Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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Continuing to educate about basic compositional techniques,

  1. What is "Lead Room?"
  2. Why is it important to consider Lead Room when taking pictures?
  3. When do I apply it to my photography?
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I was confused reading the answers because I was reading it "Lead (rhymes with bed) room," not "Lead (rhymes with bead) room" :) –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 7 '11 at 19:01
    
@BlueRaja: That's funny, I always trip myself up thinking the same exact thing. I think it should be spelled 'Leed' in order to be less confusing. Stupid English... ;-) –  Jay Lance Photography May 8 '11 at 0:17
    
Yeah, I keep seeing this and thinking "It's where you go if you need to be sure Superman can't spy on you with his x-ray vision." –  mattdm May 8 '11 at 2:53
    
Random trivia time! The "lede" of a news story is spelled that way specifically to avoid confusion with lead type. –  mattdm May 8 '11 at 2:55
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3 Answers 3

up vote 24 down vote accepted

What is Lead Room?

Lead Room (also variously referred to as leading, nose room, or leading space) is a foundational compositional technique that is frequently employed in the visual arts such as cinematography, painting, and of course photography. In essence the 'rule' of lead room is that when framing a subject, well composed shots will include 'white space' in the direction that a subject is facing, or in the case of moving objects, in front of the direction that an object is moving.

Why is lead room important?

Lead room is an important compositional technique to keep in mind even if you're deciding to break the guideline and not give a photo lead room because altering the lead room has the potential to alter the mood or 'feeling' of a photograph. For example, in this portrait lead room has been given in the direction the model's body is facing and as a result the portrait feels open and relaxed.

enter image description here

But if we take the same exact picture and shift the model to the other side of the frame, all of a sudden it feels as though the model is cramped within the frame.

enter image description here

The effects of lead room can be even more pronounced when the subject of a photograph is in motion. In the following image the airplane has a sense of moving through the frame from left to right because it appears that it has room to move...

enter image description here

Whereas when the same photograph is cropped so the photograph's white space is behind the airplane all of a sudden there seems to be something missing. There's a sense of motion that has been removed because there doesn't appear to be anywhere for the plane to go!

enter image description here

How do I apply lead room to my photography

Like most things in photography, this is not a 'hard-and-fast' rule... more accurately this is a rule of thumb. Generally speaking, lead room can be applied to living subjects (e.g. humans, animals, etc.), and objects in motion. Inanimate objects that aren't in motion can't really benefit from using lead room. But it is important to understand the effects on a images perception that lead room can have as you compose your pictures in order to take advantage of (or negate the advantage of) this rule of thumb.


NOTES:

Original airplane image courtesy of Alvaretz. Used via Creative Commons Attribution.

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You are really good at answering your own questions. –  dpollitt May 7 '11 at 5:04
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With a small site like photo-SE sometimes you just gotta ask the types of questions that you're interested in answering. :-) –  Jay Lance Photography May 7 '11 at 5:10
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It's silly? How so? –  automag007 May 7 '11 at 7:24
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Answers on stack exchange sites help a lot of people other than the poster of a question. Lay Lance Photography just presented a nicely formated question, and a nicely formated answer. It is now available for anyone who is interested in this top to view. So yeah. How is it silly? –  AttackingHobo May 7 '11 at 18:52
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@Nick: From the faq: It’s also perfectly fine to ask and answer your own question, as long as you pretend you’re on Jeopardy! – phrase it in the form of a question. –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 7 '11 at 19:04
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I'd like to add a couple of small things to @Jay's excellent answer...

  1. When I was just starting out I only thought of lead room (although I've always called it 'Nose Room') as something that happened left to right across the frame, or vice-versa. It was only after shooting for a while that it occurred to me that nose room can also happen vertically, or diagonally across the frame. The classic example being a picture of a pretty girl laying in the grass. You wouldn't want to stick her nose right up against the top of the frame (unless you've got a good reason to!)... Give her some nose room!
  2. Rules are meant to be broken! There are lots of times when I don't follow the nose room rule and although Jay says it in his answer, it does bear repeating... It's good to understand rules of thumb so you better understand what the outcome will be if you break it, but once you understand the rule (of thumb), then don't be shackled by it, and especially don't be afraid to experiment!
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+1 for experimentation with rule breaking, or at least bending. Especially in digital, where the marginal cost of experimentation is measured in time and a few spare bytes of storage. –  RBerteig May 7 '11 at 18:50
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and @RBerteig: I couldn't agree more. When it comes to things like... oh, I don't know... heart surgery... bridge building... sky diving... space travel... You know, things where doing things incorrectly could kill someone... I'm certain that there are some rules that just shouldn't ever be broken... But when it comes to photography it's the very rare rule indeed that isn't more of a guideline. :-) Thanks for the additional emphasis on that! –  Jay Lance Photography May 8 '11 at 0:21
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I think what lead room is has been answered so I'll add just one thing. Like the rule of thirds, golden ratio and other composition guidelines, lead room is just another tool in the arsenal of composition. Sometimes it applies, sometimes there's no need for lead room (such as a person's face filling 90% of the frame for a portrait).

Lead room should be a naturally occurring composition element, just like the rule of thirds and such. They should come as a result of feeling the need for more space on a specific side of the frame, per sé, not as a result of thinking, "oh yeah, I 'need' lead room".

When I'm composing a photo (even if it's in a fast paced environment), I'm "feeling" my way toward the composition that feels right, then I click the shutter. I rarely ever do a mental check list of composition "rules" in my head.

I hope I'm making sense.

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