Making it Cover-Worthy Part 1

October 02, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Part One

In my article "What's a Photo Worth" I equated the value of a magazine's cover photo to the cost of a full-page ad in that magazine. A fair comparison. An obvious question in light of that equation is, "what makes a photo cover-worthy?"

I have shot many cover photos for aviation and aerospace magazines, but rather than me tell you what I think, I enlisted magazine editors from around the world to share their thoughts and advice. The value of good photography extends far beyond "getting" a cover, but if that is a goal, who better to advise you than the people who make the decisions?

Thomas Withington, editor of Asian Military Review, starts things off with a simple analogy regarding the cover of his magazine: "it (is) our shop window and a way of standing out in a competitive market place." Indeed, all artistic and technical criteria serve that overarching role of a magazine's  cover — it tells the reader who they are, what they offer, and what can be expected in terms of content, style (both literary and graphic), and quality. The cover, he continues, functions, "to draw readers to the magazine, (with) a dramatic, striking image."

Asian Military Review coverAsian Military Review coverThe cover of the March/April 2015 issue of Asian Military Review. Photo courtesy of the French Air Force.

But it's not only about a striking image. As with designing an ad, the three stages by which a glance is turned into a meaningful interaction are these: get the viewer's attention, communicate what is being offered, and make it clear why the viewer should care. As a photographer, I considered the cover image to support, most strongly, the first two stages. However, LeRoy Cook, editor of Twin & Turbine magazine, puts the spotlight on stage three. "The number-one decision-maker is Relevancy." He declares that nothing turns off a reader more than a photo that is disconnected from the content. It may sound obvious, but his comment suggests that not all all marketers understand the importance of this factor. His emphasis easily supports Withington: the item in that window had better match what's in the shop. (By the way, the ultimate goal is the fourth stage — take action — which in this realm means, open the magazine and keep reading.)

Speaking of advertising, one editor likened the cover to, "…a Page 1 ad for the publication itself," further cementing the importance of those stages. In the era of newsstand sales, which are almost nonexistent in the U.S. today, the cover was critical in grabbing the eye of a passerby — stage one. But despite this shift in periodical sales venues, eye-catching imagery and design are still important, since magazines are often kept around for years. For a magazine to be picked up from among those scattered on a desk or coffee table, savvy publishers realize they still have to, as he put it, "…cut through the noise of other media."

I'll leave relevancy untouched, as it's not the focus of this article, except to point out that even a so-so "story" is more likely to be featured on the cover if it has great photography to support it. While a strong story, if supported with only mediocre photography, may garner a strong cover line, but not the cover image itself. 

Twin & Turbine coverTwin & Turbine coverThe cover of the May 2015 issue of Twin & Turbine. Photo courtesy of Twin Commander Aircraft, L.L.C.

 

 

 

With a relevant subject at hand, what makes an image cover-worthy? "An eye-catching, colourful, action shot of an aircraft close-up." That's what Tom Chalmers, managing editor of World Airnews declares, then continues, "obviously the more dramatic the angle, the better the picture." Bill Garvey, editor-in-chief of Business & Commercial Aviation, expands on that theme: "The more crisp and colorful the image, the better, and an interesting background helps even more." Thomas Withington shares the same criteria, "Strong colours, preferably an action shot of some sort."

 

 

 

Action and strong colors. Got it. But how?

It's difficult to teach aesthetics, the "eye" of an artist that is so important in creating great work, but Chalmers takes at stab: "the best in-flight photographs of aircraft are taken from the ten- to eleven-o’clock position on the one side or the one to two o’clock position on the other side, with the subject aircraft being slightly lower than the photo ship but, most importantly, close in. The whole aircraft need not be in the picture; all that is really needed is the cockpit (obviously) and preferably the inner part of the wings and, if possible, one engine." This won't guarantee greatness, but it will yield, at least, results that are further from mediocre. Since not every situation, event or operation lends itself to air-to-air photography, he has advice for ground-to-air, too: "For take-off or landing, the best pictures are taken from again the ten or 11 o’clock position with the aircraft traveling from right to left. It must be a really close-up shot taken with a big lens so the whole frontal area of the aircraft fills the page with lots of smoke from the tyres (for a landing shot) or heat haze for a take-off."

Garvey opens up some options, citing, "I generally prefer aircraft flying towards the lens, but we’ve used all manner of angles and settings from ground shots, to overhead in-flight images, to ghostly night time images." And Withington expands the subjects beyond strictly aircraft in his request for, "…preferably an action shot of some sort, such as a missile being launched, or a soldier running." World Airnews coverWorld Airnews coverThe cover of the October 2015 issue of World Airnews.

You may have noted that by "action," the more encompassing term would be "dynamic." A flying aircraft is naturally more active than one buttoned up in a hangar, granted. Then again, a photo of an airliner taking off, shot from the side so it's livery and registration number are clear, is technically an action shot, but it's also "boring as hell," to quote Chalmers. Meanwhile, skillful lighting and composition and myriad other choices can be employed to represent even static objects as dynamic.

Before photographers start packing the visual frame with nothing but radomes and windscreens and compressor disks, LeRoy Cook adds this caveat, "shoot with extra space at the top for the title material and at the bottom for blurbs." They should keep in mind, too, that magazines are taller than they are wide. Almost all the editors mentioned this which suggests, again, that it's a common shortcoming in imagery submitted for consideration. Cook states the basic dictum that many fail to consider: "shoot portrait format, not landscape spread." As I'm also a designer, with several hundred ads under my belt, it surprises me, too, when I see images from photographers that are beautiful but wide; woefully ill-fitted for a cover or for most ads. Garvey bemoans, "too often an excellent horizontal shot has to give way to a lesser vertical image because too much is lost when it’s cropped vertically."

In Part Two I'll address image quality, those strong colors so often mentioned, and some technology issues. But for now, whether it's you or a hired photographer with the camera in hand, the take-aways are: the image must be relevant to the content of the magazine, and the image must be dynamic to catch the eye of the reader. B&CA coverB&CA coverThe cover of the issue of Business & Commercial Aviation.


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Photography is a massive field. Aerospace photography less so. In these writings I share stories and tips.
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