A Westerner by birth and by nature, Tony Bynum has always favored the expanse of America’s most rugged wilderness. When he found himself in Washington, D.C., around the turn of the 21st century, hemmed in by tall buildings, narrow avenues, and crowds, he turned to photography to come to terms with his space and his place in it.
The photographic exploration may have kept him sane, but it didn’t keep him in D.C. Bynum realized that his place was far from the hustle of the big city, so he moved back West in 2002 and settled in East Glacier Park, Montana. While working part-time as a consultant, Bynum photographed constantly, covering people, rodeos, events, and as much of Montana’s wide-open space as he could get in front of his lens. He staged his own shoots, on his own dime, easily spending $50,000 in a year on equipment and travel. Everything he did had a specific purpose: to build up a portfolio he could use to launch himself into full-time photography work.
“My idea was to make the portfolio big enough and good enough that nobody could say no because I didn’t have the material,” he remembers. “I realized early on that when you work with editors, you need to solve problems for them. It’s a business, and they have business needs that you can address with images. You have to show that you can provide solutions.”
By 2005, Bynum’s portfolio and professional network were established enough for him to dedicate himself to photography full time. It had to work. He’d spent all his savings, he was raising a daughter, and he was going to be broke in a hurry if things didn’t pan out.
But they did. Bynum built his business step by step, leveraging connections in the outdoor industry and the conservation community while approaching media outlets and commercial clients with a robust portfolio that could serve as a ready-made stock photography resource. At the time, changes in the stock photography world made stock agencies a less viable source of income for photographers. However, the simultaneous rise of ubiquitous online search presented a powerful marketing tool.
Bynum recognized that a simple, well-optimized web presence could connect him to a global audience for his work. So he dove in, spending thousands of hours categorizing images, investigating keyword targeting strategies, and presenting his images as solutions to the image needs of the marketplace. The underlying idea was to skip the stock agencies and go directly to the image buyers. “I decided that Google offered a way for me to be my own stock agency,” he explains. “I found places to be relevant with my imagery. I put material out there and connected everything back to my website.”
The simple formula: Identified need + answered need = sales. Bynum diligently researched the marketplace and identified gaps in the available photography. Then he staged shoots to create images to fill those gaps, hiring locals as models and producing everything himself. When positioned correctly and backed by good search engine optimization, images from Bynum’s self-directed shoots would typically double the investment he made in the production.
These days, Bynum’s work has evolved to include four primary segments: stock, art print sales, work with conservation-oriented nonprofits, and editorial. The key to making a living, he says, is multi-purposing whenever possible. Every time he goes on a shoot, he thinks about how he can create images for stock, images that will work for art prints, images that can tell a conservation story, and images that will work for editorial needs—all from the same location. Then by categorizing and positioning images appropriately, he can generate multiple revenue streams each time he clicks the shutter. “This is how you have to think when you’re super niche oriented,” he says.
Part of the reason Bynum’s images have been so well received is his authenticity. He’s not a big-city photographer flying in for a day to cover a topic that’s unfamiliar. He’s an outdoorsman, he lives the lifestyle, and he cares deeply about issues surrounding conservation. When he takes a photo, he understands the background, literally and figuratively, and that informs his work. The results are photos that are firmly rooted in context.
This authenticity is particularly appealing in the conservation realm, where nonprofit organizations place a high value on people they can trust to tell a particular story—perhaps even a story that could resonate with people for years to come. “Conservation folks want to know they are working with someone who is real,” says Bynum. “It is serious work and they expect an authentic product.”
These expectations suit Bynum well. Given the choice, he’d almost always prefer to be out on his own discovering a location in depth. “Location is everything. Understanding the environment is everything,” he says. “Can you manage to produce the results a client needs, when they need them, regardless of the circumstances? That’s what you’re getting paid for in this type of work. You can’t control the environment, you can’t control the weather, you can’t control anything about your situation, yet you still have to come home with a creative product. That means accepting what’s available to you and shooting the story.”
That story may not narrowly focus on the specific item Bynum’s being paid to photograph, but that’s OK. Whether he’s getting paid to show the effects of a potentially devastating oil boom along the edge of Glacier National Park or to highlight the newest offerings from an outdoor gear company, the story becomes bigger than pump jacks or backpacks. It’s more conceptual, and it shows the surrounding lifestyle that the client needs to depict. “A lot of this work is in the moment,” says Bynum. “There’s no script, no retakes. You know where you are and what you’re after, but it’s all about the real-life view that shows what really happened. That’s what’s in demand.”
Bynum has almost never been on a project where everything went according to plan A. More often, he has to move on to plan B or plan C, or even throw all the plans out the window.
“When you’re working outdoors in nature, it’s unpredictable, especially when wildlife is involved,” he says. “You can’t step in and blow the scene. You have to relax and formulate a strategy on the fly, which often means pulling back and not focusing overly on one element. Think about the whole lifestyle, not a particular element. So I’m not photographing the binoculars or the gun or the bag. I’m photographing the entire story around it. After all, that’s what people are really interested in, and being able to convey that story is what gives good outdoor photography a great deal of value.”
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Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.