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Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer had been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a blog about photography in New England.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Head & Nose Room

Katherine & Rama,
Hood River Oregon, August, 2012

Heads Up!
This week I have a brief discussion of the "rules" governing the best amount of headroom and nose room in a photograph.   The important point is that these are not absolute, but they do provide great guides for effective portrait and landscape photography and as so often,  it comes back to thirds.

Beautiful Evergreen Dead Space

I was reminded of this while editing pictures from Katherine and Rama’s wedding in Oregon last summer.  Headroom refers to amount of space above a subjects head in a composition. Many people frame pictures of people with the head(s) dead center in the image. It makes sense since the faces are the essential focus of interest for the photo, but, as is true for so much of good composition, what makes intellectual sense does not often produce the best esthetic results. Too much room and the subject looks small against the large area of dead space hovering above. Too little and the top of the frame begins to look like an absolute ceiling, drawing the subject upward.  



As is true in all portrait photography, the eyes are the key element rather than the top of the head and the location of the eyes usually defines the best amount of headroom.  The final answer is a matter of taste, but in general the most pleasing results come from placing the subject where it looks most stable within the frame. Perception studies have been done using a single dot in a frame to define the neutral point. This is the location where the dot seems to be at rest rather appearing to be drifting either to the center or the sides. the result is that images generally look best with the eyes about 1/3 down from the top of the frame. This should sound familiar since it is just another manifestation of the classic Rule of Thirds. Ok, if it didn't work so well, the Rule of Thirds might seem like an overly constraining edict. You should feel free to be a rebel and break the rules whenever you want - I'm not your mother.  But it is good to understand the rules that you are breaking, and the Rule of Thirds is at least a good departure point for many compositions. Why else would I have placed in capitals? 

Research aside, it just looks better. Moving away from these comfortable neutral locations can add a bit of creative tension to

Mountains Have It Alberta,
Valley of the Ten Peaks, Alberta, Canada

a scene. I give it a try every so often, but I always seem to come back to some permutation of the thirds.  For headroom, the most common reason I will violate the rules is when the background is deserving of
greater emphasis. One classic example would be when the subject is standing in front of a majestic mountain scene, such as the Ten Sisters in the Canadian Rockies. The rule can also be effectively violated in extreme close-ups. Zooming into the eyes and mouth, the forehead may be cut off without too much pain. In Jon’s portrait, I came in close but still kept the eyes at about 1/3 from the top. 

Jon's Head

The Nose Knows! 

Eagles on the Connecticut River, Vermont

Nose Room

The Gaze; the Eyes Have It
Nose room is the amount of open space left in the direction of a subjects gaze when they are looking away from the camera or when they are moving across the frame. In the photographs of the eagles on their nest along the Connecticut River, placing the bird’s direction of gaze against the side of the frame is obviously restricting. We want to ask, "Why are those eagles staring at the wall?".
With adequate nose room the question is transformed into curiosity to discover 
Nazca Boobie: Flight Room
what is attracting their attention. In this situation it is both literally and figuratively true that subjects need adequate breathing room. When shooting on the run, such as birds in flight, it is often tough enough to keep the subject in the frame. the center is fine as long as you leave enough space the crop into a more balance composition.

The Hills are Alive: And Have Heads and Noses

Without an animal in site, nose and headroom can still be important in landscape images.  Decisions about how much sky to include in a photo and whether trees should be cut off can have a significant effect on how the subject and flow of an image is emphasized. How much sky to include is often affected by the interest in the sky itself. When the sky is a bland, gray, I try to crop out most or all of the dead 
space, but sometimes the sky IS the story.   Strong landscape compositions usually have a clear direction of flow which requires its own "nose room".  As a viewer’s gaze follows the flow it can be uncomfortable to have that gaze run unbuffered into the side of the frame. In the image of Darling Hill Road  in Lyndonville Vermont, the
Cut off the Nose
diagonal road creates a strong direction of gaze which would end awkwardly if it ran right into side of the image. As always there are important exceptions. When the flow of an image is tied to a flowing stream, it is usually comfortable to let the brook run of the edge of the frame. 

The guidelines for head and nose room don't come from complex calculations, they come from how we see - how our visual cortex interacts with and filters the immense rush of visual input and allows us to attend to what is important.  All the rules aside, the best way to tell if you have the spacing right is if you don't notice the head and nose room at all.

All of this discussion is just one of the easiest to understand aspect of what is called "negative space", the space around the main subject of an image, which can help balance a composition, draw the eye and provide breathing room for the subject.  Stay tuned for more on negative space, as soon as I figure it out.

 Just two final points:

  • I enjoy shooting at friend's wedding, but I DO NOT do weddings!

  • And for my daughter - GO BLUE!


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