Tony Bynum is an accomplished nature photographer. He has been published in some of your favorite publications, including: Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, Ducks Unlimited, Eastman’s, Western Hunter, Fair Chase, RMEF’s Bugle Magazine, Hunt’n Fool, and more. Tony has also shot for many brands and retailers such as Cabela’s, L.L. Bean, Winchester, Remington, Blacks Creek, Wilderness Athlete, Eberlestock, and more.
Tony, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. I know that I, as well as many readers, are grateful for the opportunity to “pick your brain” on a variety of topics. Lets jump right in…
How did you get started out in photography?
Completely organic. I picked up a small plastic camera in 1978 and have been snapping away ever since.
Did you have a mentor or a teacher, or did you learn everything you know about photography through trial and error?
I never had a mentor, and I never studied photography. I studied geography, environmental studies, biology, and natural resources management – basically I consider myself a geographer. I learned photography on my own. Is isn’t that hard to pick up the skills, especially now a days with the Internet – everything you need is right at your fingertips.
What was your first camera? What is the short list of your favorite cameras and lenses that you shoot today?
I don’t know what my first cameras were, but I sure went through a lot of them. I do remember my first two auto focus cameras, one was the Nikon 6006 and the other was the Chinon CP9.
These days I mostly shoot:
- Nikon d3x, d3, d700, d300
- 200-400 f4, VR II afs
- 500 f4 VR afs
- 70-200 f2.8 VR afs
- 24-70 f2.8 afs
- 24-120 afs vr
- 17-35 f2.8 vr afs
- tce 1.4
How has the advance of the digital age and programs like Photoshop changed your shooting routine?
It has changed things quite a bit actually. I shoot more frames now because it’s easy to shoot and dump later. As far as capturing images, I shoot them old school, correctly in the camera just like with the old Fuji Velvia. Photoshop and post processing has not changed the way I shoot one ounce. I expose and crop my images in the camera, and I don’t crop into shots afterwards unless absolutely necessary.
Of all the images you shoot, approximately how many do you discard and how many do you retain for publication?
I probably retain about .1% of what I shoot, maybe even less on average.
The technologically advanced capabilities of camera equipment and digital editing have enabled so many people to become budding photographers. With many new passionate photographers out there doing great work, and actively marketing themselves, how can industry veterans continue to set themselves apart and lead the pack?
A couple of things… First, I don’t pay any attention to what other’s are doing, and if I did I might get scared. Second, I do what I do; I am able to sell images because for some reason or another they resonate with people that are willing to pay for them. I have always said, and my friends will verify this for me, that I do what I do, and I’m just lucky that there’s a market for what I do. I’m in competition with myself to make better images all the time. If the market takes away my livelihood then I guess I’ll figure out what to do then, but thankfully that time has not come for me.
After all of the photos you have taken, what is your most memorable one? Why?
My most memorable image – there are lots of them, but the a couple stick hard in my mind. “Untouchables – Nanny and Kid Goat,” and “Caballada’s Under the Big Sky.”
You photography some amazing wildlife! How much time do you spend scouting for locations and animals before you shoot, or do you just go out with your camera in hopes of finding your subjects? Do you typically take extended trips out into the wilderness, or more frequent shorter trips?
Photography is a lot of scouting, and I am always scouting; even when I’m shooting, I’m scouting. Light is different at different times of the year, animals are in different places and doing different things, so it’s always a scouting mission. I do wonder around a bit, but I try to stay focused with a plan. It is expensive to just go lurking around – often it wastes valuable time, and time is money in this business. Look at it like this, ask yourself how hold you are. Let’s say you’ll live to be 80. Now subtract your age from 80 and see how many elk ruts, or deer ruts, or many fly hatches you have left in your life. Scary isn’t it!
How many miles do you think you put on your boots in a typical year?
Hundreds. I wear 4 or 5 different kinds of boots, depending on where I’m going and what I’m doing. I buy a new pair of mountain style boots about every two or three years depending on what I’ve been doing more of.
What pieces of non-photographic gear do you consider essentials for every trip into the backcountry?
Must haves for me include a headlamp, fire starter, and a good knife.
When you find wildlife subjects, how do you get so close to them? On that note, are you a hunter? If so, do you feel that it helps to employ the skills and tactics of a hunter when trying to take wildlife photos?
Time and patience are the keys to success. There are places like Glacier National Park where some animals like the goats around Logan Pass are use to people, but that offers its own challenges too. Habituated animals don’t act wild so it’s hard to get good action and lively shots out of them. They also don’t look good when their hair is falling out, which is also the time you can get to them. I use long lenses when I need to, and I’m very, very persistent. Some shots you wait a lifetime for.
I am a hunter. Hunting is what sprouted my love for wildlife photography. I figured that since the season is only a month long, why should I let that stop me? Being out with wild animals all year long will improve your hunting 10 fold. Trust me, the more you know about a critter and its habits, the better hunter and photographer you will become. That said, while I do hunt, it is a little discussed subject for me. Hunting and killing is very personal, it is something that I share with myself, it is not something that I typically share with the public at large.
Has your photography changed your attitude on conservation and natural resource issues?
Not very much, I have always been a conservationist at heart. I have a Masters in Resources Management, and I have worked on conservation issues from Washington State to Washington DC, and most places in between. My conservation ethic comes from my experience in life, growing up hunting and fishing. Good habitat equals good opportunity.
What do you think is the best way that the “average Joe” can practice land and wildlife conservation? Is it through volunteering, petitioning government officials, financially supporting conservation organizations, etc.?
Start at home. It all starts at home. Think globally act locally. Then I’d attend a few meetings or get on a few blogs where topics that move you are discussed. Volunteering and donating my time to organizations is a central part of my quality of life. I would not live anywhere where I could not be a part of the ecological and political fabric of my community. Why live just to take, we all need to give back some.
Do you ever struggle with your passion for photography and the realities of making a good living for your family? If so, what advice do you have for outdoor-oriented readers who are facing similar career decisions?
Sure, I think everyone wants to make a good wage and support their family with neat stuff, but really, it is all about quality of life and perspective. I have a lot of cool stuff, a little house, and a wonderfully happy daughter, and a great girlfriend. All that sounds rosy and it is to some extent, but the facts are you have to pay your bills, right? My advice to people who want in: you should make your money first and then get in, or have a spouse that’s making enough to support both of you for a minimum of 5 years or $80k in gross sales. If you’re a great photographer already, it will take you about 5 years to gather up the stock you need to make a go of it. The other very important thing, it helps if your partner likes to go out on photography trips too. If not, she or he will be spending a lot of time alone. Photography is very hard on young couples. I would ask you to think carefully about moving in the direction of nature photography unless you’re on your own, or you have a tremendous support system and kids that don’t need you a lot. I manage, but it’s hellish at times.
Before we close, there is a question for all the novices, people who love to take pictures and just want to take better pictures, and for the aspiring professional photographers just starting out. Of all the things that make you such an amazing photographer, what are the first 5 things someone can focus on to make them better? Would it be equipment, more time in the field, patience waiting for a perfect shot, photography knowledge, understanding the animal you’re photographing, or 5 totally different things?
Here’s what it takes to be a wildlife/nature photographer:
Lead with your heart; study people and life; care about the world; follow your passion; do what YOU do not what other people do; learn to communicate, learn computers and business; get up early and sleep less. If you don’t like early mornings and you need a lot of sleep, move on – you’ll never ever make it in this business. Photograph still life or indoors, you’re more suited for that. Don’t fight things, become something you think you want to be, become the person you are. You have to love what you do no matter what it is, period. If you don’t love this you can’t possibility compete with people who are more passionate about photography than they are life, and they are out there.
1. Be a good person
2. Learn to communicate
3. Learn to see like a camera (practice with one all the time)
4. Seek knowledge of the environment and the animal you want to photograph
5. Always keep the first and last shots, often times they are your best
I think the number one thing that photographers can do to improve their nature and wildlife photography, is – drum roll please: FOCUS ON THE SUBJECT AND EXPOSE FOR THAT. In practical terms, this mean you MUST learn to read light, see it like the camera sees it, and be a short term weather forecaster. In all my years of helping people with their photography, it is the one thing that all people who are learning, or who want to become real photographers must learn. For some people it is an enormous challenge because they never know what they are photographing or why. They just see a neat scene, point the camera at it, and push the button. Then when they get home they say, “That’s not what it looked like.” The reason it looks different is because you did not capture what you were looking at, what drew you to the scene in the first place. That is the challenge of learning to see like a camera. I never had much of a problem finding the scene. Most of the time I can point the camera at stuff and push the button. I don’t really think about it much, but I think that comes with a lot of practice, like an average of 10,000 frames per month.
I’d like to finish with my favorite quote from a photographer of particular note, Eliot Porter. (I said I dont have mentors, and the truth is I dont know much about Mr. Porter, but I know that people who study this kind of stuff speak highly of him.) The quote goes like this…
“The more you photograph the more you know what can be photographed, and what can not be photographed. You just have to do it.”