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Bob Armstrong's 'life story in Alaska'

Longtime nature photographer gives tips, tricks in new book

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2010

Photographer, naturalist and author Bob Armstrong believes the true definition of being an expert is acknowledging "you really don't know anything at all."

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"There's always a point in life, when I think I know what I'm talking about, then I take one step further and realize I don't," he said.

After years of watching, waiting and learning how to take photographs of nature, Armstrong has found he is still surprised.

Yet in his latest book, "Photographing Nature in Alaska," it's clear Armstrong knows a lot - and in it he tells all.

In the 156 pages, filled with full-color photographs, the self-taught photographer shares a lifetime of knowledge: The why, the where and - perhaps most importantly - the how, of creating action-packed, eye-catching and absolutely breathtaking photographs of Alaska's wild.

The layout is clean. The descriptions are simple.

"Beavers grooming each other," Armstrong writes. "Getting up early in morning was important for getting images of this sort. This photo was taken at 5:25 a.m."

His tactics, however, are undoubtedly unique.

The cover of his book, for instance, features a Lincoln's Sparrow perched on a Nootka lupine. It's clear, crisp and is fitting for such prestigious placement. The accompanying caption, however, would raise eyebrows in many purist photography circles.

"Digiscoped, FugiFilm FinePix 4700, Kowa scope with 20 power objective, f/2.8 at ⅓2 second, ISO equivalent 200, minus 0.6 exposure compensation, from about 40 feet away."

Digi-what?

Armstrong describes it as a technique combining the simplicities of a point-and-shoot camera with the complexities and power of a spotting scope. And as Armstrong proves, it's a tool that has served him well.

Birds and animals that would otherwise be disturbed by his presence, go about their daily business with little or no concern.

In all, the book examines cameras, both expensive and otherwise, special techniques for challenging or flighty subjects, strategies like stalking and how to handle the differing types of situations Mother Nature may present to photographers.

Of all the tools, techniques and tips Armstrong presents, he said what matters most is the photographer, not the gear.

"One thing that's always upset me," he said, "is that you see articles in photography magazines: The DSLR are for professional photographers, others are for amateurs ... If I had to choose just one camera for photographing nature, it wouldn't be a high end one."

Armstrong said he prefers to shoot with prosumer cameras for their surprising versatility and long range of focal lengths. He favors point-and-shoot varieties with moveable LCD screens for digiscoping and capturing images at ground level.

In his book, he describes an initial experience with his first digital camera, a "tiny 2.5 megapixel Fujifilm FinePix 4700 that fit into a shirt pocket and only weighed a few ounces."

After photographing a grouse backdropped by Mt. Jumbo, and being unable to recreate the image with his 35mm film camera counterpart, he writes, "I was hooked. Light weight and much greater depth of field made photography fun again."

Armstrong said the book became an autobiography of sorts, an exploration of his "life story in Alaska."

"Juneau is such an incredible place because we're adjacent to all this wilderness. There are so many places in Juneau that you can get away from people so easily," he said.

To Armstrong, Southeast is like a close friend. It's one he's gotten to know since his arrival in the 1960s when he took a fisheries job while attending college.

It's where he visits the Merlin who lives near a sub-alpine bog on Douglas Island, and knows that it only comes out at certain times to eat dragonflies.

"I know when the dragonflies emerge, I know the particular grouse that nests nearby," he said. "These are all things that are very difficult to discover on just a 'visit.'"

It's where he watches ravens in the alpine rolling snowballs back and forth.

For Armstrong, his hobby, which has become his passion, goes beyond merely taking photographs.

"Often, I'll be sitting, watching something and I get totally absorbed. Sometimes the time just flies by."

The watching, the waiting, "it certainly brings a lot of piece of mind."

Not to mention a few surprises.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com or 523-2271.



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