate remains unknown. She told me that if they went one way they went into cull territory, if they went in the opposite direction, they were fine.  

She thinks that lockdown will have made the badgers forget her, so she is going to have to start from zero to rebuild their trust. As part of her research, Tesni had also built up a family tree of the badgers and now that has a year-long hiatus.

Protecting Wildlife with Photography

Understanding the subject, she says, is important. If you know from a creature’s behavior that it is uncomfortable, then you stop approaching and back off. Her goal is always to minimize the impact on the creatures she is photographing. She is a member of a photographers’ organization called Nature First. Their aim is to help educate and guide all photographers in sustainable, minimal impact practices, and she urges other photographers to join.

She comes across things that the public would not usually see, such as illegal traps and setts that have been dug out for badger-baiting, an illegal blood sport that usually ends with the death of the badger and serious injuries to the dog. She says that even people out walking their dogs cause untold disturbance to wildlife. People let their dogs off the lead, and they will disturb and chase wildlife.

Things Don’t Always Go as Planned

Her own encounters with wildlife don’t always go smoothly. Tesni had rescued a pigeon while running a photography workshop. It had landed by her feet and was tangled in a fishing line. She had untangled the bird and it had subsequently followed her around all day. Then she saw a goose with the same problem. She tried to untangle it and it bit her on the face. Tesni told me that the goose got named Charlie, after the viral “Charlie bit me” video. Then, she smiled when telling me that she always names the creatures she repeatedly encounters, a little bit of anthropomorphic fun that shines through her genuine concern for the natural world.  

Every wildlife photographer has creatures that have proved elusive. Tesni told me that for her it was foxes. She had found a perfect meadow location with a family of foxes playing in it. Sadly, when she went back three days later to photograph them, there were quad bike tracks through the field and the foxes had been shot.

Brown hares are high on her list for photographing too, as are stoats and weasels, which are notoriously hard to capture.

Striving for Equality

It is disappointing because photography is still dominated by middle-aged white guys like me. I want to see the industry driven by young, talented, and exciting photographers, and that was one of the reasons I was keen to interview Tesni. Following on from Kate G’s article about sexism in the photographic industry, and Canon’s all-male “Crusader of Light” lineup, I asked her if she had come across it. She started by saying that the difficulty with this conversation is that some people deny that it exists, to which she says it exists in every industry in the world.

Just because you haven’t witnessed it, and just because you don’t participate in it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. And denying that it exists is part of the problem.

Although she recognizes that she may get sexist comments for speaking out about it, fearing the repercussions, and consequently, not talking about the issue is also part of the problem. However, she is keen to point out that, sometimes, being a female photographer in the industry sometimes benefits her too. Nevertheless, there is a small minority of people who treat women negatively, and both she and many other female photographers she knows have been on the receiving end of nasty sexist comments. But she knows it is important to address and combat that. She also stressed that there are many male photographers who actively fight against misogyny.

She was pleased to tell me that Olympus is addressing the disparity. So far, besides herself, there are now more women in Olympus UK’s line-up of ambassadors and mentors; she was once the only one. Let’s hope this push for diversity of every kind continues across all manufacturers.

Tesni’s Photographic Equipment

We talked a bit about kit. Tesni started moving from Canon to Olympus five years ago. It was the functionality and features in Olympus that are not present in other systems that persuaded her, such as the in-camera auto-focus limiters that she finds invaluable for her stills and video work. She loves how customizable the system is, and, of course, how lightweight, and small the cameras are. Furthermore, she finds shooting with the cameras is fun. Although she enjoyed photography with her previous system, it became a chore carrying the kit around.

Her main camera is OM-D E-M1 X, fitted with the 300mm f/4 pro lens, with which she uses teleconverters. She also uses the OM-D E-M1 Mark III with the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO Lens, again with a teleconverter.

We then talked about the new Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm f/4.5 TC1.25X IS PRO Lens. She hasn’t bought it yet but has one on loan.

It is the most incredible thing, ever. I can’t shut up about it. I hope to own it by the end of the year.

Tesni uses Benro tripods. She says that with the image stabilization with the Olympus gear, a tripod is rarely necessary. However, if she is sitting waiting for several hours for an animal to pop out of a hole, or if she’s shooting over the water, she will use a tripod, but she prefers the flexibility of shooting handheld.  

Dabbling in Different Genres

Most specialist photographers experiment in other types of photography. Tesni sometimes does a little bit of macro, but doesn’t feel she is that good at it, telling me that Geraint Radford is the master of that genre. When she is traveling, she loves photographing people and incorporating different cultures into the shots.

Advice to Other Photographers

I finished by asking Tesni what advice she would give to other young photographers. In reply, she told me she developed her love for wildlife photography by going out and seeing things. She didn’t do any formal training. She learned by making mistakes, and sometimes by missing once-in-a-lifetime shots. She says you should find your passion, get out there, enjoy yourself, and not be hard on yourself if you make mistakes, but learn from them.

However, there was one thing she really emphasized again.

As wonderful as photography is, you don’t get the full experience looking through a viewfinder. Put the camera down and enjoy.

A big thank-you to Tesni for the time she set aside from her busy schedule for this interview.

You can see Tesni’s work, and book a workshop with her via her website. Please do follow her on Instagram, as well as her Badger Diaries Instagram page.

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