6 Lessons the Square Format Can Teach You About Composition

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Square format composition

In another article I wrote that one of the main attractions of the square format for me is composition. Today I’m going to elaborate on that idea.

Composition in the square format is a different process than within a rectangular frame. The benefit of understanding of why that is so is that you will be able to apply the lessons learnt to improving the composition of your images in any aspect ratio. Even if you never intend to use it in earnest, it’s worthwhile playing around with the square format for this reason alone.

Let’s take a look at some of these factors:

1. Balance

A square is a perfectly balanced shape. Each side is equal in length. Using the square format encourages the eye to move around the frame in a circle. This is different to the rectangular frame, where the eye is encouraged to move from side to side (in the landscape format) or up and down (in the portrait format). There are many factors that influence the way the eye moves around a photo, including the use of line, texture, colour, selective focus and negative space. But the shape of the frame is a major factor.

In this landscape, composed within the 3:2 aspect ratio of my 35mm camera, the eye is encouraged to move from side to side by the shape of the frame and the horizontal lines:

Square format composition

In this square format photo, the eye is encouraged to move around the frame in a circle:

Square format composition

2. Space

Negative space is the term used to describe the empty space in an image around the subject. Composition is often improved by getting closer to the subject. But sometimes you can create atmosphere or emphasise the shape of the subject by including negative space around it. In the rectangular frame, this can be difficult to do as it results in a lot of empty space. But it can be very effective in the square format.

Here is a photo that I took of a lizard in the 3:2 aspect ratio:

Square format composition

And here is the same photo cropped to a square:

Square format composition

Which do you prefer? There is no right answer – it’s entirely subjective. But it’s interesting how the dynamic of the image is changed by a single crop.

3. Simplicity

The square format lends itself to a simple approach. There is less room within the square frame than the rectangular one, therefore simplifying the composition becomes a necessity.

Creating a simple composition is often much harder than it seems. But it’s a very useful exercise. For your photos to have impact, you want to eliminate as many distractions as possible. The focus should be on your subject. If there are other elements within the frame that pull the viewer’s eye away from the subject that can lessen the strength of the image.

The composition of this image is about as simple as it is possible to get:

Square format composition

4. Shape

How many shapes can you see in the images below? There are circles, squares, diamonds, rectangles and triangles within these photos. The square format lends itself to this style of composition. I think that’s because the square is such a powerful shape in itself, that it emphasises other shapes within it. Linked with this are the ideas of balance and simplicity. Simplifying the composition emphasises shape, and so does placing shapes within a square frame. Converting to black and white emphasises them further.

Square format composition

5. Central composition

In the square format you can often place the subject in the centre of the frame for an effective composition. Generally speaking, many photographers tend to avoid place the subject off-centre for a more interesting composition.The rule-of-thirds is a reminder of this. But in the square format that doesn’t apply.

It’s even more true when the image is simple. The less distractions there are in the frame, the more effective a central composition becomes. If the subject has a strong shape, the empty space around it emphasises the shape. And the square format provides the perfect, balanced frame:

Square format composition

6. Black and white

Take away colour and what do you have? An image that relies on tonal contrast for impact and that emphases visual elements such as line, texture and shape. The square format and black and white seem made for each other, which perhaps explains its popularity with fine art photographers.

Take another look at the photos in this article. Do you prefer the colour images or the monochrome ones? The answer may give you an idea for future photo projects.

Final thought: Have fun

Whether you shoot with the intention of utilising the square format, or go back over old images to see whether they can be improved by cropping to a square, the most important thing is to have fun with the process. Enjoy the challenge of getting to grips with the square format and its implications for composition. Don’t take it too seriously. You’ll create some beautiful images and the lessons you learn about composition along the way will help you create better images in the future.

 

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Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom and his written over 25 popular photography ebooks. Enroll in his new Lightroom course for free, or download his free Creative Fade Presets for Lightroom.

  • In 2009 I went on a 3 month solo trip through Europe with a Hasselblad and 80 rolls of b&w film. That camera shoots square, and that most definitely influenced how I shot. Symmetry was a big theme, and the photos were often graphic exercises.

