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How the Square Format Can Enhance Your Street Photography

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Square format and street photography

In my last article about choosing the best lens for street and travel photography, you may have noticed that all the photos used to illustrate it, were in the square format. That’s not a coincidence. I recently discovered that I really like this aspect ratio for street photography. It’s made a big improvement to my photos, and I thought it would be interesting to go a little deeper into the reasons why.

It started when I read a book by street photographer Willem Wernsen. I noticed that virtually all his photos were square, and I had an aha moment. There was something about the aspect ratio that worked really well. I couldn’t wait to try it out.

The square format and street photography

So, what is so good about the square format? I think it comes down to two factors. The first is to do with a fundamental weakness of the 3:2 aspect ratio of the 35mm format, that full-frame and APS-C cameras use. The long rectangle is difficult to use well, especially when the camera is turned on its side in the portrait orientation.

You can learn more about this in my article Aspect Ratio: What it is and Why it Matters

That’s why some photographers historically prefer using medium, or large format cameras, for landscape and portrait photography. These are two subjects where it seems especially difficult to compose within the 35mm rectangle, in the portrait orientation. The shorter rectangles of these cameras (not to mention the 4:3 aspect ratio of Micro four-thirds cameras) just seems to work better.

Square format and street photography

Keeping street photography simple

The other factor is that the square format greatly simplifies the decision making process. Street photography is often about reacting quickly to the scene in front of you. The fewer decisions you have to make, the quicker you can do so. With the square format, there is no need to consider whether the composition would be better if you turned the camera on its side.

Another benefit of the square format is that is seems much easier to create an effective composition within the square frame, than it does within the rectangular one. A good tip is to look for strong shapes, and simplify the composition as much as you can.

square-format-street-photography-02

Camera settings

If you would like to try out the square format, it is relatively easy to do so, as most modern digital cameras let you select the aspect ratio. If your camera has an optical viewfinder it will probably display guidelines to let you know how to frame the scene. Check your user manual.

If your camera has an electronic viewfinder you will see a cropped, square image. This, combined with the smaller size and quiet operation, makes mirrorless cameras ideal for street photography.

Square format and street photography

If you would like to shoot in black and white, as I have done for the photos in this article, then you can do so by setting your camera to its monochrome mode. Mirrorless cameras display the scene in black and white in the viewfinder, a great aid to composition. Digital SLRs display the photos in black and white when you play them back on the LCD screen.

If you shoot Raw, most cameras will let you uncrop the image in Lightroom if you want to (the exceptions are Nikon and Panasonic, which crop the image even for Raw files). The key is to convert the Raw files to DNG when you import them into Lightroom. If you keep them in their native format, Lightroom won’t let you uncrop them.

Using Raw also lets you convert your black and white files to colour if you wish to.

Square format and street photography

Your turn

Have you tried using the square format for street photography? How did you get on with it? Please let us know in the comments, and share some of your photos.

Square format and street photography


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

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  • Very good article. Since I’ve been shooting with my dad’s old Rollieflex 3.5F, I, too, have come to appreciate the look of square format images. Until I took up that lovely medium format TLR film camera, I pretty much stuck with the 3:2 aspect ratio images that my digital cameras gave me. These days I am much freer with my cropping, not just square but many other aspect ratios such as 8 x 10 that I often use for my large wet prints. It’s really helped my creativity and compositional skill.

  • Tim Lowe

    I do a lot of street photography with a Hasselblad 500 c/m. The trick with a meterless camera is to survey the scene, meter highlights and shadows and use decent judgement in setting exposure for any given scene. Slavish devotion to the rule of thirds helps as well. 😉

    https://500px.com/photo/137878783/
    https://500px.com/photo/137003539/
    https://500px.com/photo/135255369/

  • Sounds like a nice way of working. Do you ever feel hindered by the size of the camera for street photography.

  • Hi Richard, glad to hear you’re enjoying the square format? How do you like the process of film photography compared to digital?

