Why do magazines put actors on the cover? Face recognition? Popularity? Because everyone is dying to hear their political views and what kind of toast they eat for breakfast? No, there’s absolutely no correlation between an actors popularity and newsstand sales. It has to do with that elusive trait called charisma. Actors have the unique ability to forge an emotional connection with their audience on film. This is also why hiring a model with a perfect face and body and ignoring other more important qualities can turn into such a disaster for a photographer.

Casting models/talent is more difficult than most people realize and something every photographer needs to work on. It’s quite possible to build an entire career on the ability to cast great talent. If you can take a decent picture and possess that special ability to spot what makes a great subject on film you will go far in this business.

The funniest thing that always happens when people use models is they always pick one that looks like their wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, or college roommate. It’s human nature to do that but you really need to train yourself to look beyond your own preferences and think about the client or end user. Look at the attributes the other models had in successful campaigns or stories you like.

If you need a smile, guess what? There are those who do and those who don’t. Genuine facial expressions, holding natural body position and the ability to fake like you’re doing something is an art that has nothing to do with looks and body type.

Anyone ever heard of Jack Black?

Recommended Posts


  1. It’s Ironic you’ve put this up. My colleague and I were talking about this same topic this morning when we try and work on front cover Ideas.

  2. Let’s send Jack Black to shoot a bar mitzvah.

  3. bratt pitt right ?

  4. Thats a strange post actually as it completely contradicts what I’ve been told by others, editors even, that there’s a direct connection between cover star and that issues sales, at least for certain magazines such as those in entertainment, film, music. Some magazines I’m sure would have pretty even sales whatever is on the cover, but a music magazine, I’m told, can see a spike if that issue has a certain level of artist on the cover. I also read that Vanity Fair sees a rise for certain covers – like the Tom Cruise and family cover.

  5. you realize that you’re letting down an entire generation of Model Mayhem subscribers!

  6. Ankur, that’s JOE Black.

  7. @4: That Tom Cruise cover was about the baby. One actor will sell 100,000 more than another on VF and no one can tell you why. Covers are quite complicated and wildly unpredictable.

  8. There may be no correlation with newsstand sales – which I’d have to disagree with – but it has a lot to do with what those actors are selling, and they are – movies, clothing, DVDs, books, and a host of other things.

    About the second part. I’d like to meet the lucky guy who picked Adriana Lima saying, ‘Hey, she looks just like my wife!”

    Last part – absolutely! I’ve met models/actors who have that unique talent of smiling as if it’s no different than breathing.

  9. Re: correlation with newsstand sales – I have no way of proving my theory and you likely have stats proving yours…so my disagreeing on the matter has no real merit.

  10. Casting is one of the more tricky part of the business for photographers. I have always tried to find the look that coincides with the movie in my head. (every assignment becomes a movielet in my head… lighting, casting… that sorta stuff. Like when you read a novel.)

    I have had far more of what you describe coming from clients. “She reminds me of my ex.” “He looks so much like my neighbor boy and I hate him.” “Why would we use someone who looks like that?” “What I need is someone who looks really sexy, but has an innocence that is sensual.”

    All of the above are real quotes. Casting has so much to do with the tapes that roll in our heads as we look at others. Some have great tapes, most don’t.

    I prefer to work with a model or a subject that has performance experience… dancers, actors, skaters, athletes. They have more control on letting that ‘protective’ layer down so you can get inside and get the moments that show us something beyond the pic. Those people are rare. I have great respect for the ones who do it really well.

  11. I’m frankly tired of seeing acting stars on covers. Portfolio is interesting because they have moved away from that formula.

  12. I was just having a discussion about this recently as well after shoting with a model who was very in control of conveying not just the look, but also the emotion through the lens. I had received comments from a fellow photographer who noticed it too, and was impressed at her ability to do so. It made a clear difference in the images, as opposed to shooting “the girl next door.”

  13. I once had to shoot an ad for a medical company that bascially was a close-up of a mouth with a toungue sticking way out and a post-it note stuck on it. Now that was one funny casting session!

  14. As a seasoned editorial photographer, I must say that this is one of the best pieces of Fiction I’ve read in awhile, well since this mornings paper about gas prices falling. Any semi-sober human being knows that people buy magazines for the covers and the name recognition. Period!

  15. Hey CR Photog…
    1985 called and they want their photos back.

  16. I second Russell.

  17. @14: people buy magazines because of the cover lines. any newsstand director will tell you that little gem.

    the point is that popularity does not equal sales. i have plenty of proof. and, i’m using that to say, people should consider other things besides looks when choosing subjects to photograph.

    sometimes i like the way a photographer shoots but not the subjects they choose and that has an effect.

  18. I wish I always got to choose my subjects.

  19. Great insight and reminder, thank you!

  20. It also depends on why that person is on the cover, I think. Are they just promoting a movie? Or are they involved in a scandal?

    From a 1992 NYTimes article about the debut of People en Espanol: “The idea came about after People ran a split-cover edition following the 1995 murder of Selena, the Tejano singing star. The cover featuring Selena sold out, while the other, with the television cast of ‘Friends,’ did not.”

    So context is a factor that should be added to the mix. If someone had just killed David Schwimmer, maybe they would have both sold out.

  21. I’m always looking for more than a pretty face -And you are totally right when you say looking like you are doing something is an art in itself.

    Girls have asked for my opinion regarding what I think there potential as a model would be. Its like, I cant tell just by looking at you. There is way more to it than that.