    Tomorrow I will go back for another two months and I’m bringing a compact pocket digital camera, but I have it set to shoot square b&w. There’s something special about that format, and the restriction brings out creativity that can’t rely on color or wide frames. It’s very focussed.

  • Thank you for this post. I have been lucky enough that another of my photography friends early on mentioned cropping to a square and I am quite grateful to have been told about this technique as I am not sure I would have thought of it as early on if I hadn’t. When you go to buy frames they are often in the typical 3:2 so you may not stop and think about other ratios. I took the following image and cropped it into a square: http://500px.com/photo/24683209 It just seemed to fit better and for all the reasons you listed above I think it works better as a square. Although looking at your sun shot I am thinking I should have cropped tighter.

  • Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for the article. It is very interesting. When I was reading the review for Ricoh cameras, I had seen square format but later on I forgot it completely. After reading your article, I have decided to dedicate my next blog post to square format. (expecting it to happen sometime this week)

    http://www.igurel.com

    Ibrahim

  • Ah the humble and lovely square! I so miss shooting with my Hasselblad sometimes as I do miss the format. Thanks for the flashback, makes me want to compose some square images!

  • Bob

    Interesting, and while I largely agree (I used to shoot a lot of 120 film), I’m not sure the image chosen for the circular eye movement illustrates the point very well. In that particular image, my eye comes in from the lower left, follows the diagonal of the rock until it hits the water, then move up to the background, where it pretty much stops. There’s nothing to really draw my eye in the direction of the arrows you’ve superimposed.

  • If you guys wish to view some square photography, have a look at Square Magazine, the only web zine solely dedicated to the square format. It’s free to read and to contribute to, so it’s all good. The new issue is available in pdf format via http://www.squaremag.org

    May the square be with you.

  • kathie kirts

    Tried the square photo idea on some beach scenes I took on Hilton Head Island SC. Just changing to 10in square – what a great difference. Thanks for the tip!

  • Andrea

    I personally LOVE using squares…the only issue is, of course, they then need to be specially printed or customed framed…which may or may not be an issue to customers. If they love the “different-ness” of a square photo, perhaps it’s a non-issue and they’ll deal with it. Or have it printed on canvas or something. An interesting artistic dilemma.

  • I totally agree that the square format is the most difficult to use! For me, the 4/3 format is most convenient ot use: with minimum lose you can crop your image to square, 3/2,….In general, I use square format just in particular case of compositions, because is too pretentious.

    Some of my pics, where I do some experiments with different formats:
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/2013/06/dealuri.html

  • Pablo8

    I changed to using a ‘Blad for weddings, after many years using 35mm/6×4.5 formats. But the ease of not having to swing the camera over, on a tripod convinced me I was doing myself a great favour. Of course the wedding album prints could now consist of a mix of formats …square/ circle/oval/ rectangle/portrai/. l’scape.

  • Len Skapp

    In section 5, you say “many photographers tend to avoid place the subject off-centre for a more interesting composition.”. This seems like a typo, with the word ‘avoid’ added incorrectly?

  • RLBOSTON2014

    I’m finding that I’m using the square format often but then I’ve also in recent memory let the sides of an image remain white to achieve the taller, thinner composition that works,

  • jumbybird

    Probably revised it from “to avoid placing in center” to “place off center” and forgot to remove the “to avoid”
    Happens.

  • jumbybird

    I don’t get the big deal why people have preferences, or why square vs rectangular… I take a picture, and sometimes when I edit, I’ll crop in all strange ways, it depends on what looks good to me. Wide, super wide, tall, portrait, 3:2, square… it all depends on the scene and what you want to emphasize. Why get bottled into a format? It’s not like you’re doing TV and have to fit a 16:9 screen exactly. It’s what is pleasing to my eye that matters.
    As far as some saying square is “pretentious”. BULL…

  • I love square compositions. I have had numerous images that crop better as squares than as rectangles. Lately I’ve been shooting specifically for square proportions.

