Cover Photo? No, Maybe, Done.
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 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? Umm…no.
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 truly effective cover shot. See?
How about a Hawker Fury? Maybe.
The photo is tall. Vertical. Portrait. Whatever term you use, the image has the orientation and proportions suited for a magazine cover. Step one — check. 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, however, I've 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 more dimension 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 forms 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 appears blue by reflecting the sky. Struts and wires and tires, oh my! Lots going on, though the Fury 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. (Admittedly, 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.
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 both 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!
Keywords: action, airplane, aviation, composition, cover art, cover line, cover lines, design, dynamic, dynamism, editor, flag, helicopter, magazine, magazine cover, masthead, photography, publisher, technique
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Photography is a massive field. Aerospace photography less so. In these writings I share stories and tips.