Cover photos: a mix of frustration and satisfaction

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Getting good photos to include in our magazine is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. There’s something about a great photo that not only excites me, but I also hope it creates a sense of interest in our readers and lets them enjoy our articles just that extra little bit. And an exceptional photo may pull in a few new readers from time to time, too.

First of all, let me get this out of the way. I don’t think we’re going to compete with National Geographic or Condé Nast when it comes to our photography. We’re not in the “artful woodworking photography” business. We mainly use images to relay a woodworking technique or show a nice completed project on our pages. Having said that, a strong image is simply a joy to see, so I try to do my best to run the best images possible on our pages.

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The Final Cover – This photo, along with these sell lines and supporting images in the “skybar,” made up our final cover. The darkness outside the shop helps keep the interior of the shop that much more powerful. Probably half of the photo is of the exterior of my shop, which gives us a nice background for running phrases to showcase the different articles in the issue.

Our cover process

Even though we include about 150 images in each issue, as well as many more images from sponsors, it’s the cover image everyone sees first, so it’s what we spend more time on. I shoot most of our covers, though we do use images that come in from our team of writers if their shots are appropriate.

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Starting Point – These two photos were a part of the first batch of shots I (very quickly) took with my smartphone. I shot them during the day, they were slightly out of focus and I didn’t stage them much at all. The team didn’t like the shot of me at my workbench, as they thought the view through the narrow door made the image a bit too claustrophobic. Neither are great shots, but they helped get the discussion rolling.

It’s not just CW&HI employees that work on our covers; we also work with a circulation expert who fine-tunes our covers for our readers’ eyes. Our team discusses our final cover many times before it goes off to the printer. I start by emailing some rough options, usually consisting of a few quick shots of projects or techniques we may want to feature on the cover. The options quickly get whittled down to a pair of best bets. From there I do a quick and dirty photo shoot to see what the others think. Lighting, composition, staging and many other factors are considered, but not fussed over too much at this stage. I usually end up with anywhere from three to five general approaches, and the crew lets me know their preferences.

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Getting Closer – This image from the second shoot is at late dusk, and is composed a bit more carefully. The focal point (me working inside the shop) is small, and it didn’t quite have the impact we were looking for.

Next, I get more serious with one or two compositions. At this stage, I usually send the cover options to our art director, Jonathan Cresswell-Jones, who mocks them up and then sends them around for everyone to see. It’s amazing how much different a photo will look once it’s been carefully cropped, the sell lines are added and a few details adjusted with Photoshop.

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A Bit Boring – Also from the second shoot, this image shows the action inside my shop a lot tighter, but the straight-on view is fairly dull. The lack of anything even vaguely exciting on the rear wall is also not helping this boring photo’s chances.

As I mentioned, I enjoy this process, though until I get some good shots it can be very frustrating. Sometimes, just when I start to lose hope, I change my approach to the composition quite dramatically and things immediately fall into place. Sometimes I really have to wrestle with it.

First impressions

Our main goals with our covers is to catch eyes and make a strong first impression. We just released our June/July 2021 issue, which is our 11th annual “Working in a Small Shop” issue. I did three shoots, gradually honing in on what we thought would make for the best cover. In the past, I’ve often shot these small shop covers from the outside of a shop looking in, so I tried that approach this time, too.

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A Bit Creepy – While working on the second round I thought a shot through an older glazed window might be interesting. It was, but mainly in the horror film genre way. Our art director mentioned how it reminded him of the way Brian de Palma directed his horror-suspense films. This wasn’t the feel we were after.

Due to our lead times, shooting for this issue took place in late March and early April. It was about 2° outside when I took these dusk shots. I would have loved a parka (I’m a wimp when it comes to the cold), but that’s not going to look so great on a summer issue. I sacrificed my health and safety for the cold, but that’s why I get paid the big bucks.

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Almost There – In my third photo shoot, I got a lot more serious with composition, staging and lighting. I find in this image I’m a bit too passive, as I check on a freshly routed piece of wood.

When it comes to some of my favourite covers over the years a few small shop-themed issues come to mind. I’ll share some of those with you next week.

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We Have a Winner – Rather than just stand there and look at some wood, I opted to don some PPE and pretend to make some sawdust. I like to see action on a cover, so that’s why I voted for this shot. It also has a more dynamic composition with an off-center focal point, and a good mix of high and low lights. There was some question about the use of a mask in the shot, as we wondered out loud whether readers would be tired of seeing masks well over a year into a pandemic, and might also unconsciously relate a negative thought with seeing one here. My thought was that seeing woodworkers wear PPE should be a comforting thought, rather than off-putting.

The completed deck

Over a few recent weekly columns, I’ve talked about the tiny, yet painful, deck expansion project I worked on. It’s all done now, so I thought I should include a photo as proof of completion. Full respect to anyone who works outside, and has enough foresight to bring all the necessary tools to the jobsite at the start of a project. I have a lot to learn.

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All Done, Thankfully – What started out as a simple project, turned into a slog, but it’s finally complete. Well, just about. I still have to apply a finish to the deck once the boards dry out a bit.

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