Bulmer was born on 28 February 1938 in Herefordshire, the grandson of the founder of the Bulmer cider company.He started photography when young. Although his earliest interest in it was primarily as a technology (he even built his own enlarger), he was a great admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson as a teenager.
Bulmer studied engineering at Cambridge, where his interest in photography deepened. While still a student he had photographs published in Varsity as well as a magazine he co-founded, Image; and did photostories for the Daily Express, Queen, and (on night climbing) Life. He also worked as an assistant to Larry Burrows and Burt Glinn. The Life story led to his expulsion from Cambridge six weeks before his finals.
On his expulsion, Bulmer attempted to get a job with the Daily Express; after three days of repeated attempts, the newspaper gave him one. He stayed for two years. After this he worked on assignments for a number of magazines: first in black and white, for Queen, Town, and Time and Tide. His ambition then was photography as journalism:
I wasn't interested in art photography, I was interested in photography as journalism, the last thing I wanted to do was put my photographs on the walls of galleries; I wanted them in magazines.
Thanks in part to a wave of creative people from the north of England, the north was at the time enjoying a vogue in the south. Bulmer's first assignment there was in 1960, for Town, to spend three days photographing the fast-declining Lancashire town of Nelson and compare it with the fast-growing Watford. He found the experience eye-opening and enjoyable.
By this time, Bulmer had evolved his own style:
In addition to Cartier-Bresson, Bulmer admired the work in black and white of Bill Brandt, Larry Burrows, William Klein, Mark Kauffman, and particularly Eugene Smith; but he was asked to work in colour for the Sunday Times Colour Section from its launch in 1962. At the time, most photojournalists looked down on colour photography as commercial; and colour film was difficult to work with as it was slower than black and white and had less exposure latitude.
In 1965, Bulmer first photographed the north of England in colour, for the Sunday Times magazine.[n 2] Colour photography was "a medium in which Bulmer was the British pioneer", far ahead of such photographers as William Eggleston and Martin Parr. Using colour for the north of England was Bulmer's idea, as was the choice of winter or wet weather, when colour film was yet harder to use.[n 3]
Grant Scott has described the results:
Saturated but muted colours combined with [Bulmer's] compositional talent to create images which are time capsules as contemporary today as they were then.
The priorities of the Sunday Times Magazine changed in the 1970s; its then-new editor Hunter Davies explained them to Bulmer as "crime, middle-class living and fashion". These were of little interest to Bulmer, who left in 1973 after a final story about North Korea. However, he continued photography for other publications, making his last story of the north of England in 1976, for the British edition of Geo.