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Simple Photo Tips: Square format images

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A square format photograph can help draw viewers into the image, literally providing a "window" into the scene.

Long before the rise of Instagram, square format film cameras from Rolleiflex and Hasselblad were held in high esteem by photo enthusiasts. Indeed the square image is part of a long image-making tradition in visual arts. And one that every photographer - new or experienced - should explore.

There are dedicated camera apps, for both Android and iOS, that let you shoot in a square format. Framing in a square opens up some creative possibilities but can obviously present a significant challenge if you're used to composing with your smartphone's 4:3 ratio rectangle. At the outset you're likely to feel that a square frame is just too tight and you don't have enough room to capture all the parts of the scene.

Shooting "square" does involve a different way of looking at the photo opportunities around you. I'd recommend you start with images you've already captured and try cropping them to a 1:1 format. This is a great way to learn to identify compositions and subject matter that work well as square images.

Apps like 6x6 for iOS (above left) and ProCapture for Android can turn your phone into a square format camera. You can also convert existing 4:3 images by using the crop tool in the iOS Photos app (above right) or Android's Gallery app.

Pretty soon, you'll find that square compositions can work well for a wide variety of shooting styles. Whether you're into portraiture, street photography, architecture or are simply drawn to abstract colors and textures, the square format can provide the impetus for a more creative approach to your work. Below, I've given just a few examples of how the format can be used to interesting effect.

The square format, with its tighter crop, can lead to more creative portrait compositions.
You can create interesting landscape images by shifting the horizon away from the midpoint of the square frame.
Combine the square format with a black and white treatment to create more abstract compositions, particularly with architecture.
Scenes with strong elements of symmetry make great candidates for square compositions.

But don't take my word for it, revisit some of your existing images and see how they look as you crop them in a 1:1 format. See what types of images look better to you after cropping. Then go out and start shooting some "squares." It's a great way to expand your creative options. 

Comments

Total comments: 26
dcphotokat
By dcphotokat (Jan 3, 2013)

Great article. I used to shoot 6x6 in medium format so I know it very well. It helps you to concentrate your subject matter since you don't have the "additional" space that's in a rectangular format.

Despite what others may feel, I enjoy working with it. I also found another app that allows square format: it's Vignette (for Android). I usually shoot square with it's "Ilford" black & white setting.

0 upvotes
RikMaxSpeed
By RikMaxSpeed (Nov 14, 2012)

I was once told that you can always find a square photograph within a rectangular one - and mostly I've found that to be true. Sometimes I crop my normal 4:3 ratio photos to square just because that's the right thing to do given the subject.

1 upvote
TheProv
By TheProv (Nov 12, 2012)

I really hate square format re-introduced by instagram, it's only a waste of sensible surface from my already tiny image sensor.
In fact most frequent request in instagram app comments is "please add more image format" and I totally agree.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
seri_art
By seri_art (Nov 11, 2012)

Jirka and Mark H below have it right, that the Rolleiflex and other cameras like it were square format because of practical necessity. What they didn't say was that photographers who used those cameras often cropped their photos to make non-square images. That said, square is an option that probably isn't explored often enough.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 1 minute after posting
2 upvotes
Jirka-
By Jirka- (Nov 12, 2012)

I have used a square format 6X6 cm camera for years. Most of my pictures were cropped. Making all of your pictures square is an interesting creative challenge but it is very difficult. But of course as Goethe says: " In der Beschraenkung zeigt sich der Meister" ( Within limits the master is revealed).

2 upvotes
MAFAv8r
By MAFAv8r (Nov 11, 2012)

With the iPad now my main way of viewing & showing photos, I have redone many of my photos to 4x3 and 3x4. Especially wildlife photos do well here. Thanks for the article. It has done what it intended, and made me think of taking this a step further.

0 upvotes
TLD
By TLD (Nov 11, 2012)

We bought Charley Waite half way round the world to be the principle speaker at the PSNZ National Convention last year. Charley is a keen user of the square format, and was inevitably quizzed about its use. He spoke about subject symmetry, and lone objects which could be paced centrally in a square frame. It was a refreshing escape from the ‘rule of thirds’ and other composition guidelines that we slavishly try to adhere to in non-square image formats.

The images in these links are considerably better than those in the above article IMO, and demonstrate when and why the square format works.

http://mjonesphotog.blogspot.co.nz/2012/10/charlie-waite-pt-1.html
http://mjonesphotog.blogspot.co.nz/2012/10/charlie-waite-pt-2-techniques.html
http://mjonesphotog.blogspot.co.nz/2012/10/charlie-waite-pt-3-film-traveling-light.html

The Travelling Light trailer is also worth watching, and I will be making every effort to find the complete Travelling Light program.

1 upvote
Sandstone
By Sandstone (Nov 11, 2012)

Really enjoyed the links, thanks for sharing. But why put down the original article pictures? Photography is getting way too competitive, let's enjoy pictures without having to say "who's best".

2 upvotes
Superstreetfighter
By Superstreetfighter (Nov 10, 2012)

And the best subject for this framing is 3.14159......

Comment edited 58 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
maboule123
By maboule123 (Nov 10, 2012)

I thought this argument was dead long time ago.
So, while at it:
Which one is sharper, Zeiss or Leica?
Which one is better, Canon or Nikon?
Which one gives better skin tones, Kodak or Fuji or Agfa?

0 upvotes
Jirka-
By Jirka- (Nov 10, 2012)

The reason Rolleiflex and later medium format SLRs had square format was not an aesthetic preference. It was just because a camera with a reflex viewfinder without a pentaprism is not suitable for flipping into the portrait orientation. A square print was simply the uncropped capture. Since no square sensors exist, a square digital picture is always a crop, just like an unusually elongated image.

