Is It Coverworthy? Part 2

February 06, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

In this follow-up I share additional guidance from the people who decide what shows and what blows on a magazine's cover, plus add my own observations and advice. (You can read Part 1 here.)

To start at the beginning again, “The primary purpose of the cover is to get someone who is scanning a newsstand to reach out and pick up the magazine. It has to be a magnet that tells enough of a story to turn a passer-by into a potential buyer.” That was Caroline Sheen, photography and art editor of Air & Space Smithsonian magazine, refreshing our memory. As you're no doubt aware, her publication is noted for the quality of its images and much of the credit goes to Sheen. (They also have great writing, but that’s not the point of this article, so…)

Mike Reyno is founder and group publisher for a bevy of aviation magazines, including Skies, and he offers this view on the importance of the cover: “I often look at the cover as my own…advertising, to, ‘come look at my magazine.’” Or, stated from another angle, “Without a strong cover, your magazine will more than likely be the last one picked up.”

Randy Jones, former publisher of Rotor & Wing, and recently the founder of consulting firm SageVision, puts those two viewpoints together with, "The whole purpose is to say, 'pick me up and read me.' It should say, 'I’ve got something valuable, something interesting or something you didn’t know.'" Skies cover

And just because a magazine shows up in mailboxes, without the need to attract a passer-by, doesn't mean the cover is unimportant to passers-by — when I visit clients I always look for the magazines they have hanging around. Even there, in a lobby or break room or corner office, the ones with strong cover imagery and designs are more likely to be on top or selected as the pile is shuffled. That action may not bring another dime to the publisher, but it brings them value, as it does to the subject of the cover and, for that matter, to the advertisers within. It can be years after publication that a magazine is picked up and perused by someone with time on their hands.

In Part 1 we saw advice from editors and publishers on what they look for in a cover image. In short, their criteria were along the lines of: interesting composition of an interesting aircraft (or whatever story is being illustrated), typically the more dynamic the action, or composition, the better.

Rotor & Wings' Jones added some depth to this guidance, though, observing that in a newsstand setting, a crowded newsstand particularly, magazines fight for visibility such that the photograph can actually fall lower in ranking compared to the other graphic elements. It's possible for a recognizable flag, peeking above the next lower row of magazines, or the two-inch-wide space along the right edge, to have greater importance than the image. This article doesn't aim to cover these sometimes competing elements, but know that while a photo must still be compelling, how it is incorporated into the finished whole can reflect other considerations.

When asked what makes an image desirable, Air & Space Smithsonian's Sheen replied, “There is something about a well composed image that appeals to the eye and the mind. It is an intangible that the art mind sees. It has to suggest to the guy on the sidewalk — who could be anybody — that when they are done reading the issue they will 'know' the inside story of some facet of aviation they may never have realized even existed.” That’s a lofty view and it elevates the goal of a cover image from merely catching an eye to making a promise. How might you attract her eye? “A quality, artful, delightful, powerful image, something from a different perspective than the rest.” Again, lofty, but provide an image that meets those criteria, tied to a story of interest to the magazine’s readership, and though your goals might differ somewhat from an editor’s, you’ll both reap the rewards.

Speaking of rewards, “The cover position is gold, especially if you have a strong brand,” declares Vertical's Reyno. And he should know because he introduced a B2B publication, Insight, that will put your photo on the cover and your story inside— for a price. It’s not cheap and they still won't feature a photo unless it meets their standards. You might be paying for the space, but the magazine is still his brand.

His advice for an appropriate, attractive, cover image includes some additional, more practical, guidance: “Is the aircraft in an unusual attitude? Is it being operated in a safe manner within the limits of the aircraft? Does the company have a good reputation?” That last one might come as a surprise, as it did to me, so file that away as something to understand as among the editor's considerations. Plus, and this won’t be in your control, but Reyno points out that the product or brand chosen for a cover can be influenced by how recently that same product/brand was featured on his, or a competitor’s, publication.

Jones points out that not all editors are looking for the same thing, depending on both their personal preferences and the style of their publication. "Do your homework," he advises. "Pay attention." And further, "exclusivity is always important… If you offer multiple images to multiple publishers, all (the images) obviously taken from the same photo shoot, you are not going to make any friends…" If you noted Reyno's observation on recency in the previous paragraph, imagine if competing magazines each had your product on the cover, using the same or closely related compositions, in the same month — you might have double the coverage that month, but you may get no more coverage for a long time after.

Once the photographer has attended to composing a dynamic image of a dynamic subject that ties to an interesting story in the magazine, what might disqualify an image, or at least lower its chances of being featured on a cover? The common reasons are technical: low resolution (not enough pixels), poor focus (wrong focus or motion blur), and "noisy" images (from high ISO or from JPEG compression). Their solutions are simple enough — use a camera and lens combination that can capture enough pixels, focus on the important elements and don't let the camera or subject move during the exposure, and don't set the ISO too high or the JPEG quality too low. Books are written on these techniques, so we won't cover them here, but at least now you know what to study and practice, right?

