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  • by Judy Cole

Robert Berdan: Wildlife experience

Robert Berdan is an award-winning, Calgary-based photographer who delights in photographing living creatures, from microorganisms to Canadian wildlife.

When Berdan was a child, everything in nature fascinated him. He became obsessed with the microscope, and later wanted to take pictures of what he saw. At the age of 13, Berdan began experimenting with a cheap Kodak Instamatic Camera. Images from this first camera were unclear and he felt that with a better camera, he might be able to take better pictures, particularly of micro-organisms viewed through his microscope. Berdan purchased a Polaroid camera for about $70 to attach to his microscope, and it worked as advertised, but Polaroid film was expensive, and the prints were small and not particularly clear. After reading about single lens reflex (SLR) cameras with interchangeable lenses, he decided on an Olympus OM-1 for

$300. With $100 that he saved, and help from his parents, he acquired the camera. His first pictures turned out better than expected and Berdan managed to get a couple of good shots from every roll of film.

Berdan soon began to photograph everything around him, such as landscapes, plants, insects, and mammals, including his friends. For the first few years he owned only one lens, the basic 50mm f/1.8 standard lens that is good for low light and documentary-type images but not for wildlife. He attached the camera body with an adapter to his microscope and was able to capture images of mosquito larvae, rotifers, crystals, and other single-celled animals living in pond water. Some of these images he is still selling. Berdan now uses both Nikon and Canon digital cameras with lenses ranging from 8–1500mm. Together, the camera and the microscope directed him towards a career in cell biology and neuroscience research. Berdan earned a Ph.D. studying electrical synapses, also called gap junctions, an esoteric topic. He especially liked taking pictures with electron microscopes, fascinated with how living organisms function and grow.

Later he acquired bigger lenses and photographed larger animals, from insects to grizzly bears, moose, and caribou. After three years of research at the University of Calgary and five years at the University of Alberta, Berdan felt a need to get out of the laboratory. He began to explore education, multimedia, and nature photography full time. He worked for a few years at the Calgary Science Centre before he started a business called Science & Art Multimedia. According to Berdan, both science and art have things in common, though they are different approaches to studying and seeing the world. In his opinion, photography is a tool that uses a combination of sciences, including optics and electronics, but the application of the camera and composition is an art created by photographers trying to see and capture images that inform, evoke emotions, and make people think. Therefore, photography is a fascinating duality of science and art. Berdan’s new business allows him to focus on technological developments taking place on the Internet, and to teach and pursue nature photography.

Photography is also the best excuse Berdan has to spend more time outdoors surrounded by nature. He loves to travel and explore Canada, where there are places that are still rarely visited or photographed.