This article was updated in December 2023 with contributions from Andrew S Gibson and Darren Rowse.
What’s so great about the square format in photography? And how can shooting square compositions help your photos?
I’m a huge fan of the 1:1 aspect ratio – I use it all the time in my own photography! – and in this article, I aim to explain why it’s such a great idea to shoot square. I also explain several easy ways to work with a square aspect ratio.
By the time you’re done, you’ll fully appreciate the value of square photography, and you’ll be ready to capture some stunning square shots!
Let’s get started.
Square versus rectangular photography
Every photo aspect ratio – square, 3:2, 4:3, 16:9, and more – features a slightly different view of the world.
And these different views lend themselves to different types of compositions.
Therefore, composition in the square (1:1) format is a different process than composition within a standard 3:2 or 4:3 rectangular frame.
Is the square format always better than a wider format? Absolutely not. There are times when you’ll want to shoot with a 3:2 format, for instance, or a 16:9 format (especially when you’re dealing with wider or longer scenes).
But the square format is very well-liked by photographers, and I highly recommend you keep it at the back of your mind when out shooting.
Let’s take a look at why the square format is so great, starting with:
1. Square compositions feature balance and flow
A square is a perfectly balanced shape. Each side is equal in length. Therefore, neither the vertical nor the horizontal direction is emphasized.
Why does this matter? Well, in a rectangular frame, the viewer’s eye is encouraged to move from side to side (in the landscape format) or up and down (in the portrait format).
But in a square frame, with every side equal in length, the viewer’s eye is encouraged to move, not from side to side or up and down, but in a circle. This creates visual flow, always a good thing in photography.
Of course, there are many factors that influence the way the eye moves around a photo, including the use of line, texture, color, selective focus, and negative space. But the shape of the frame is a major factor.
In the landscape below, composed with the 3:2 aspect ratio of my 35mm camera, the eye is encouraged to move from side to side, thanks to the shape of the frame (as well as the horizontal lines):
But in this square format photo, the eye is encouraged to move around the frame in a circle:
Useful, right? It’s especially important when you’re dealing with near-far compositions (as in the shot above) and you want to push the viewer from foreground to background and then to the foreground again.
2. The square format gives the perfect amount of negative space
Negative space is the term used to describe any empty space around a subject. For instance, if you photograph a barn surrounded by a snowy field, the field will often constitute negative space.
Now, it’s common knowledge that you can improve your compositions by getting close to your subject – that is, by eliminating negative space. But when used carefully, negative space can create a wonderful sense of atmosphere. And it can also help emphasize the shape of the subject (i.e., the positive space).
Unfortunately, negative space can be somewhat finicky. Including lots of space in a rectangular frame may not turn out so great, as you’ll end up with too much space and not enough focus on your subject. But negative space often works very well in the square format, as I demonstrate below.
Here is a photo of a lizard in the 3:2 aspect ratio:
And here is the same photo cropped to a square:
Which do you prefer? The square format offers a more balanced composition – featuring lots of negative space, yes, but also a powerful splash of positive space.
3. A square will force you to simplify your compositions
The square format lends itself to a simple approach. It pushes you to pare down your compositions and make every element count.
Why? Because there is less room in a square frame than in a rectangular one. So before you include another element in the frame, you’re forced to ask yourself: What is really necessary? And what can I do without?
Generally speaking, creating a simple composition is hard – but after a bit of time working with the square format, you’ll find it becoming easier and easier.
Remember: for your photos to have impact, you should eliminate as many distractions as possible. The focus should be on your subject. Other unnecessary elements within the frame will simply pull the viewer’s eye away from the subject and reduce the strength of the image.
This photo is about as simple as you can get:
And the square format forced me to keep the strong, simple, in-your-face composition.
4. The square format works great with shapes
Take a look at the images below. How many shapes can you see?
There are dozens – circles, squares, diamonds, rectangles, and more.
Now, shapes tend to look great in photographic compositions. They help stabilize and balance the frame, plus they can create powerful, eye-catching scenes.
And the square format really lends itself to shape-based compositions.
Why? I’m not completely sure, but I think it’s because the square is such a powerful shape that it emphasizes other shapes within it. This is linked to the ideas of balance and simplicity, as discussed above – simplifying the composition emphasizes shapes, which in turn makes shape-based compositions more powerful.
