Anatomy of a Magazine Cover


Super Star
May 11, 2012
Thought some of you would find this interesting :)

part 1

What does it take to produce a magazine cover? Well, start with $100,000. Considering the many expenditures involved, that’s almost a minimum budget for creating a memorable image. From the basics of a studio photo shoot to the extravagant requests celebrities often make on location, here’s a look at what’s behind those coy smiles on the newsstand.

In the earliest stages of planning a magazine issue, a special projects or entertainment editor will approach a potential cover subject. This initial outreach typically happens two to eight months before the shoot, though major stars are often sought out for covers more than a year in advance.

“We approached [the Olsen twins] a year and a half before the shoot,” said Allure editor in chief Linda Wells, of her May 2004 cover. “Everyone thought I was crazy at the time because they were still doing tween movies. But we pegged it to their 18th birthday, and it ended up being one of our bestsellers.”

“It depends how much competition there is over them and their project,” said Teen Vogue editor in chief Amy Astley. “For peace of mind, I like to have covers booked a little ahead.…But a lot of [celebrities] like to leave their options open now, so it’s hard.”

Once the celebrity has signed on, the star’s publicist and the magazine then haggle over various contract riders. These are additional requests made by the star and might include, but are not limited to, the type of transportation and accommodations provided by the magazine, what kind of motor home will be available if the shoot is on location, extra space for the star’s privacy, the names of hair and makeup artists the star would prefer to use, specific food requests for catering and stipulations that publicists and/or bodyguards be brought to the shoot at the magazine’s expense.

“Usually, it’s not just a diva-esque request,” Wells said diplomatically. “There might be an awkward history [with a stylist or a writer], or there’s been some violation of trust.” However, she added, “Sometimes we’ve had celebrities ask for their own hair and makeup people.…When we’ve bent the rules and acquiesced, it usually hasn’t yielded the best results.”

Since top hair and makeup people can charge upward of 10 times the standard editorial rate of $200 to $250 per day, upgrading can be an expensive request to indulge. However, when a star insists on bringing in his or her own team, the studio behind the project the celebrity is promoting will sometimes step in to defray costs.

Shortly after the cover is booked, someone from the magazine talks to the celebrity or the celebrity’s publicist about the direction of the shoot. Photographers are discussed, as are styles of clothing and locations that might be used. If the celebrity favors certain designers or has a cosmetics contract, those relationships are disclosed. Also discussed are styles and designers the star prefers not to wear, angles at which he or she prefers not to be shot and body parts he or she does not want shown. Independently, the editor in chief and art and/or photo directors will meet to discuss what they want from the cover image.

“We look to see what’s been done before, all the covers [the celebrity has] done, who’s photographed them. Are they comfortable posing in front of the camera? Are they comfortable moving their bodies?” said Laurie Kratochvil, the photo director of In Style. “We look at our last few covers. Have we done a tight headshot? Have we done a full body?….For a while, we were doing very much a head and shoulder thing, which got a little boring.” Now, celebrities appear on In Style’s mostly white backgrounds shot over the shoulder, in the “crouching starlet” pose or just sitting on the floor.

Then a photographer is booked. Most magazines have a select group they use for covers. At some titles, the photographers are on contract and are paid a flat fee for their work — anywhere from five to seven figures annually. Other companies simply have a verbal understanding with their photographers and pay them on a daily and/or per-page basis.

High-profile photographers often have a great deal of say in creating the cover image, and they also have their own sources of inspiration. Just as fashion designers consult vintage stores like What Comes Around Goes Around, and chefs frequent Bonnie Slotnick’s cookbook shop, many photographers look to Gallagher’s Fashion and Design magazine archive in Manhattan’s East Village for ideas. The influence of images past is sometimes barely perceptible. In other cases, such as in Esquire’s November 2003 cover with Britney Spears, which re-created a classic 1966 Angie Dickinson pose, the photographer makes an overt homage.

“Nothing ever dies in fashion,” said Michael Gallagher, magazine archive owner. “It just comes back around. Art directors are the worst — they copy too much sometimes. But when it works, it works. Why not re-create something beautiful and put your own spin on it?”

