Five Reasons to Love the Square Format

Five Reasons to Love the Square Format


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:


1. You can Improve the Composition of Some of your Images

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.


2. Composition is Different within the Square Frame

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.


3. Black and White Square Photos are Beautiful

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.


4. Instagram

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.


5. Toy Cameras

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.

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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. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

Some Older Comments

  • millerandrea July 5, 2013 08:02 pm

    Yeah! your think right the square format as the fine art photographer’s format. I have also seen many fine art photographers that shoot almost exclusively in black and white and use the square format. black and white photograph really looks beautiful..

  • golfzilla January 1, 2012 06:08 pm

    @Claudia: Really nice work. Problem with flowers is that the tend to be resistant to any composition except centered. Centered gets to be boring very quickly.

  • Claudia January 1, 2012 01:06 am

    My husband introduced me to "the square" and has encouraged me to apply it to a portfolio of my flower images. I'd welcome any feedback or suggestions for improvement.

  • Tim December 20, 2011 03:58 am

    I find composing for square makes you think about corners/centre/diagonals more, too. Harmony/balance: something in this corner, opposing with something in the diagonally opposite corner, etc.

    Back in the days of MF 6x6 (which I loved), the other reason for square format was that it included shift movements from smaller (645) formats, making optimum use of the lens's coverage image-circle.

    These days, I do it with an articulating LCD at gut-height, on-board black&white square and the RAW files come out square too. I'm using old 35mm lenses on m43rds so I benefit from great sharp glass and the small format crops to the middle half (by image-diagonal) as well, so there's even less fall-off toward the edges. Yay :)

  • Tim December 20, 2011 03:54 am

    ErikKerstenbeck: several of those surfing shots either would work, or are very close on working, in a square form - for example, you'll get a strong composition if your surfers form a diagonal right across the image rather than offset to one side: [ / ] or similarly, with an imbalance of water beneath. It doesn't exclusively depend on the subject at all - either you see the potential for square at the time of composing or you don't.

  • Marco December 14, 2011 04:33 pm

    @scott kuli -- Your statements are confusing. Wide angle has to do with lenses, and "full frame" DSLR rather than wide angle????

    The aspect ratio on all DSLR's is a 3:2 ratio that is the same as the 35mm film ratio. Entry level crop sensor or full frame sensor are both the same ratio. You are confusing the terminology very much. Many entry level digital cameras use the 4:3 ratio due to the mass production of the smaller sensors. And I am sure that there are some exceptions out there that I am unaware of, but the point is that the ratio can always be changed in post production. In fact, the common print sizes often require it.

    This article is just trying to show that the square format has been used in the past with great success and maybe you should consider it for some images. Sort of an expand your thoughts article. The ratio of an image can affect the mood of the shot. Try taking a portrait of a flower and crop to the many common print ratios of 5:4, 3:2, and square as well as any others that you like while saving them as separate images. Then view them in the same viewing program. While these are all the same image, they will evoke different moods from you in most cases.

  • mark1958co December 14, 2011 05:26 am

    One thought about framing square format is to have the mat cut so that the opening for the photo is at the top, side, or bottom leaving an area of mat that creates negative space. This works well when using premade frames in traditional dimensions.

  • ccting December 12, 2011 11:34 am

    The easiest way to prove these pics have directional emphasis is to use eye-tracking system, to track how the first time viewer how they see the pics. You can easily see the pattern on how they see the same pics. I guess, they have almost the same direction...

    I am a noob.. so... please kindly validate my statements urself..

  • ccting December 12, 2011 11:29 am

    golfzilla Says: "@ccting: Just what is Michael Freeman’s argument?"

    Based on my understanding on his arguments:
    a) Square is the most difficult format to work with.. Difficult vs easy ? It looks easy according to this article
    b) Square is suitable if the frame has no DIRECTIONAL EMPHASIS. Most pics above have strong directional emphasis.

    I have gone through quite a number of books, but I love "Photographer's eyes" and "Light science and Magic" very much as they are explained in more academic ways rather than "by examples". Well, i am a noob, and I may get things wrong.