Whatever the reason, just know that geometry looks great in square photos. So if your plan is to shoot (or crop) square, the more shapes, the better!
5. You can create beautiful square centered compositions
Photographers tend to avoid positioning the main subject in the center of the frame. And in most cases, this is a good idea. As the rule of thirds points out, off-center compositions are the way to go.
But did you know that centered compositions actually work well with the square format?
It’s true! With square photography, you can often place the subject in the center of the frame for an effective composition. You can ignore the rule of thirds. And you can get some very unique photos.
Centered compositions work especially well when the image is simple. The fewer distractions present in the frame, the more effective a central composition becomes. If the subject has a strong shape, the balanced empty space around it emphasizes that shape. And the square format provides the perfect frame:
6. The square format works beautifully with black and white
Take away color and what do you get? An image that relies on tonal contrast for impact and that emphasizes visual elements such as lines, textures, and shapes.
In other words:
A composition that looks amazing in a square format.
Honestly, the square format and black and white seem made for each other, which perhaps explains the square format’s popularity with fine art photographers.
So the next time you’re shooting in a square format, consider switching to your camera’s monochrome mode. You’re bound to capture some stunning photos! Alternatively, you can shoot in color and convert to black and white in post-processing (it can be helpful to switch back and forth between color and black and white to see what works best for your shot).
7. The square format works great for street photography
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 photograph. With the square format, there is no need to consider whether the composition would be better if you turned the camera on its side. In other words, the square format simplifies the decision-making process.
And as I emphasized above, it’s much easier to create an effective composition within a square frame. This can be beneficial for all forms of photography, of course, but when you’re shooting on the streets, you’ll often be faced with chaos: people running, walking, talking, standing; cars flowing by or parked on the curb; and street signs and advertisements galore. In my experience, working in the square format can help you organize that chaotic scene into a harmonious composition, something that can be tough to do when working with a rectangular aspect ratio.
How to get started photographing with a square aspect ratio
Now that you’re familiar with why the square format is so compelling, let’s talk about how you can use it. There are four main ways you can explore this aspect ratio:
1. Use a medium-format film camera
These can be surprisingly inexpensive on the second-hand market. Look for brands such as Rolleiflex, Mamiya, Bronica, or Hasselblad. Make sure to get the best quality scan you can of your negatives so you can work on them in Photoshop.
2. Use a toy film camera (like a Holga)
Again, a good quality scan is essential to make the most out of the negatives. If you don’t want to use film, you can buy Holga lenses for digital cameras and crop the image to a square. That’s how I created this image:
3. Use a digital camera with a 1:1 aspect ratio setting
Many digital cameras allow you to change the aspect ratio of your photos. You’ll find this option in your camera’s settings menu; just select 1:1, and then start shooting.
There is one caveat to this approach, however:
If you shoot in RAW, when you import your images into Lightroom (or any other post-processing software), you’ll need to re-crop to the 1:1 aspect ratio. This is because the aspect ratio setting won’t truly change the files that your camera sensor captures; instead, it’ll just crop the JPEGs to 1:1 in-camera.
4. Photograph normally and crop during post-processing
If you want to test out square format photography, you can always choose to photograph in your camera’s native aspect ratio (often 3:2), and then just crop the files to a square in Lightroom, ON1 Photo RAW, Luminar, etc.
This method is convenient, though it won’t let you frame your images in the 1:1 aspect ratio through the camera viewfinder, which can be helpful (especially when you’re just starting out).
If you do go this route, I encourage you to visualize your compositions within a square in advance. Don’t just shoot as you normally would – imagine a square in your camera’s viewfinder, and compose as if you won’t have any extra pixels to work with when editing.
Square photography: final words
Now you know all about the power of the square format – and why you should definitely try using the 1:1 aspect ratio in your photography.
It doesn’t matter whether you shoot with the intention of cropping to a square, or you go back over your old images with the aim of making some square compositions; the important thing is that you have fun with the process and that you appreciate the usefulness of square photography!
Now over to you:
What do you think about the square aspect ratio? Do you use it frequently? When does it look best? Share your thoughts in the comments below!