  • avbizzguy

    Good article and good points. I find myself using square or almost square crops in a good deal more subject matter than I used to. Here’s some examples: https://goo.gl/photos/cDLKTNwnKifDrGeF7 https://goo.gl/photos/mwhGPMwAyxJh3V5L7

  • Tim Lowe

    No. Not really. I guess I could take my 4×5… 😉

  • sofarsogood

    Nice article, Andrew. Aspect ratio seems to take a back seat to overall discussions of composition. I’ve always preferred to not let camera manufacturers dictate how I see and think of images.

  • I borrowed a Rollei TLR for a week 50 years ago and enjoyed the square format. This article is a good reminder as to why. Until 5 years ago I mainly shot 35mm film with a standard 50mm lens on a Nikkormat and enjoyed the ease of tweaking exposure by fractions of a stop by twisting the aperture ring while viewing the meter needle in the viewfinder. Correct exposure became easy and close to automatic. I miss that with the digital cameras I own (that are not top of the range). And by frequent use, I seem to automatically see and frame potential subjects in 3:2, too. It takes too long for an ancient person like me to think about and find all the options, dials and buttons on digital SLRs prior to exposure, though of course, cost per frame has it’s advantages. But a while ago I did buy an old Blad and a 5×4 Graflex from a retiring wedding photographer. I found the Blad hard to close focus and it’s had little use …but after this article I vow to get more practice. Thank you. Perhaps I’ll take the Graflex out on the street, too.

  • OldPom

    I have a theory that viewing an image in ‘square’ format approximates more closely to what the visual centres of our brains are ‘used to’ . Our field of vision is a slightly squashed or oblate circle – closer to a square than either a horizontal or a vertical strict rectangle. Maybe this is also why vignetting works well on some landscape oriented rectangular images. Whilst viewing life ‘on the street’ we tend to concentrate on the principle subject and peripheral stuff – whether above, below, right, or left is of secondary interest. As my camera insists on capturing rectangular images I look after it in editing, allowing for that in framing the shot.

  • Interesting question! I took up film two years ago after a gap of a decade when I was exclusively digital. I tried both medium and 35mm format to see how they compared with the look, ease and convenience of digital. I didn’t expect to keep with it for more than a few months, feeling assured at the beginning that digital just had too many advantages. Today I’m shooting about 75% film and 25% digital and see no reason to give up film whatsoever. I develop my own film (black and white and color) and have recently started making my own gelatin silver prints direct from the negative. Digital is great – but the hands-on process of film photography is a constant delight and the results often seem to have a deeper resonance with me than my digital images. So I am and will remain a dual process photographer and I think it’s made me a better artist. I certainly feel more rounded as a photographer.

  • tfeltz

    It’s too bad that there are practically no square image sensors on the market. From an optical point of view, the image circle (of sharpness) of lenses covers a square sensor more efficiently than a rectangular sensor. In other words, for a given lens, a square sensor has highest usable surface area of sharp lens coverage.

  • Elliot Stern

    Some how Kodak, Canon and Nikon in the beginning of the digital age, made decisions for everyone in regards to using the rectangular format because it most resembled what people were used to in 35mm film cameras. Now of course there are full frame cameras in the same 35mm format. I agree with you on the lens coverage but I also find that composing with the square format is a lot easier and faster. Sadly we also lose some resolution for setting up the digital cameras in the square but so be it. Unfortunately companies like Mamiya, Pentax and the like decided that the 6×4.5 was a better way to go for them. As an old medium format film shooter I think they made a wrong decision as well.

  • Elliot Stern

    Nice article a very much to the point. I actually republished it back to your blog for the folks I teach. It would be interesting to see just how much resolution (sensor) is lost by shooting in the square format. Shooting Fuji X in the square format as I am sure it is with other cameras does not seem to hinder my popular 8×10 print images. The raw file shows up as full size image but the Jpegs which are very good are in the square format. Nice.

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