  • tom collins December 10, 2011 10:28 am

    Wonderful article and inspiring. I've looked through my catalog of photos taken over the past month and applied the 1x1 or 6x6 format to a number of them and was very pleased with the look. I can appreciate how the subject really stands out in this format and can see the advantage to composing with that format in mind. Thanks for contributing.

  • David December 10, 2011 09:13 am

    sorry, elements 7 canvas size feature

  • Anne Brooks December 10, 2011 08:06 am

    Sorry, I meant I have Elements 7, not 10. Can't find canvas on that version.

  • Scott Kuli December 10, 2011 06:12 am

    I had a Cybershot before I smartened up a bit and got myself an entry level DSLR, although it won't be long before I upgrade to something more serious. Nevertheless, I have to say, the more squarish format of the 4/3rds sensor in the point and shoot, although it couldn't match the quality of even the entry level DSLR was something I found MUCH easier to to compose a shot with.

    I think "wide angle" is a niche for photography for most people. Personally, I think at least 80% of views I see that I'd like to shoot would be best served by a "full frame" DSLR format rather than by the wide angle I've currently got. I usually crop down to that in a graphics program afterwards, and I do that far more than I leave them as they are.

    I'll probably try the square format some day. I suppose that ideally cameras like the D3X would be reasonably priced, and we'd be able to pick whether we wanted wide, full format, or square with the flick of a switch. Of course, the electronics giants won't ever make a truly do-it-all camera system even if they could because that way they couldn't pull as much money out of us :)

  • Paul December 10, 2011 04:16 am

    Thanks, interesting as it's not a format I would normally use!

  • Pete Wendt December 9, 2011 06:07 pm

    Producing most everything now for DVD, such as videos, slide shows, with music, pretty well dictates rectangular for me, and predicting the future everything i am doing is in the 16:9 format. The only thing bad is a vertical picture! But some photoshopping fixes that!

  • David December 9, 2011 05:20 pm

    sorry for the delay, in photoshop you can adjust the size of the background color when you expand the size of the "canvas" which is what your main photo is displayed on. you can select to make the canvas any size you want. so say your photo is 8widex10high and you wanted to add text on the right side. simply change the canvas size to 10 wide x 10 high select the orientation of the photo to be center left and back ground color to white and you will have a 2 inch area for text on the right side and it will be white in color. the same can be used to make a photo canvas standard size for printing yet keep the photo the size you want. ex. crop the 8x10photo to 6x6 then go to image-canvas size- adjust the size to 8x10 select the background color as black click ok. you will end up with a 6x6 picture surounded by a 8x10 black frame. print the picture 8x10 and cut the black frame off. I only do this on out sourced prints cause it eats up a ton of black ink! lol
    in elements 7 you can go to image- size- canvas- do exactly the same thing. I dont have pse10 I have 7 and LR and CS5. and a few others I rarely use.

  • Ajax December 9, 2011 02:23 pm

    Here are some that I tried in the square format :

  • golfzilla December 9, 2011 12:43 pm

    @ccting: Just what is Michael Freeman's argument?

  • Anne Brooks December 9, 2011 12:39 pm

    Sorry, tried it out in Elements. Guess I don't have that on PS Elements 10. Oh well..

  • Anne Brooks December 9, 2011 12:36 pm

    Love the comments. I didn't quite understand what David was saying about select the background color as black and then trim. Can you explain more? Thanks. Anne

  • Renee December 9, 2011 11:05 am

    Interesting. I am probably THE most amateur photographer leaving a comment or on this site. I can say I did not take a photograph for over 10 years & before that it was with a little film camera. In the past few months, because of starting a blog I have taken more photos than I have in my whole life. On my blog I have to crop and re-size photos to 65 X 65 pixels for a thumbnail image. I have had to work with my photos to try and find the best square (and a small one at that) to use for the thumbnail. I had no idea of square photography but have been dealing with it anyway. So all I can say is...great article. It gave me something to think about.