4 upvotes
Juck
By Juck (Nov 10, 2012)

You don't get out much do you?

1 upvote
Mark H
By Mark H (Nov 10, 2012)

'Jirka' is absolutely correct. The older mirror-only reflex cameras had square formats because if you had to turn the camera 90 degrees to get portrait orientation the screen image would not only be upside-down, you'd also have to stand and view the screen whilst facing sideways w.r.t. the subject. The square format was simply to obviate the need to rotate the camera between landscape/portrait - as it was wholly impractical to do so, because of the waist level right angle finder, and the screen image's left-right reversal.

That said, there were film formats such as 126 film-cartridge, and Polaroid, that were predominantly 'square format' - possibly for similar, but less obvious, reasons (probably just for the 'simplicity' of use).

Nevertheless, 'square format' is greatly neglected/under-used - all too often people seem to squeeze images awkwardly into the default camera aspect ratio when it would be better to frame/crop to suit to the subject, and not just to fit the camera format.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 12 minutes after posting
4 upvotes
xdrei
By xdrei (Nov 11, 2012)

"Since no square sensors exist..." I must be dreaming of a Phase One P20+ so I'll stick to my Pokedigi SQ30m.

0 upvotes
Rowbear
By Rowbear (Nov 10, 2012)

Good article. Thanks

0 upvotes
Diseewise
By Diseewise (Nov 10, 2012)

I love square -

used it often in painting landscapes and still life (where the rule of 3rds originated from the Old Masters - aka 'The Golden Rule') and interestingly these oil paintings sold faster than those conforming to the rules.

And now I play with it often with my digital images - especially the not so good ones and have often found that within some dull photo will be a small gem of an area that could come close to being a 'masterpiece' once enlarged in square format.

Did this too with my 'flopped' oil paintings - found the gems, cut them out from the main canvas as a square or rectangle, framed and sold them. I used the pieces left over to create collages.
This method can also apply to photography - film especially and digital.

I have also found that by playing with 1:1 in my images has trained my eye to seek alternative composition through the lens.

1 upvote
taotoo
By taotoo (Nov 10, 2012)

The first photo is awful. What should I be looking at exactly?

"The square format, with its tighter crop, can lead to more creative portrait compositions."

More creative than with other aspect ratios? What is more creative in the example shot?

"You can create interesting landscape images by shifting the horizon away from the midpoint of the square frame."

You can do that with any aspect ratio.

"Combine the square format with a black and white treatment to create more abstract compositions, particularly with architecture."

Again, the square format is making no difference to the composition here.

Another article that teaches us very little.

2 upvotes
Tan68
By Tan68 (Nov 10, 2012)

i think the point of many of these articles is to encourage people. i encourage my young nephew. i don't mean to say the people reading these articles are young, but the audience is intended to be young/new to photography.

i encourage my nephew's idea of art. 5 years from now, his idea of art will probably be different. he takes some good pictures now but his style or method will likely change. people reading this article and sticking with photography will likely evolve, too.

the first picture, as best i can tell, looks like a typical and real example. the lady is springboarding off a trashcan and the fountain isn't well placed. but there is a rainbow that flies from the lady's head and that isn't bad. maybe not the best effort expected from someone working at a magazine, but it isn't a bad example of.. cellomatic?

there is encouragement to the point of enabling where someone is told all is well and all is art and all is unique. but i don't think this article is it.

1 upvote
taotoo
By taotoo (Nov 11, 2012)

I don't see how giving beginners wrong information is going to help them e.g. square crops lead to more creative compositions than other aspect ratios.

0 upvotes
RoelHendrickx
By RoelHendrickx (Nov 10, 2012)

Square is probably my favourite format.
One thing that should really be mentioned is that it is the perfect format for creating good fisheye lens photos. Cropping to square can get rid of possibly annoying distortions at the far edges while maintaining the fisheye feel.
Did I mention that I like shooting fisheye? ;-)
Check out my galleries for literally hundreds of examples, ranging from sports to event photography:
www.roelh.zenfolio.com
Roel

0 upvotes
Doug Pardee
By Doug Pardee (Nov 10, 2012)

Back in February I posted an article on DPReview about square format.

http://www.dpreview.com/articles/9462076757/

2 upvotes
waalxspie
By waalxspie (Nov 10, 2012)

where can the aspect ratio be adjusted for canon e5d ii and canon e7d ?

Comment edited 24 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
waalxspie
By waalxspie (Nov 10, 2012)

pls disregard this message. i was referring to a previous message ,now disappeared,which said most digital cameras these days can have their aspect ratio adjusted.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
0 upvotes
kodachromeguy
By kodachromeguy (Nov 10, 2012)

Looking and thinking square is a great creative exercise. The article did not mention that most digital cameras now also have a 1:1 aspect ratio that you can set. I used a Rolleiflex for 30 years and got used to seeing this way.

0 upvotes
Artistico
By Artistico (Nov 9, 2012)

I think it is really good advice to start with one's existing photos and see what a square crop will do: that is exactly what I was thinking myself when I clicked on the article before reading it. Indeed, most of my own squares were not necessarily conceived as such when I took the picture, and nor were my black and whites planned to be monochrome, but when working with my photos in post processing, I can explore all options both for cropping and colour.

It's one of the wonders of the digital age that one doesn't have to decide too much at the time of image capture, leaving some creative choices for later - provided the starting point is a good one.

3 upvotes
Amadou Diallo
By Amadou Diallo (Nov 9, 2012)

The great thing about starting by cropping existing images is that it doesn't take too long to identify what works, and what doesn't. And then going out to actually shoot with a square frame in mind, really opens up some photographic possibilities you might have otherwise ignored.

4 upvotes
Total comments: 26
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