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Landscape composition part 4: Subject direction and lead room: Digital Photography Review

So far in this series, I’ve talked about compositional elements, their weights and how to use their properties to balance the composition by imagining a balance of torques around the middle axis of an image. I also discussed balancing of negative space. But even all this doesn’t give us a full picture of the factors that should affect compositional arrangement. This time, I intend to talk about another placement consideration which has a lot of impact on my own compositions: lead room.

Is this iceberg ‘facing’ any direction? What is it in its properties or shape that makes you think that? How and why did this consideration make me place the iceberg where I did?

Canon 5D4, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/500 sec, F8, ISO800
Disko Bay, Greenland

Lead room is the space in the direction a subject is facing. It is mostly used in portrait photography, but I claim that it’s also extremely useful in landscape photography. That said, whereas in portraiture it’s clear where this direction is, it’s sometimes not as clear for non-living elements.

I hope you agree with me that the lava is ‘facing’ right.

Canon 5D4, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6, 1/250 sec, F5, ISO6400
Kamokuna Ocean Entry, Island of Hawai’i

In the exact same manner as in portrait photography, the human eye wants to know what’s going on in the direction a subject is facing. The lack of space in that direction may thus cause the composition to be tense and unbalanced. It’s the exact same with landscapes: when a subject appears to be facing some direction, we usually need to give it more space in that direction.

The main mass in this composition – the waterfall on the right – is clearly facing left. And so I gave it a lot of lead room on the left, and almost no space on the right. This works together with the leading lines in the image.

Canon 5D4, Canon 16-35mm F4L IS, 3.2 sec, F8, ISO200
Saksun, Streymoy Island, The Faroe Islands

It will be beneficial to look at several examples to better illustrate the use of negative space and subject location in the context of lead room. Let’s look at the two images below, both from Riisitunturi national park, Finnish Lapland.

Canon 5D3, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/60 sec, F8, ISO200 Canon 5D3, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/320 sec, F8, ISO200

The image on the left has several masses, with the heaviest one being the rabbit-shaped tree on the left, and another tree on the right acts as an additional mass. The rabbit is clearly facing right (do you agree? what about it made me think that?), and thus needs more room in that direction, and the rightmost mass is (perhaps not as clearly) facing left, and thus needs room in that direction. Both requirements are satisfied, and so the image feels balanced in that sense.

In the image on the right, the situation is different. The main mass – the two trees on the left that look like contemplating wizards – is facing left, but there is not enough room in that direction, especially when compared to the room it has on the right. This causes the composition to be tenser and less serene. I don’t think this is necessarily bad in this specific case, since the background subjects help tell a story here, and the tension contributes to this. It’s up to the photographer to know when to use this type of tension (a key notion with many photographic techniques). It is my personal feeling that images of the type of the left image above feel like they are self-contained, whereas images of the type of the image on the right feel like they draw the viewer’s eye out of the image. This results in different amounts of tension in the composition.

Compositional elements facing each other.

Sony A7R, Canon 16-35mm
Kolmanskop, Namibia

Determining what direction a subject is facing

So far I’ve relied mainly on intuition to tell what direction masses are facing. I would say subject direction is clear in the vast majority of cases, but there are a few rules of thumb (based on feeling) to help establish that if you can’t see it immediately.

Firstly, and most commonly used, when one side of the subject is farther from the viewer compared to the other, the subject can be seen as facing in the direction of the farther side.

The left tower of this iceberg is closer to the viewer than the right tower. The iceberg as a whole thus seems to be facing right. By the way, was I correct in not giving it much lead room on the right despite what is written in this article? How do you suppose I would justify it?

DJI Mavic II Pro, F8, 1/30 sec, ISO100
Disko Bay, Greenland

Both the foreground subject and the granite wall on the right have their right sides closer to the viewer – and thus are facing left.

Canon 5D3, Canon 16-35mm F2.8, 20 sec, F13, ISO400
Anse Source d’Argent, La Digue Island, The Seychelles

Another rule of thumb is that when one part of the subject is lower than the other, it may appear to be facing the direction of that lower side. This is deeply psychological, and arises from the fact that faraway objects look smaller than close ones, and so the brain can be tricked to deduce that the lower side is farther away.

The two guidelines mentioned above may and do often collide, and it’s left to personal feeling which one prevails.

The left side of this iceberg is slightly lower than the right side, and thus the iceberg seems to face left, even though its left side was closer to me in reality.

It’s very pleasing to the eye to have different subjects facing each other in a landscape image. The balance that arises serves to make the composition feel peaceful and self-contained, and often has a good story-telling factor.

To me, the mass composed of the several cacti on the left seems to face right, and the mass composed of the cacti on the right seems to face left (can you see why? Do you even agree?). The two masses facing each other make this composition much better. What other aspects we haven’t discussed yet make this composition work well? Hint: how do the lines connecting the foreground subjects interact with the other lines in the image?