Should the publication so choose — or should, say, a celebrity cancel at the last minute — a model might be booked for the cover instead. Models are reserved anywhere from a few months in advance to just days before the shoot. The going rate for editorial work is $225 a day plus 10 percent to the model’s agency — even for supermodels such as Daria Werbowy, Karolina Kurkova and Liya Kedebe, who is currently on the May cover of Vogue.

“[Editorial work] is not going to pay the same rate as selling jewelry or cosmetics [in an advertising campaign],” said Ivan Bart, senior vice president of IMG Models. “But doing covers leads to other opportunities.…In the same way that Julianne Moore does a magazine cover to promote a film, models are on covers to promote their interests, too.”

About a month before the shoot, a photo editor from the magazine reserves a studio space — usually Milk or Pier 59 in New York or SmashBox or Quixote in Los Angeles — or hires an outside producer to begin scouting and coordinating locations.

“When the editor or photographer comes to me, there’ll generally be an overall idea of where the shoot should be, what the clothes are and who the subject is,” said Victoria Brynner, an executive producer with Stardust Visions, a production company based in Los Angeles. “We’ll scout locations and post our pictures on a Web site, so that everybody — the photographer, the editor, the stylist — has a chance to take a look and decide which location is most appropriate.”

Prop stylists, hair and makeup people, a manicurist and a caterer are put on hold, as are any other extras that might be used — say, the lions that appeared with Drew Barrymore in the April Vogue cover shoot. The photo editor or independent producer also books all necessary travel arrangements, accommodations and limousine services. A few days before the shoot, call sheets are sent out to everyone who will be attending, and anyone at the magazine who might need to reach someone on set.

Shortly after the direction is established, the fashion editor and stylist working on the story begin assembling inspiration boards of runway shots and photos. At least three weeks before the shoot, market editors begin calling in clothes and accessories for consideration. A run-through is scheduled, and more clothes are called in if necessary. Once the looks have been picked, all items are sent to the location. If the clothes have to fly, they are usually accompanied by a stylist’s assistant. Since celebrities are typically not sample size, there will often be a fitting the day before so that clothes can be altered to fit the cover subject’s frame. If that doesn’t work, often designers will offer clothes straight from the racks of their stores.

The photographer and crew are usually the first to arrive and set up. If a set needs to be built, it’s constructed.

The caterers get there to set up for breakfast and lunch.

“I think there are a lot of misconceptions about photo shoots and models and celebrities,” said Pam D’Orazio, who owns Palma in the West Village and caters many magazine shoots in New York. “People think they don’t eat dessert — they love dessert.” And some love it so much they make special requests. One star’s manager is known for calling ahead and asking for specific dessert recipes. If there are any leftovers, he’s apparently not shy about taking them home.

Hair and makeup people come in an hour or two before the celebrity, who is the last person to arrive on set. While most celebrities have cars in Los Angeles, and many have homes just blocks from the two major studios in New York, few stars offer to get themselves to and from a shoot. Notable exceptions are Julianne Moore, who has been known to walk to locations in New York, and Jennifer Aniston, who frequently drives herself to shoots in Los Angeles. (Uma Thurman, on the other hand, reportedly prefers to be chauffeured, even if it’s just a few blocks.)

If the shoot is not in New York or Los Angeles, chances are everyone has to be flown to the location. A-list celebrities, top photographers and top editors and stylists are almost always flown first class. B-list stars, assistants, hair and makeup people and publicists fly coach and must upgrade on their own. While most magazines will only make commercial flight arrangements, there have been instances where celebrities have requested and gotten private jet and helicopter flights to “save time” on a cover shoot.
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Super Star
May 11, 2012
part 2
Within a week, contact sheets from the photographer arrive at the magazine. Film is picked by the art and photo departments and the editor in chief. A print order is made and the retouching and color correcting process begins, which can take up to two weeks. Most magazines and photographers use Box Studios in New York. Simultaneously, an editor in chief and other editors at the magazine generate cover lines, while the art department uses scans from the original contact sheets to mock up versions of the cover. While stars often ask for photo approval, it’s rarely ever granted. However, many celebrities and models are able to see polaroids during the shoot and can make objections if something looks off to them then.

Once the editor in chief has narrowed down the possibilities, two to five potential covers are tested, typically by an outside vendor using an e-mail survey. The vendor sends an e-mail blast to people who are asked to rate cover lines and images. Within 48 hours, the editor in chief receives the results of the test and makes his or her final decisions about which image and cover lines to use for the issue.

