Believe it or not, occasionally I turn down work (no small thing perhaps for a guy with a bit of Scottish blood in his veins). The reason is that sometimes I’ll decide my style will not fit what the client needs, or that the client might be better served with a stock photo or the like. (And this latter may be about the only viable alternative for those with a limited budget for putting a book or magazine into print.)

There are some serious downsides to stock photos, however, and there are times when an illustration proves a better choice than a photo.

One of these times is when the only alternative is a cobbled-together “Photoshopped” picture created from elements of several original photos. While this process can be very good when done by a real pro, there are times when photos combine into a monstrosity confusing to the eye and often downright ugly (my favorites are those where the photo artist got confused, creating a “photo” with an extra hand on a shoulder or even an entire arm or leg with no apparent owner in sight).

Another time an illustration can be superior to a photo is when a more simplified view of things is needed. In such a situation, a good painting or drawing will stylistically remove detail for a more unified look throughout. This is why drawings are often employed in manuals where a precise but uncluttered view of something is needed.

The illustrator can also excise or censor sections of his picture even when drawing from an actual scene. He can remove a tree, take out the garbage can next to the house, etc. He can even shift elements in the scene this way or that or create combinations of objects that were never actually present.

An illustration can also “take a photo of the impossible.” If, for example, a publisher needs a picture of a man standing on the moon, an aircraft crashing into a mountain, or a gal that is the spitting image of the impossibly glamorous heroine in a title, then it’s often considerably easier (if not the only realistic option) to create these scenes through illustration.

Another plus of an illustration is that it can help avoid becoming the victim of the “mockbuster” or other confusion that results when using public domain photos or those purchased with non-exclusive rights. If all the rights are not available for purchase, there’s nothing to keep a competitor, either by accident or through design, from purchasing and using the same picture on its publication. (With titles not being copyrightable at least in the US, it would be possible for the less than scrupulous to produce a title and photo cover identical to that of a best seller — hence the “blockbuster” idea which is already seen with US hit movies from time to time with cheat movie producers getting covers and titles so similar to a blockbuster that consumers accidentally purchase or rent it).

If the exclusive rights to a photo can be purchased, often the cost may make an illustration an attractive alternative. In such a case the illustration may offer some of the better points above while being nearly as competitive in price.

When no quality photo is available of a historic scene or object, then an illustration may be the only option. An illustrator can work with marginal or damaged photos to create an illustration of the scene or object.

Sometimes a photo is the best choice for a publication. But sometimes an illustration will be a better or perhaps even the only viable choice for a book or magazine.
Duncan Long is a freelance book cover illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, Fort Ross, and many other publishers and self-publishing authors. See his cover illustrations at: