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Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of digital photography is that it has opened up areas of photography that were previously limited to people that had certain equipment. The square format is a good example – before digital you really needed a 6x6cm format medium camera to exploit it. Sure, you could crop a 35mm negative in the darkroom, but you wouldn’t be able to match the image quality of a medium format negative.
Digital cameras have changed all that. You have the choice of using your camera’s native aspect ratio (a rectangle) or you can crop to a different aspect ratio in post-processing. Some cameras also let you use the square format in-camera – displaying a cropped square on the Live View feed or in the viewfinder if it has an electronic viewfinder.
Apart from the fact that you can, why would anyone crop to a square? Here are five reasons to love the square format:
Good composition is often about simplifying – eliminating any superfluous elements in your images so that you’re just left with the important stuff. You should be doing this when you compose a photo in the first place, but you can also do it by cropping in post-processing. If you crop from a 35mm to a square, you’re shaving off a third of the image, leaving the strongest two-thirds.
This is a creative exercise that you can carry out on photos you already have. It’s a great way of improving images that have too much empty space either side of the main subject. It’s worth taking some time to go back over old images and see if you can improve them by cropping to a square. The above image is an example of a good photo that became better once it was cropped to a square.
Another approach is to take photos that you intend to crop to the square format. Because you are aware that you will crop the image afterwards, you can take care to compose it in a way that suits the square format. This is something I’ve started to do more often this year as I’ve become more aware of the creative possibilities of the square format.
If you’ve read Mastering Composition you’ll already know that I don’t place much stock in the ‘rule-of-thirds’. In the square format you can forget the rule-of-thirds altogether. It depends on what you’re photographing, but placing the subject in the centre of a square frame, or close to the edge, often works surprisingly well.
The other elements that become more prominent in the square format are shapes and line. Look for shapes – such as triangles, squares and circles in your subject when you compose your subject. Lines also become stronger as they pull the viewer’s eye through the frame.
The photo above of a dandelion utilises shape well – the flower head makes a nice white circle and the stalk is a line that leads the viewer’s eye right to it.
I think of the square format as the fine art photographer’s format. There are lots of fine art photographers that shoot almost exclusively in black and white and use the square format. In black and white, shapes and line become more prominent without the distraction of colour – black and white seems to make the most attractive elements of the square format even stronger.
Take a look at the work of Josef Hoflehner to see what I mean. And really look at his work. Josef’s work is deceptively simple, yet he has a remarkable eye for tone and composition. How does he use shape? Tone? Line? Contrast? Negative space? Analysing the work of photographers that you admire, then applying what you learn to your own photography, is a good way of learning.
This only applies to photographers with an iPhone or iPad, but I really love the Instagram app. I like to use it on my iPad, but I don’t use the iPad’s camera – I transfer photos that I’ve already taken and use Instagram to process and crop them.
For those of you not familiar with the app, it crops the image to a square and then applies a creative filter (the image above is a good example of what it can do). It’s surprising how much the creative filters can improve your images. To get the best out of Instagram, you need to use it with your strongest images – don’t fall into the trap of using it to try and improve weak images.
Toy cameras like the Holga and Diana create square format images with a unique look. Who would have thought that you could make beautiful images with inexpensive plastic lenses and cameras? Well, you can – as long as you’re prepared to use film.
But there is an alternative for digital camera owner; you can now buy Holga oe Diana lenses for your digital SLR. You can take advantage of the quirky nature of these plastic optics, but with all the advantages of digital photography. I bought a plastic Holga lens for my camera from Holga Direct and I’m delighted with results.
Square format photography is very enjoyable. I like it because it has helped me create some beautiful images, and I am using the square format more and more for black and white photography. The square format has taught me lessons about composition that I also apply to other photos, so the benefits extend into every area of my photography.