How to Create Cover Photos That Sell: 5 Tips

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(Editor’s Note: James Patrick is an award-winning photographer, best-selling author, entrepreneur coach, podcast host and public speaker based in Phoenix, AZ. You can learn more about him at JamesPatrick.com.)

It is not enough to take a cover photo; you have to make an image that works. A strong cover has to stand out against other magazines on newsstands while still falling within the brand of the publication itself.

In my career as a photographer, I’ve had the opportunity and, honestly, the privilege of photographing more than 500 magazine covers that have appeared on newsstands in more than a dozen countries across the world.

Deconstructing the past two decades of cover campaigns, I’ve pulled together the following five guidelines to support fellow photographers in creating cover images that work.

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Cover photo by James Patrick

#1 Know the Brand

It is important as a contributor to understand the outlet you are creating visuals for. Flipping through a handful of past issues to get a clear sense of their artistic and creative direction will absolutely help you prepare a creative approach that showcases your abilities while still honoring the brand itself.

For example, depending on the media outlet I am working with (or even pitching to) I know there are certain poses they like or dislike, certain lighting styles they prefer or avoid, their preference on styling and even the energy or emotion they gravitate towards.

Whereas with one publication I need to focus on intense, moody and strong expressions with a stoic stance and presence in solid color styling without any patterns, another publication may want to see movement with bold and bright colors in styling and big exuberant expressions.

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Cover photo by James Patrick

#2 Pre-Production

The more prep that can be done prior to the shoot happening, the more you as the photographer will set yourself and your entire team up for success. Some elements to consider when preparing for the cover campaign include:

Location: Are you shooting in studio, on location or a mix of both? Do you need to obtain any permits for location sets or permission from business owners?

Styling: What is the wardrobe the publication prefers or wants to see for the cover shoot?

Hair & Makeup: What does the editorial or creative team want for hair and makeup? Establish this prior to going into the shoot by talking to the photo editor or creative director and relaying that information to your makeup artist on set.

A mood board can be extremely helpful for everyone on set. Consider prepping together a board that includes samples for hair and makeup, styling as well as posing and expressions for those on set to refer to when shooting.

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Cover photo by James Patrick

#3 Importance of Contrast

One of the things that makes a cover stand out on newsstands is contrast. This can be achieved either with lighting like a high-key lighting set up with a darker subject on a white background or through contrasting colors such as the color of the outfit and styling against the color of the background.

When eyes are scanning across a newsstand you want the cover you shot to immediately be recognized as a part of the consistency with a brand as well as stand out against other competitor magazines on newsstands at that same time.

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Cover photo by James Patrick

#4 Strong Focal Point

Another way to capture eyes is with a strong focal point on the cover. This often is a subject looking directly into the camera with their face in the top third of the layout. Although this concept has and can be broken effectively, when the subject is looking directly into the camera they are looking into the eyes of the viewer.

You want to ensure the subject’s face is near the top third of the image as on most shelf placement on newsstands, unless the cover is up front, the bottom two-thirds will be covered up by another magazine.

More often than not, a majority of my portrait cover shoots I am using a telephoto lens as I prefer how it presents the body of a subject. That being stated, strong poses to create leading lines back to the subject’s face add to the focal point.

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Cover photo by James Patrick

#5 Bring the Emotion

Ultimately, the right emotion is the most important element in a cover image. With the right energy that you as the creator evoke through the subject, you are able to provide the reader with a specific feeling.

Earlier in my career I worked as a photo editor for both newspapers and magazines and was responsible for culling through thousands of images to select the photos to be used on a magazine cover or on the front page of a newspaper.

The images that immediately surfaced to the top of the list were images that impacted with a strong emotion achieved through expression, movement or even composition.

With this focused approach, you will create stronger images that not only resonate with magazine editors, but help the magazine sell more issues!

James Patrick is an award-winning photographer with more than 500 published magazine covers, entrepreneur coach, podcast host and best-selling author of Fit Business Guide: The Workout Plan for Your Brand. He is the founder of FITposium, an annual conference and online education network for fitness entrepreneurs to thrive in their careers. His work can be seen at JamesPatrick.com or you can listen to his podcast Beyond the Image wherever you get your shows.

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