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Take Cover! The True Crime Story Behind the Controversial Cover for "Shoot to Thrill: A Hard-Boiled Guide to Digital Photography"

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Derek Pell, author of Shoot to Thrill: A Hard-Boiled Guide to Digital Photography, describes how a gun-totin' PI pistol-whipped (with a water pistol) his publisher, forcing them to bite the bullet and use his hard-boiled cover design.
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That's what they are. Nervous Nellies. Point a gun at a technical book publisher and they get all wobbly in the knees. They sweat bullets and head for the hills. They're used to dealing with unembellished facts, pristine stats, and data. They never come face to face with high drama, sex, and violence. Fiction, satire, and slang are nowhere to be found among books on digital photography, where sunsets, brides, and smiley faces abound.

Confronted with a cynical, shutterbug packin' heat in a trench coat and fedora—well, publishers suddenly shake, rattle, roll over, and play dead.


Case in point: the cover of my book, Shoot to Thrill: A Hard-Boiled Guide to Digital Photography.

Figure 1 My original cover photo

The original cover design didn't ruffle any feathers. It looked like a still plucked from a low-budget Film Noir classic, and was tame by hard-boiled 1940's standards. Shadowy and subtle, it had a trace of menace, sure, but nothing that would leap off the shelf and threaten potential customers, barking "Buy This Book Or We'll Kill the Author."

It was my idea. I shot it, I liked it, I gave it to the publisher. No objections, no praise, it was noir for the course. But I was haunted by a feeling that something was missing. The word "thrill" was in the title, not to mention "shoot." So where were the thrills?

When I was about 150 pages into the manuscript, I was out on location taking night shots on the mean streets of San Diego. (This city, by the way, is a gold mine for noiristas, you just have to know where to look. It never got the headlines like L.A. and San Francisco, even though Raymond Chandler lived in La Jolla for a while. So I'm determined to put it on the map with my next book—San Diego Noir.)

Zoom Street's DV guru, Wendell Sweda, was down from Santa Monica playing the heav, while I supplied the heat—a Chinese-made Saturday Night Special. Unfortunately, it was Friday night and the gun fell apart after only 10 minutes. No sweat; I had backups. I came prepared; seven guns in all. I bought 'em the day before in a value pack at CVS. It was a real steal, even if it wasn't real steel.

I reached into my bag and selected an orange-colored blaster to replace the green plastic dud but—lo and behold—during the break, Sweda managed to patch up the weapon.

Our first location was under a mammoth Moreton Bay fig tree in Balboa Park, where I set up a 39 x 72-inch aluminum Photoflex Lite-Panel—a snap to set up, even in the dark.

Unfortunately, I should've packed a sandbag because a stiff breeze blew in off the Bay just as we started shooting. This had the two of us shouting, lurching, grabbing, and hand-holding. (No, not that kind of hand-holding.)

I employed a single studio strobe powered by a Tronix Explorer XT. I didn't need the strobe's umbrella because I was using the LitePanel for bounce. Hold the wedding—I take it back—I could've used an umbrella when the park's sprinkler system kicked in and put an abrupt end to the session. We retreated to my car parked across the street in front of a church.

As I was loading the wet gear into the trunk, I looked up at the building. Spanish Revival: red clay mission-tiled roof, whitewashed stucco walls, two side staircases lit by lanterns casting a noirish glow. I mounted a Nikon SB-900 speedlight on the camera's hot shoe and said, "OK, just one more shot and we'll call it a night."

I had him take up a position on the staircase, gun in hand. He stuck an unlit cigarette in his mouth and I lay on the ground. I told him to aim the gun right at me as I skewed the camera angle. In the viewfinder I saw a mob hitman. I was about to take my last shot on this earth. Didn't matter that the gun pointed at my head was green, I knew what color my blood would be. I told him to fire, then squeezed the shutter…

[1/60 sec at f/4.0, ISO 400]

Looked pretty good on my D90's LCD screen, but the next day, in Adobe Lightroom, I reviewed the image and—bang—knew I had the perfect cover. Just needed a bit of tweaking in Photoshop CS4.

Figure 2 The untouched killer photo

First thing I did was kill the color of the water pistol. I also enlarged the barrel so it appeared more realistic. The shadow behind the subject was too subtle. Using the Pen Tool, I made a careful selection around the hitman, copied it, pasted it over the original, and applied a drop shadow.

Figure 3 I fine-tuned the selection using Photoshop's refine edge feature.

To emphasize the gritty, hard-boiled quality of the scene, I used a High Dynamic Range technique (I discuss HDRI in detail in the book). This brightened the image a bit too much, so I adjusted the color for moodier light.

The image was good to go; my only concern was that it might be too late to change the cover. As it turned out, time was not the problem. The problem was the photo itself.

Point blank, the publisher informed there would be "no gun on the cover."

They were worried chain stores like Barnes & Noble wouldn't stock the book.

Did I hear that right?

Sheesh, practically every book in B&N has a gun on its cover.

A shootout ensued. E-mails flew back and forth between me and the publisher and ricocheted off a dozen computers.


My agent was on vacation so I had no backup… I was surrounded.


"It's a bloody squirt gun," I bellowed.


"Tech books don't have guns on the cover!"


"They do now!"



When the smoke finally cleared, the publisher had seen the light (and the noir shadows). We all had scars to show for the battle, but the war was over.

Shoot to Thrill would hit the bookstores armed and dangerous.

Figure 4 BANG.

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