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.

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 Railroad Model Craftsman magazine 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 bars 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. 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. Stay tuned…

Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and amateur shepherd, training a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

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