Magazine Covers

– Posted in: Garden Photography


Bountiful Gardens Cover mock-up

Both Debra Lee and I have shared stories of how cover photos are chosen for our books.  (See my post about the cover of Homegrown Herbs or Debra Lee’s post on Succulent Container Gardens)  Magazines are much different.  They have multiple stories to tell, virtually putting the table of contents up front for quick reference.

This will be a little story on the cover of the new issue of Mother Earth News and a photo I shot almost 2 years ago.  The fanciful cover of “Bountiful Gardens” above, is an outtake, using the photo I thought was the strongest.  Note how the focal area is off center and allows for “sell lines” – the text on a magazine cover that sells the stories within.

Every magazine and every art director has  a different set of challenges with a cover.  Some magazines depend heavily on newsstand sales (though the definition of newsstand is quickly changing), whereas those with a largely subscriber base don’t need to convince the reader about the value of the content within.  Mother Earth News has lots of sell lines and the ideal photo must be carefully composed.

This photo shoot took place in the front yard of Rosalind Creasy’s delightful edible landscape.  Her book, Edible Landscaping has just come out but had been years in the planning; and the photo shoot itself was planned in anticipation of current interest and publicity for the book.

We set up in her front yard and assembled the props – all of which came from her garden.  Ros is a master at these sort of harvest basket shoots, having perfected them with photographer David Cavagnaro many years ago.  She has an assortment of baskets, trugs, and assorted charming garden accoutrements for just these occasions.

harvest basket in Creasy front garden

For this cover shoot we knew the magazine needed lots of room for the sell lines and the only window to the photo would be in the lower right of the final crop.  This preliminary picture, while technically having the emphasis of the photo in the lower right, has much too much of the background in focus, which leads to confusion when type is positioned on it.  And the veggies are placed awkwardly, with little symmetry.

A slight change in camera angle (note how the squashes at the top are now better isolated against the path beyond), a longer lens, and moving the beans to the fore gives us the final composition, the best stand alone photo, and the one in my mock-up cover Bountiful Gardens.

harvest basket cover photo

Looks sorta naked.  But this is even too tight for the magazine.  Their sell lines wrap all around the cover, even under the photo.  So I loosened up:

final cover photo for Mother Earth News

Now the basket is smaller in the photo, but won’t get lost when the type is added.  It appears in just the right spot:

cover Mother Earth News May 2011

One might be tempted to say it is too crowded with type, but their readers like to know the April/May issue is full and even over brimming with useful stories.  The white area is for mail, fortunately that box is not on the newsstand version, but never-the-less an area that must be anticipated by the art director.

I learned long ago that sales and marketing folks decide the covers of publications, for books and magazines.  It’s their job, with more complex considerations than photographers or writers.  One learns to trust the collaborative process, and be happy to work on interesting projects.

And I got to take home a lot of those props – the edible ones anyway.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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Lisa at Greenbow May 12, 2011, 6:29 am

I always learn something when reading your accounts of shoots. How to look before shooting has been the best tip for me. This was a yummy job.

Lisa – The job would have been more yummy if I had been able to take home all the “props”, but they were for Ros. – Saxon

Donna May 12, 2011, 9:26 am

This was a most interesting article for me. I love to learn the tricks of the trade since I was an illustrator previously for an upscale department store. My hand drawn illustrations had to anticipate the copy and headline since the Director did not supply thumbnail sketches for direction. I do all on computer now and what a great time saver.

I do a monthly magazine on my blog each month and the cover is such fun to design. Always hard to find an image that will work and no time to shoot just for it in the blog world. Your tips are most helpful and like you said, in other print forms the design concept is quite different than a magazine. Lots of info in a limited space.

Donna – Thanks for commenting. So often a cover image (or illustration) would never hold up as a strong composition by itself and it is indeed fun to see what the designers come up with. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin May 12, 2011, 2:44 pm

From an aesthetic standpoint, the cover you cleverly created—Special Gardening Gone Wild Edition—is my favorite, but I do get why mags such as Mother Earth do their covers the way they do. It’s brimming indeed, a subliminal message to readers that they’re getting their money’s worth. Do you set up potential cover shots whenever you’re on location, and/or do they occur to you as you’re looking through the lens, so you frame the subject accordingly?

Thanks for the comment – and question, DL.
The MEN shoot was only for a cover and we spent the whole shoot with intent to get one photo
I occasionally set up cover shots when I am on an assignment for a specific magazine, but more likely, I simply keep their format in mind as I go about my business. If the Art Director has specifically asked for a cover, then of course, I will set up a scene, but the time it takes to set up and shoot all the slightly different compositions drastically cuts into the very limited time when garden light is good. Better to shoot many different garden scenes and let the editor decide if they have a cover in the body of work. – Saxon

Sheila Schultz May 12, 2011, 6:20 pm

If I take into account all of your hints for cover shots, photos of my containers will be more thoughtfully arranged. Definitely a thought provoking blog. Thanks…

Glad to help – that’s what we are here for – Saxon

Cathy May 12, 2011, 7:13 pm

Such an informative and thought provoking topic and one I knew absolutely nothing about. I continue to learn so much about photography and especially about composition and light from GGW. Your example and explanation of the way you tweaked the angle of the shot makes the whole thing so much easier to understand (and hopefully put into practice). Your cover photo says WOW in 3 inch letters! Thanks so much for the lesson!

Thanks Cathy – sometimes I worry I talk too much biz and not enough gardening, so I’m glad you find it useful – Saxon

catmint May 13, 2011, 7:33 am

Interesting post, thanks Saxon, I am on a huge learning curve with photography, and like Cathy found it a good lesson. cheers, cat

The basic lesson is always to use the entire frame of your camera. With covers somstimes you have to use empty space. – Saxon

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