No matter the time frame or setting, the cover is calling card and preview of not just the cover story, but a primer on the character, style, and quality of what’s inside. The cover — image, graphics, typography, etc. — are meant as a promise that you can judge this book by its cover. Perhaps Dave Hook, publisher of General Aviation Security, sums things up with this simple observation: “Magazine covers are first impressions.” Publishers are keen to make a good one, so give them what they want and they could return the favor.

A Tale of Two Cities. I mean, Pixies. No. Wait. Pictures. A Tale of Two Pictures!

In the world of aerospace marketing, air-to-air images are often the default for magazine covers. But what if the important story has no budget or time for an air-to-air shoot? What if you must shoot from the ground?

It helps if the subject of the photograph is inherently dynamic, like a fast jet, but fast jets can be rendered dully and a wood-and-fabric biplane sitting on the grass can, through the photographic arts, be rendered as an eye-catching siren. Here’s a jet, not as fast as some but still traveling at about 140 knots. And below it, a biplane sitting on grass. What would recommend each for or against a cover position?

This MD82 photo as a cover? Um, no.

MD-82 AA San Jose 20080729 12xz

First, of course, this is a majorly horizontal image. The aircraft, as presented, is very wide in the frame. Cropping to fit the cover of a magazine would excise most of the aircraft and leave swaths of uninteresting background. Admittedly, that would provide plenty of space for the flag (often mislabeled as the masthead) and cover lines (text), but it would be more space than needed.

The lighting is fair. There’s plenty of it, so everything is clear, but it’s mid-day, not a sought-after hour because of the generally harsh nature of that overhead sun, though the evident haze softens that harshness and pales the background, allowing us to better focus on the subject. A good news/bad news situation. But photographed from the side the fuselage appears as a simple tube visually broken only by the vertical stabilizer and landing gear. The wings and horizontal stabilizers have no dimension from this angle; the engine is its own tube but doesn’t otherwise relieve the simple profile of the airliner.

The nose gear is still in the air, which is a plus, and the smoke trailing the main gear indicates they are just touching down. So, there is some actual action but the side-view composition mutes much of its potential. There are too many factors working against this as a cover shot.

How about a Hawker Fury? It might work.

Hawker Fury K1930 20120518 10oz

The photo is tall. Vertical. Portrait. Whatever term you use, the image has the proportions suited for a magazine cover. Step one — done. There’s plenty of sky above the upper wing to fit the magazine’s flag, and room down both sides of the fuselage to take those cover lines. So far so good.

The lighting is, again, fair. (I discovered, in the metadata for these two images, they were shot within minutes of each other on their respective days — the MD82 at 11:13, in San Jose, California, the Fury at 11:06 in Virgina Beach, Virginia, though four years apart.) Thus, again, mid-day sun. The Fury photo also has some atmospheric haze to soften the light but not enough distance for the haze to pale the trees. (I’ll get to that in a bit.) Here I’ve also chosen an angle to the sun that puts it more in front of me (I’m facing south) instead of coming over my shoulder (facing northeast in San Jose) so it gives a bit more form to the shapes.

And there are more shapes. The fuselage is seen along its length, so tapers visually in addition to its structural tapering. The upper wing makes a straight bar across the frame. The lower wing has some dihedral, which adds slight diagonal shapes and, because its silver skin is in the shade of the upper wing, it is colored blue by reflecting the sky. Struts and wires and tires, oh my! Lots going on, even though the airplane is going nowhere.

Now let me address the elephant in the photo or, rather, the out-of-focus vertical stabilizer in the photo. I had to let that go out of focus if I wanted the cockpit and wings in focus without, and here’s the key, without the trees also being in focus. I wanted the aircraft to not merge with those trees. So, to keep them from being sharp, I had to let the vertical be not sharp. I almost got it all — notice how the horizontal stabilizer is good, but being a couple feet closer to the lens, that vertical just couldn’t make it to the sharpness party. (I admit that, at the small size in this article, the trees appear to be in focus, but all full, magazine-cover, size they are blurrier than the airplane.)

Bold shapes and colors, lots of contrast without losing detail, composed with room for the other elements of the cover. It could work.

The ringer — K-MAX with Firemax tank.

K-MAX N267KA Kawak tank first flight 20050615 196z

Would this photo be suitable for a cover? Yes. Is that just my opinion? No. Rotor & Wing thought so too. (I can’t find the issue online or in my files. Sorry.)

Why did it make the grade? Portrait orientation. Bold composition with big diagonals, of the aircraft and the cascade of water, plus the crossed main rotor blades. Great lighting. Room at the top for the flag. Room down the sides for the cover lines. The image tells a story, shows action, and since the sight of a K-MAX dropping water from a fixed tank was totally unique at the time (this was the first flight for the tank), knowledgeable people would certainly want to crack open the magazine and learn all about it. Shot from the ground but I met all the requirements. Done, done, done!


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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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