Shooting a cover

The editor of a hobby magazine emailed yesterday to ask for a vertical-format photo to use as a potential cover for a feature I wrote. I spent the next several hours composing and shooting 13 potential covers.

Shooting a cover.
(Lights, camera, cover? We’ll see if this composition makes the cut…)

I’m pretty excited: If my photo is used, it’ll be the first cover story related to my current layout in a mainstream monthly print publication. (My previous, Maine On2 layout made the cover of RMC several times.)

Cover shots are tricky. First, the vertical format is really challenging for almost all layout photography. We normally view our models (and our layouts) from the side. But the vertical format for a cover means it makes more sense to shoot along the layout instead of across it.

As anyone who has done layout tour photography will know, that creates all sorts of challenges. For example, Even if you’re just focussing on a couple of models in the foreground – just a few feet in front of the camera – you may have an expanse of sky that’s going to need lighting. In the case of the above photo, I had to light up about 15 feet of backdrop in Port Rowan, plus the background at the west end of St. Williams – about 25 feet away from the lens.

Another issue is the nature of trains themselves. Our model trains are low (extending just a few inches above the rails) but long (running for several feet). So shooting a train side-on is impossible when taking a vertical format photograph. Even shooting even a single piece of equipment side-on is tricky. For a vertical photo, even if the model fills the frame side-to-side, there’s going to be a ton of boring sky above it.

This is another reason to build realistically tall trees. They help add interest to the photo. It helps, too, that on a cover, much of the top of any photo will be covered by the magazine’s name/logo. There will also be several call-outs on the cover – “Gluing things to other things: Page 48” and so on – that help hide less desirable elements in the background of a photo. In my case, I have a sharp vertical line where the backdrop curves away from Port Rowan to enter the Lynn Valley, but cloning some trees in PhotoShop, combined with the logo and call-outs, will make that disappear from the viewer’s perception.

The logo, the call-outs, and other items like the location of mailing labels and UPC codes are all things one needs to think about while composing a cover. And that’s before any considerations about scene composition and engagement with the casual viewer. A cover needs to grab attention on the rack – whether it’s in a hobby-friendly location like the local model train emporium, or in an agnostic location like a book shop or grocery store, where it’s competing not only with other model railroading publications, but also all those other magazines vying for our money.

I know my layout photographs well, because I’ve found many interesting places to shoot images on it (which I’ve shared on this blog). But I’ve rarely done vertical format photos and I was surprised at how difficult it was to find an interesting location to shoot when the camera was rotated 90 degrees.

We’ll see how well I did if/when my shot is used on the cover.

Beyond that, I will wait until the article comes out before I reveal what it’s about and what magazine it’s in. At that time, I’ll also share some of the rejected cover shots.

Stay tuned…

12 thoughts on “Shooting a cover

    • Hi Jack:
      It’s a Manfrotto “Reproduction Arm” – possibly the 131D (I can’t remember):

      Manfrotto reproduction arm.

      It mounts on the top of a standard tripod instead of a tripod head, and has mounting points at each end for a standard tripod head. I really like it.
      I find it particularly flexible with the ball-type head seen in the photo. I can swing the mount around so it’s under the arm, putting the camera upside down with the lens just an inch or so above the track/scenery. I can then rotate the image 180 degrees in PhotoShop so it’s right side up.
      Cheers!

  1. Trevor, I am interested in how this all works out for you. In my “world” things are just a little different. We do not clutter up cover photos with our banner or any article call outs. We just use a sharp, interesting photo from the cover article. The only thing that goes on the photo is the little rectangle with the lines/price in it (1′ x 5/8″). As the editor of N-Scale Magazine, I get to see a large number of cover shots each month. I know how hard it is to get an excellent vertical image, regardless of the scale of the model. I wish you the best as you trek down this path.

  2. Looking forward to the cover, and the article! I’d also be interested in digging up the old RMCs with your Maine 2-footer layout – do you mind if I ask which issues those were? Thanks!

  3. Trevor, are you shooting with he Fiilex P360’s? If so, is the image shown using the diffuser? Thanks….gregg

    • Hi Gregg:
      Yes, I shot the cover using Fiilex P360s. The image shown, however, was taken with my iPhone (because my real camera – a Canon Digital Rebel – is on the tripod). So don’t judge the lights by the image – the iPhone, after all, is a nice smartphone camera but doesn’t hold a candle to a real one.
      I used no filters for my cover shot. All I did was adjust the colour temperature on the Fiilex lights to match my layout lighting.
      FYI, I use the Fiilex lights for my equipment portraits as well as over my workbench. I really like them.
      Cheers!

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