  • Rob Vermeulen

    I stumbled upon this old discussion, but it gave rise to some thoughts I would like to share.
    1. Why is there less room in a square frame than in a rectangular one? The opposite is just as true…
    2. Composition is not just about placing objects inside the frame. Think about how your image will be viewed: on a screen or printed in a book or a magazine, both of which are mostly rectangular. This influences how we see the picture. Viewing the images in this article on my (horizontal) computer screen makes me think they are slightly portrait-like. When I look at them on my iPad in portrait mode, they seem wider than they are.
    3. Continuing on 2.: TV is by far not the only medium that restricts aspect ratio. Many news websites are landscape only and will use ‘inverted cropping’ when they have to publish a portrait or square photo, placing it inside their 3:2 or 16:9 frame – if they don’t simply crop away your beautiful composition.

Some Older Comments

  • Pablo8 August 2, 2013 05:29 pm

    I changed to using a 'Blad for weddings, after many years using 35mm/6x4.5 formats. But the ease of not having to swing the camera over, on a tripod convinced me I was doing myself a great favour. Of course the wedding album prints could now consist of a mix of formats ...square/ circle/oval/ rectangle/portrai/. l'scape.

  • marius2die4 August 2, 2013 04:29 pm

    I totally agree that the square format is the most difficult to use! For me, the 4/3 format is most convenient ot use: with minimum lose you can crop your image to square, 3/2,....In general, I use square format just in particular case of compositions, because is too pretentious.

    Some of my pics, where I do some experiments with different formats:
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/2013/06/dealuri.html

  • Andrea August 2, 2013 10:20 am

    I personally LOVE using squares...the only issue is, of course, they then need to be specially printed or customed framed...which may or may not be an issue to customers. If they love the "different-ness" of a square photo, perhaps it's a non-issue and they'll deal with it. Or have it printed on canvas or something. An interesting artistic dilemma.

  • kathie kirts August 1, 2013 09:51 pm

    Tried the square photo idea on some beach scenes I took on Hilton Head Island SC. Just changing to 10in square - what a great difference. Thanks for the tip!

  • Christophe Dillinger August 1, 2013 05:44 pm

    If you guys wish to view some square photography, have a look at Square Magazine, the only web zine solely dedicated to the square format. It's free to read and to contribute to, so it's all good. The new issue is available in pdf format via www.squaremag.org

    May the square be with you.

  • Bob August 1, 2013 12:40 pm

    Interesting, and while I largely agree (I used to shoot a lot of 120 film), I'm not sure the image chosen for the circular eye movement illustrates the point very well. In that particular image, my eye comes in from the lower left, follows the diagonal of the rock until it hits the water, then move up to the background, where it pretty much stops. There's nothing to really draw my eye in the direction of the arrows you've superimposed.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt July 31, 2013 05:01 am

    Ah the humble and lovely square! I so miss shooting with my Hasselblad sometimes as I do miss the format. Thanks for the flashback, makes me want to compose some square images!

  • Ibrahim Gurel July 30, 2013 02:39 am

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for the article. It is very interesting. When I was reading the review for Ricoh cameras, I had seen square format but later on I forgot it completely. After reading your article, I have decided to dedicate my next blog post to square format. (expecting it to happen sometime this week)

    http://www.igurel.com

    Ibrahim

  • Clyde July 29, 2013 09:56 pm

    Thank you for this post. I have been lucky enough that another of my photography friends early on mentioned cropping to a square and I am quite grateful to have been told about this technique as I am not sure I would have thought of it as early on if I hadn't. When you go to buy frames they are often in the typical 3:2 so you may not stop and think about other ratios. I took the following image and cropped it into a square: http://500px.com/photo/24683209 It just seemed to fit better and for all the reasons you listed above I think it works better as a square. Although looking at your sun shot I am thinking I should have cropped tighter.

  • Joshua Targownik July 29, 2013 03:21 am

    In 2009 I went on a 3 month solo trip through Europe with a Hasselblad and 80 rolls of b&w film. That camera shoots square, and that most definitely influenced how I shot. Symmetry was a big theme, and the photos were often graphic exercises.

    Tomorrow I will go back for another two months and I'm bringing a compact pocket digital camera, but I have it set to shoot square b&w. There's something special about that format, and the restriction brings out creativity that can't rely on color or wide frames. It's very focussed.

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