While some editors argue cover testing limits the creative process, its devotees say the opposite is true. Astley ended up going with a riskier cover choice for the June issue of Teen Vogue in part because of cover tests. “We had lots of different options that were all fairly conventional, with [cover subject Lindsay Lohan] just sitting there,” said Astley. “We thought here at the magazine that the image with her eyes closed was fun and different, but we didn’t know if it would work. The feedback we got [from kids through testing] just helped us follow our convictions.”

Once the cover has been finalized, the image is sent to the printing plant — typically located in some far off, glamorous locale like Baraboo, Wisc., or Dyersburg, Tenn. — in an electronic file, along with a color proof. Depending on the magazine, someone from production may go with the magazine to the plant. It takes roughly two weeks to print and bind the issue. Within seven days after the issue is bound, magazines arrive on newsstands and in subscribers’ mailboxes. And then, of course, the process begins all over again.


Worker Bee
Sep 16, 2013
Interesting! I've always been curious about what goes into putting a cover together!

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Super Star
Jan 17, 2012
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
One of the most interesting articles I've read these days.

OTOH I am not entirely sure if it's good we know so many things from "the inside" about fashion in general. Everything loses it's charm when pulled apart and analysed to the detail. The curiosity is overwhelming sometimes (inherent to human nature), but then you feel a little disappointed and almost "dirty" for taking a peek.


VIP - Insider
May 24, 2012
This is so accurate with regard to celebrities. I recently shot my first celebrity cover, having mostly shot models before, it's pretty frustrating having a rack of incredible garments and not having any say regrading what gets used, especially when the celeb insists on wearing the blandest pieces and leaves some really show stopping looks untouched. It's also weird working around certain things (body parts, poses, angles, facial expressions) to create a shoot that's succinct with how the celebrity's agent demands they be portrayed, It's not bad on the whole, and totally makes sense, but I definitely prefer shooting models where there's a lot more flexibility, a lot less people trying to have their say, and just a generally more fun, and creatively expressive, shoot!
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Worker Bee
Mar 18, 2012
This is so accurate with regard to celebrities. I recently shot my first celebrity cover, having mostly shot models before, it's pretty frustrating having a rack of incredible garments and not having any say regrading what gets used, especially when the celeb insists on wearing the blandest pieces and leaves some really show stopping looks untouched. It's also weird working around certain things (body parts, poses, angles, facial expressions) to create a shoot that's succinct with how the celebrity's agent demands they be portrayed, It's not bad on the whole, and totally makes sense, but I definitely prefer shooting models where there's a lot more flexibility, a lot less people trying to have their say, and just a generally more fun, and creatively expressive, shoot!

This is interesting (and infuriating in a sense too!). I can imagine that some of those pieces on the rack are just out of this world. To see them, let alone wear them, let alone be photographed wearing them would be such a privilege; it's such a shame that they get wasted for the safe choice in so many instances. Not to mention, how often (even as a celebrity) do you get the chance to wear something totally unique and artistic?

I imagine the posing restrictions and creativity restrictions are also more prevalent on commercial as opposed to editorial/high fashion shoots? Which is why a lot of photographers prefer the latter to the former?

I noticed that celebrities who get photographed for magazine shoots tend to fall into one of two categories: 1) they're big (either because they've had long-term exposure like Gwyneth Paltrow or Jennifer Aniston or they are hyped up over an upcoming blockbuster like Kristen Stewart or Jennifer Lawrence). 2) they're "fashion-oriented" (what I mean is they seem to have a genuine love of, and compatibility with, the fashion industry. Someone like Kate Bosworth is a good example in that she doesn't do many high exposure films, but she seems very into fashion/style). Or Alexa Chung and Olivia Palermo let's say.

Are celebrities that fall into 1) the types that tend to be more boring and restrictive, whereas the ones that fall into 2) easier to work with and more likely to take risks? Also, do you think that the maintained relevance of the types of actresses/celebrities in 2) (those who aren't doing anything big but are still present in fashion publications) is because they genuinely love fashion and that readily comes across, or because physically a lot of them tend to be closer to the fashion aesthetic of skinny?