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June 29, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Destinations: Shooting wildlife with a camera Destinations: Shooting wildlife with a camera (June 29, 2005)

Portola Valley man leads photo safaris to Alaska in search of grizzlies and other wildlife

By Lydia Anderson

Special to the Almanac

Wildlife photography was a natural progression for Portola Valley resident David Cardinal, who developed his own photographs in junior high school and went camping at least once a month, including in the snow.

Raised in the Midwest, he graduated from Princeton in 1981 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science.

Weather and technology brought him to the Silicon Valley, where he worked for Amdahl and Sun Microsystems before starting his own company, FirstFloor Software, in 1993.

The network software utility company merged with Calico Commerce in 1998 and eventually went public in 2000.

With the advent of digital photography and the sale of his company, Mr. Cardinal began working half-time in the tech sector and spending the rest of his time as a nature photographer, photography teacher and author.

In early 2001 he made the switch to full-time digital photography.



"I love being out in nature and working with biologists to help save endangered species through educating the public," says Mr. Cardinal, who lives with his wife, Lorrie Duval, and their 11-year-old daughter in Portola Valley. They have lived there since 1988.

"Since photography is also a passion, it's fun to share wildlife photography with others by teaching them as we photograph."

Mr. Cardinal, 45, has made a dozen or so trips to Alaska, some to add to his library of images, and others -- two to three safaris a year -- to help teach others how to photograph wildlife.

"I'm incredibly energized by the raw size and spectacular landscape," he says of Alaska's terrain. "The variety of animals is unequaled anywhere else in America. It is the richest wildlife photography experience other than the plains of Africa."



This year he will lead two trips to photograph grizzly bears and puffins.

Safety is a concern in photographing bears. His groups work only in areas where the bears can be easily seen and heard, so if the animals don't want to be disturbed, they just avoid the group.

"We have sometimes been quite close to bears that are calm and with which we are familiar," says Mr. Cardinal. "But if a bear is acting stressed or we are unfamiliar with it, we give it plenty of room."

Bears are much safer than moose and many other animals, he says. In any case, he notes, photographing such animals is statistically safer than traveling on some highways.

"That doesn't stop it from being exciting and keeping us on our toes any time we are out with any large mammal," he says.


Close attention

Mr. Cardinal typically limits his traveling groups to five or six photographers, which gives him enough time to work with each shooter individually and to answer their questions.

"More than that and it can be too hard to move as a group and get close enough to the animals to get great images without stressing them," he says.

It's important for wildlife photographers to understand the biology of the animals, he says, including where they are found, how they behave, how close you can get, and how to ensure you are not stressing the animals.


  Digital world

He uses a Nikon D2X and a D2H for the camera bodies with a variety of lenses, ranging from a 12-24 mm to a 600 mm.

He has several tripods for different uses, and several flash units along with remote triggers and wireless adapters for unusual situations.

Mr. Cardinal prefers digital photography to the leading alternative: 35mm single-lens reflex photography.

"It's incredibly flexible," he says of digital photography. "The ability to preview your images instantly in the field is a huge help, and the computer as a digital darkroom is much more powerful than anything we could do with chemicals."


  Variety of challenges

He has photographed wildlife from the very large -- African and Asian elephants -- to the very small: kangaroo rats and spectral tarsiers.

Each poses a different challenge.

"Large animals are physically challenging and maneuvering around them to create a powerful portrait can be difficult," he says. "Small mammals are often nocturnal, so they can require tricky flash setups and a lot of patience."

The tarsiers, for example, are very small primates -- about the size of your fist -- and they are only out for about 20 minutes just after sunset, he says. Since they hunt grasshoppers by sight and sound in the dark, they can move very quickly.

"The combination makes it incredibly difficult to get a good image of them," he says. "To top it off, there are only a few families of them, so you need to travel to the far end of Sulawesi in Indonesia. In three nights of work I only got about a dozen really good images."


Variety of jobs

He now sells his images to magazines such as Bay Nature and Western Birding, and to nonprofit groups such as the California State Parks Foundation, and he writes on digital photography for magazines, including Outdoor Photographer and PC Magazine.

Between writing and photo assignments, he leads the photo safaris to Alaska and to other locations, looking for interesting animals and landscapes.

He publishes a photographic information site,, which specializes in providing information to serious digital Nikon and Canon photographers.

Recently, Mr. Cardinal spent a month in Burma, Cambodia and Thailand, where he finds the natural beauty and historic architecture stunning and the people very photogenic.

He has been to Botswana and other parts of Africa, and is leading a trip back there this fall.

Most often he travels within California.

"We have an incredible variety of unique creatures and landscapes right here within driving distance of the Bay Area," he says.



For more information on upcoming trips and to view more David Cardinal's photographs, go to

Going digital: Tips for wildlife photographers

Portola Valley photographer David Cardinal offers these tips on photographing wildlife with a digital camera:

** The most important rule is that no photo is worth sacrificing the welfare of the animal. Wild animals live in an increasingly challenging environment and need to budget their energy carefully. If you find yourself repeatedly chasing an animal, scaring a bird off its nest, or otherwise sensing that they are stressed, back off. If you're not sure whether you are stressing an animal, take the time to learn more about it or go out in the field with a friend or group leader who does.

** For birds and most mammals the longer lens you can find, the better. These telephoto lenses allow you to bring the subject in and isolate it. Faster long lenses let you focus on just the subject while blurring the background -- the same technique used in sports action shots.

** Key advantages of digital, of course, are that you see the images right away and you don't need to remove and re-load film. But inexpensive digital cameras are slow to fire so you may wind up losing more than you gain. You need to invest in a camera fast enough to capture the action.

** The digital computer darkroom is much more flexible -- and more pleasant -- than the chemical variety. If you plan to move to digital, be prepared to invest in an upgrade to your computer system and to learn image-management and image-editing software.
For more information, check

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