  22. Casting is one of the most important parts of turning out a good picture. I have had 16 year old girls who spoke no English give me the most amazing moments and some seasoned veterans who bored me to death. Meeting the model beforehand is key to determining the relationship on set and thus an amazing photograph.

  23. Before reading this post I always thought that the only place where celebrity didn’t trump charisma would be National Geographic. And that was only if the subject was a sea lion or a cougar.

  24. @22: Absolutely. Although younger models are oftentimes stiff, more experienced models end up doing the same cliche expressions over and over, which is lame. I think what separates a good model from a bad one is not always age/experience, but something deeper inside. So you can never cast a model properly, just by their book. You have to meet them and see how they move/behave/interact.

    But casting aside, if a fashion magazine decides to put Sienna Miller on the cover instead of some model whose name nobody knows, don’t you think that would attract a lot of new readers? Or if a product design/furniture design magazine all of sudden throws Evan Green on a couch on the cover, don’t you think their “occasional” readers would definitely pick it up that time?

  25. Ahh yes…those absolutely gorgeous young ladies that can only do Meisel-robot poses and refuse to show anything genuine at all. I hate when models are “on” like that. It’s quite tricky sometimes to break them out of it. I end up shooting way more film with them, just to catch them off guard as much as possible.

    Hey there, Sarra!

  26. Just read these lines in a book of mine ” when we conduct our cover testing, we test the popularity of the celebrity we plan to use, and this gives us an indication of how they’ll sell the issue.


    Even the condenasties get it wrong

  27. @26: testing the popularity of someone as a cover image and not just as a person would work.

  28. Wow Christopher, I bet you’re also glad you don’t have Steven’s influence, success, experience, client list or access in the industry.

    Ever thought about a shoot as a collaboration with the model instead of an adversarial interaction trying to “catch them off guard as much as possible”?

  29. dude, it isn’t like that. Perhaps I wasn’t clear – I’m trying to get the models to collaborate in a way, but that is difficult when they have their little presets that they cling to. It is only rarely a problem, and I’ve found ways around it. I’m never adversarial at all. You are making some bold assumptions about me!

    And I wasn’t taking a shot at Meisel – if anything, I’m confirming his influence.

  30. Typo @24: Eva Green, not Evan.

    You know what’s weird? There are hardly any visual aids in the conversations on this blog. I’d love to see examples from one photographer, of a shoot where the casting was successful vs. one where the casting was “disastrous.”

  31. I avoid models as much as I can, I like using street casting or better yet hiring stage actors to model for still is always great. Models just end up modeling.

  32. […] made me think I would do at least one more. How do you know when to shoot victims and when not to? Models. Оказывается, фотографии актеров оказываются на […]

  33. Not sure how “Meisel-robot poses” is meant as a complement. The “presets” you’re referring to are probably influenced by bad catalog work or watching too much America’s Next Top Model. In any case, it’s moot. Steven is successful. Nuff said.

    I don’t get all this “models suck” business – it’s not like they’re somehow different from people who are street cast… street casting often results in cheesy poses because that’s what the average person thinks you’re supposed to do. I’ve done street-cast jobs where some of the people got signed by agencies – does that mean they suddenly are different or suck? No.

    This whole thread underscores the importance of building strong relationships with good casting directors and and having good social skills to relate to your subject, whether they’re a professional or not.

  34. ‘models just end up modelling’

    is it just me or is that a dumb comment? like saying ‘photographers just end up photographing’…

    i’d be pretty pissed if i booked a model and he/she turned up and didn’t start modelling…

  35. #34 What I mean is a lot of models get into a rut and just kind of run through there standard looks. I like working with actors because I can set up a seen for them and they seem to me to be more real for the camera. I don’t shoot fashion, what I want is people being real and comfortable in front of the lens.

  36. Great models/subjects inspire.


    Not so great models/subjects can put the production into damage control, though ultimately it’s up to the photographer.

    As much as we like to say the client, or the client’s client made us select a girl that looked like his wife, or a guy that had the same interest in golf (yes it happens), it’s still up to the photographer to find the best that in the subject and react, whether it’s the result of a 600 person casting in Paris or a street casting on Broadway.

    I loathe those times when we have an exact, specific look, or movement that cannot be deviated from an inch.

    Obviously the model will do it, but when it’s forced it looks forced.

    For me the results are better if I can quickly notice where a model is strong and build on that. If the model only moves left and your lighting to the right, then move the lights, don’t force the model.

    Though still photography produces a static result, people are not chairs and they must be treated and responded to as people.

    If the energy on the shoot is strong and positive the end result exponentially goes up, but if someone stands in the studio and demands the model only put one foot forward then scowls and shakes their head if they’re not 100% satisfied then the looks goes down fast.

    Everybody in the room is hired for their strengths, not just to fill a roll and our best results come from exploiting those strengths.

    This is always a process where the more you put into it the better it becomes.

    Our only goal should be to allow the subject to be interesting and unique because everybody IS interesting and unique in their own right.

    Sometimes the hard part is finding it.

    James Russell

  37. That’s thing about photography. It’s got to be one of the easiest and the most difficult of art forms. In the commercial / editorial world it’s a very dynamic and collaborative process. It’s art in real time. Casting is one small but very crucial part of the process. My approach is to first look for someone with the appropriate physical characteristics, then see if they can understand what it is I am trying to create and finally to see if they can produce “the look” or at least get close to it. The last one is the most difficult as sometimes it is just the way they arch their eyebrows or the slightest tensing of the lips. It’s something that can really take a lot of training to achieve and that’s often why actors do it better than models. But not always.

Comments are closed for this article!