Canon 5D4, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/125 sec, F14, ISO100
The Argentinean Puna

The third rule of thumb to help determine where a subject seems to be facing is lighting: masses seem to face in the direction they are mostly lit from. Again, this makes total sense since lighting often comes from the direction of viewing.

The right side of the background mass is lit from the right – and so this is the direction it seems to face. What else about this image makes you feel that the iceberg is facing right?

Canon 5D3, Canon 16-35mm F4L IS, 1/60 sec, F5,6, ISO400
Disko Bay, Greenland

The forked dune on the bottom is lit from the left, and so it appears to be facing left. This is also supported by its shape and the fact that its right side is closer to the viewer than the left.

Canon 5D4, Canon 24-105mm F4, 1/1000 sec, F8, ISO1600
Sossusvlei, Namibia

Light reflecting in the ice causes the right and left masses to be lit in a way that strengthens the perception of them facing each other (while that was not exactly the case in reality).

Canon 5D2, Samyang 14mm F2.8, 1/25 sec, F14, ISO100, manual HDR processing
Breiðamerkurjökull, Iceland

The last rule of thumb I’d like to discuss here is leading lines. I haven’t touched lines ever since the first article, but they can play a crucial role in determining where a mass seems to face in a landscape shot. My intuition is that when lines emanate from a mass to a specific direction, it strengthens the perception of the mass facing that same direction.

The volcanic fissure on the top right has its left side lower than the right side, and in addition has lines emanating from it which go from the right to the left. Both these properties strengthen the perception that it’s facing left.

While this group of icebergs doesn’t really seem to be facing in a specific direction all by itself, the lines of Northern Light emanating from the icebergs toward the right strengthen the perception of this mass facing right.

Canon 5D4, Canon 11-24mm F4, 3.2 sec, F4, ISO1600
Uummannaq, Greenland

Even though it’s really hard to distinguish any detail on the top left mass (the fissure eruption), the river of lava pouring out of it and to the right makes it seem to face in that direction.

Canon 5D2, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/200 sec, F4, ISO1600
Holuhraun, Iceland

I’d like to mention that proportionality is extremely important when deciding where to put a mass according to where it’s facing. What I mean is, if a mass is only slightly facing right, the resulting placement should be slightly to the right of what it would have been without the mass facing anywhere, and vice versa: if the facing is strong and emphasized, the effect should be considerable.

The shadow lines emanating from the central tree are (on average) pointing slightly to the right. Without too many other subject direction considerations, I placed the tree slightly off-center to the left.

Canon 5D4, Canon 16-35mm F2.8, 1/100 sec, F16, ISO100
Deadvlei, Namibia

This ‘golem’ made of tree and snow on the left is very clearly and strongly facing right (this is strengthened by its being lit from the right). This made me place it on the very left and give it a lot of lead room.

Sony A7R, Canon 16-35 F4L IS, 1/100 sec, F14, ISO100
Riisitunturi national park, Finnish Lapland

Masses can also not face any direction, at least not left or right. in that case, lead room simply isn’t a placement consideration.

Mount Stortinden (in the middle) doesn’t seem to be facing anywhere – I’d say its face pointing to the right and its slope to the left pretty much balance each other out. I had no other considerations and thus placed it in the center, which created a nice symmetrical composition without much tension. The reflection adds to this by creating another axis of symmetry.

Canon 5d4, Canon 11-24mm F4, ISO100, 0.5 sec, F11
Flakstad Fjord, The Lofoten Islands, Arctic Norway

The top waterfall isn’t facing any direction. The one on the left is facing right. Both are placed accordingly in the composition.

Canon 5D3, Canon 17-40mm F4, F10, ISO100, HDR using 3 images
Caño Cristales, Colombia

I’d like to give you some homework once again. For the images, below, ask yourself where the main masses are facing and what makes you think so. Is there any conflict between the intuitions given above, and why did you resolve these conflicts like you did? How do lead room considerations work when faced with the other considerations we’ve talked about in previous articles? Do you feel that certain considerations dominate others in the majority of cases?

To finish, let’s have a look at one last image.

The snowy Goðafoss Waterfall, Iceland

Canon 5D3, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 30 sec, F13, ISO100

The main masses have good lead room in the direction they are facing. There is good negative space both on top and on the bottom, to the left and to the right. The light is nice, the colors are pretty good and the long exposure helps bring down the messiness and highlight the important compositional elements. Still, I have a very big problem with this image. Can you see what it is? This problem will be the subject of the next article in the series.

Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveler based in Israel. You can follow Erez’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates and to his YouTube channel.

If you’d like to experience and shoot some of the world’s most fascinating landscapes with Erez as your guide, take a look at his unique photography workshops in Namibia, Greenland, Colombia, The Lofoten Islands, Indonesia and the Argentinean Puna.

Erez offers video tutorials discussing his images and explaining how he achieved them.

More in the Landscape Composition Series:

Selected Articles by Erez Marom:

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