JUDGE A BOOK BY IT’S COVER by Robin Macmillan

We’ve often been told “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” but in my case, that’s exactly what I want you to do. To publishers, one of the most important aspects of a book cover is how well it helps sell the book and book cover photography is usually the main ingredient.


As a fine art photographer, I never dreamed that this would be a category of my business that I would fall in love with. Yes, my photography is known for telling a story but it was always about what I wanted to say. There are times as an artist though that the well runs dry with ideas and this was happening to me. I was nearing the end of my very personal and meaningful environmental series “Footprints” and I was blocked. I was reaching a point where I didn’t know how to go forward.

Then one day a friend and fellow photographer mentioned a highly exclusive agency in England that used stock imagery for book covers. I was never keen on the whole “stock photo” world and I had ignored many requests from other agencies over the years. I decided to take a look at this particular one and noticed that many other conceptual photographers who I adore belonged to this prestigious agency. I submitted a portfolio the next day and within a week I was in the book cover game.

I’ve learned quite a bit in the last year and a half about book cover photography. It is a highly competitive arena for photographers but if you keep submitting quality work frequently you stand a better chance of actually making a career out of it. When I go out and shoot now I always have in the back of my mind, “would this make a great book cover?”



Although I am known for my conceptual portraiture, book cover photography has breathed new life into my work as I am able to try a variety of styles without being restricted. Often times a client will send out a specific request which will challenge you as a photographer, sending you out on shoots that you would have never thought of otherwise. My first book cover ever was called “The Rosemary Spell” and it was created for a specific client brief. I think it went something like this “young teen girl, blonde hair, gets pulled into a magical book with her friend.”


There are times when the jacket designers play around a bit with your imagery and you just have to be alright with that. It’s one of the stipulations when handing over your high res images to an agent. A perfect example is the cover below that was done for the Australian version of “The Book of Speculation”. You can see what the original photo looked like and then the end result.



I wouldn’t say book cover photography is a lucrative business to get into but there are a rare few that actually make a living doing so. To stay current and on the designer’s radar I try to watch for the changing international trends and I continually work on my technique and style. I use a variety of lenses with my Canon 5D Mark III including the Tamron 90mm F/2.8 1:1 Di VC USD SP MACRO for close up stills, the Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 Di VC USD for great portraiture, a 50mm and a 70-200mm. Since many book covers are period pieces I also have a growing variety of vintage dresses, hats, shoes, props and wigs to help with certain concepts. Models are sometimes hard to find when you’re dealing with something specific but generally I can use almost anybody who is willing and wants to see themselves on a book cover. I have been very lucky with my models who continually run barefoot in the woods for me or plunge into freezing cold waters just so I can get that magic shot.



Book cover imagery has quickly become an obsessive passion of mine. So please, the next time you head into a bookstore, be sure to judge a book by its cover!

Robin Macmillan




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