Saturday, February 06, 2010

Lead room

One factor to consider when cropping a portrait is lead room.  When a subject looks to one side viewers become curious where the person is looking.  Lead room adds a sense of meaning to facial expressions and gives compositions a satisfactory emotional balance.  This 1935 portrait has a beautiful use of lead room: it was taken by photographer Ben Shahn in Jackson Square, New Orleans.  A wide space to the left enhances the wistful expression in the subject's eyes.

To see what a difference the lead room makes, let's try cropping out part of the photograph so he looks centered.  The effect isn't nearly so pleasing.
Human beings take cues from the eyes of other people.  We want to know what catches their attention; there's an urge to glance in the same direction.  Even when we know that we're looking at a very old portrait we feel that urge; it's instinctive.  And although this subject's expression is exactly the same the cropped version seems caged; we glean less from it.  The slouch and the knitted brow don't convey as much.

Last night the concept of lead room intruded on a search for historic Irish portraits that Alison and I were doing.  She wanted Countess Markiewicz and we found a 12 MB portrait that was feasible but not ideal. 
This doesn't have Ben Shahn's artistry and the lead room is on the wrong side.  Plus the image has more damage at right than at left.  There isn't much room to crop in any direction and the crop I want to make out of sheer laziness would get rid of that bright vertical band.  But then we would lose precious lead room and this photograph doesn't have enough of it anyway.

It only takes a moment to perform a crop, but the decisions that go into it mean a great deal.  Historic material sometimes carries unavoidable flaws.  Alison was willing to work with this anyway; Countess Markiewicz was the first woman in Europe to hold a cabinet minister position in a national government; she was Minister of Labor for Ireland from 1919-1922 (Alison might want to throttle me for not spelling that L-a-b-o-u-r but I'm an ignorant Yank).

She's doing most of the work herself.  I offered to crop.  There's no really good choice here and a lot of bad ones.
I wanted to crop away at left to balance the lead room but couldn't really go very far: her long skirt, the andirons, her fingers, and the books on the mantel all got in the way.  So I left a lot of the bright vertical band at far right.  It's a correctable problem.  Alison will need extra work to fix it--and somehow I suspect I may be helping with those touches.  But the result will be worth it.

For comparison here's a "lazy editor's crop" alternate.  Less work to restore but it would never be as good.
So cheers to Alison!  (And now, since I'm such an evil wiki witch, she'll just have to do this restoration so you can all read the followup.  Excuse me while I drop another newt into the cauldron...)


Allie said...

"Ignorant Yank!!"

/me shakes a fist at the screen :)

Seriously, though. This photo means a lot to me, for many reasons as you know well. I really appreciate the nudge to get this done and to dabble in restoration, tho' I am a rank amateur. As a historic figure, Constance Gore-Booth (Countess Markiewicz) remains one of the most important of 20th Century Irish political figures.

As this progresses, I'll likely come knocking at your door more than a few times. Hope you don't mind! :)

-- Allie

Lise Broer said...

Collaboration is what it's all about. There are so many wonderful important images and no possible way to restore them all singlehandedly. Let's cross our fingers that examples like this will persuade Irish museums and libraries to share their own collections.

Thank you for all your help; I'm here when you need a hand. Best regards!

Princess Haiku said...

What a great tip. I will take that into account when snapping. It does accent character.

Princess Haiku said...

What a great tip. I will take that into account when snapping. It does accent character.