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What Is the Lead Room Principle in Photography?

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Related course: Simply Stunning Landscapes

The lead room principle in photography is a simple, but essential part of compositional technique. Portraiture, fashion, boudoir, event, and wedding photography – all use it.
It can sometimes be referred to as ‘leading’, ‘nose room’ or ‘leading space’.
At its most basic, the lead room principle means that when framing a subject, a well-composed image will have a negative space in the direction that the subject is facing. In the case of moving objects, this will be in front of and in the direction that the object is moving.
A shot of moving cars outside an industrial building - lead room principal

Why Is Lead Room Important?

The lead room compositional technique is important to bear in mind, even if you are trying to break the guideline. Altering the lead room has the potential to alter the mood or feeling of an image.
It can add tension and make the scene feel uncomfortable.
An indoor portrait of a girl in sunglasses without using lead room photography
Take this image, for example. The above photograph is the original, and I cropped it so there is no lead room. The photograph loses all of its composition.
We see less of the background, and the frame is tighter around her head. All of these attributes create an uninteresting image.
A close up portrait of a girl in sunglasses using lead room photography
Again, this is the image of a man, tightly cropped, to begin with, but space is located in front of his face, not behind.
Yet, if we crop the image even further, it isn’t as powerful as before.
A close up portrait of a man demonstrating using the lead room principle
Due to the tight crop already around the back of his head, the lack of leading room isn’t as substantial and off-putting as other examples.
The distortion is more apparent, and we feel that the man is not the subject, but one of his facial areas is, such as his cheek.
A close up portrait of a man demonstrating using the lead room principle
This image of a man placed directly in the centre of the shot isn’t the best-composed image, but it will have the biggest effect when we remove the lead room.
A portrait of a man against a grey background
By removing that space in front of his face, we change the idea of the image. The negative space takes over, and it makes it feel like text or information should go in that empty space.
We have no sense of what he is looking at, and that causes problems.
A close up portrait of a man demonstrating using the lead room principle
In this image, we see a man facing off camera. Let’s see what happens when we crop the image and take away the lead room.
An outdoor portrait of a man looking away from the camera
Here, we lose the man as the focus, and instead, we see the patterns in his hair as the focus. The attention is drawn away from him and his eyes, and more towards the negative space behind him.
An outdoor portrait of a man looking away from the camera using the lead room principle
In this image, a girl is looking out of the frame. Most of the negative space in the image is in front of her face, acting as a substantial lead room.
A portrait of a girl looking away from the camera against white background
By removing this space, we remove the composition and any interest in the image. It is frustrating that we can’t see what she is looking at in such a serious manner.
The image doesn’t work well without the lead room. We focus on the negative space behind her head.
A portrait of a girl looking away from the camera against white background demonstrating the effect of lead room in photography
The effects of lead room can be even more dramatic when the subject is in motion. In the following image, we have a man on a bike, moving through the frame from left to right.
Having some lead room allows the subject room to move.
A movement shot of a person riding a bicycle across a bridge
Cropping out the lead room makes the image feel squashed. There is something missing in the narrative of this story, and the bike has nowhere to go now.
A cropped shot of a person riding a bicycle across a bridge
Here, the car has been captured right in the centre of the frame. You get a sense that it is going from right to left, as that is the way the car is facing.
A photo of a racing car in the centre of the frame
By cropping into the image, we see that the image loses its power and its composition. There is nothing interesting about this scene. It feels forced and badly photographed.
A cropped photo of a racing car
In our last image, we see a man on a bike going through the sand. He is very clearly the main focus of the photograph.
A black and white photo of a man on a bike going through the sand. He is very clearly the main focus of the photograph.
Without the lead room, he no longer looks like the main focal point. The motorbike wheel blowing the sand into the air is now the most important part of the scene.
The other visual elements have lost their power, and seem to support the wheel and its action rather than the other way round.
A cropped black and white photo of a man on a bike going through the sand.

How to Apply Lead Room to Your Photography?

The lead room principle is not a rule, it is more of a guideline to follow for better images. Sometimes you will find that including lead room might add unwanted attention from the background. In this case, you want to make sure that the space in front of the person is still bigger than the space behind.
Lead room can be applied to living subjects, such as humans and animals, and objects in motion, such as cars. Inanimate objects can’t really benefit from this lead room principle, as they don’t face towards anything.
The most important thing to remember is that the lead helps the composition of the shot immensely. Without it, you have the potential to frustrate the viewers and fill them with tension, even subconsciously.

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