  • David December 9, 2011 10:59 am

    dang it! the jig is up! I love the square or near square. it takes me back to my first camera the polaroid instamatic. of course being the rebel I have always been I never do as the flock. I shoot my own style and crop to my own style that crop could be anything 2x15 to 6x6 or even a triangle for that matter. I use custom frames made to fit my vision. I even make my own frames when needed. I rarely print to meet a frame requirement unless its a picture I could care less about inwhich case I'm not printing it anyway. some may say "get it right in camera" I say I did it was the cameras bias format that was incorrect for the art that I was creating. "rule of thirds?" wth is that? lol I threw the rule book away long ago! color correction huh? I call it mood. BE YOU! just because walmart or Millers says 8x10 3x7 4x6 etc are your choices means NOTHING! also a tip for those who Do Not print at home and are at he mercy of someone elses size restricions. in PS crop to size you want then select, image, canvas size and make that the next largest print format size available for printing and selec the back ground color as black. once you get the print from where ever just trim the black parts off "presto"! now at he frame shop have a custom size frame made to fit your fine art.

  • ccting December 9, 2011 10:28 am

    it is totally contradictory to Michael freeman's argument...I get confused..

  • Michael Reed December 9, 2011 08:03 am

    I really liked this article! Over the last week I started "stealing" my girlfriends IPhone using the instagram app as well. I also started cropping some of my photos to the square format. Good article! Very applicable to those trying to try new things.

  • Mikell December 9, 2011 04:56 am

    I often crop to a square format and love it. However, this is often by chance since, like a previous poster - sillyxone - I also like to crop my photos to any random size that seems to make sense for the best composition.

    If you aren't going to print your photo, you can be creative with cropping and throw away the rules. If I want to print a photo, I can always go back and re-crop to a standard "frame" size. There is nothing more pleasing about a 3:2 or any other "normal" ratio, as a rule, over any other random cropped size, in my opinion. Every photo deserves to be judged on its own, as to what crop format it needs.

  • golfzilla December 9, 2011 04:46 am

    I am committed to letting the image determine the cropping, therefore I often crop down to square. I really wish some manufacturer would produce a digital camera with a square sensor.

    Here is a square crop from Vegas:

  • Jean-Pierre December 9, 2011 04:43 am

    Traditionalist? You mean the thought of cropping a digital photo is wrong in your eyes. Square format has existed since before most of us were born, and famous photographers cropped even their film photos when printing. Josef Koudelka is a prime example of a person who create magnificent images that were 'cropped' for panoramic effect (made square images long rectangles). Cropping is nothing to be feared and, when used correctly, can evoke a different mood and tone.

    One last note: if you've ever printed larger than 4x6, then your photo would most likely be cropped (5x7, 8x10).

  • Keivan Zavari December 9, 2011 03:45 am

    well, normally I try to be more careful with the framing on my camera that I don't crop it later... I really think the 2x3 looks better, however sometimes I crop my pictures to get square ratio.

    here I did for example:

    it was a very interesting post to read. thanks... :-)

  • javan December 9, 2011 03:28 am

    For those of us who cut our teeth on film cameras, the idea of limiting ourselves to the discipline of a single aspect ratio probably understand this concept better than those who have had the benefit of being able to crop images to whatever ratio they want. I love the square format, probably because I did so much work with Dianas and twin-lens reflexes before going digital. Currently my favorite camera of choice is my Olympus Pen E-P1 which allows me to shoot square in camera. This is much more accurate than cropping the image later because I don't have to estimate my crop when I shoot. I could crop any image in post-processing to better the composition, but I like the challenge of shooting to the format. Great article!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer December 9, 2011 03:27 am

    I went to a presentation a few years back about by a very high end local photographer (like $3,000 portrait packages) and all his portraits were in square format. That first got me thinking about using squares, although I did not do it much. One recent square image is the 5th image down in this post on motion blur carnival rides:

    The lead sun image above is really cool and a good example I think of square framing being ideal.

  • Mridula December 9, 2011 03:25 am

    Loved this post. I sometimes intuitively do this as nothing else looks good, like here.

    But now I am going to use it deliberately.

  • George December 9, 2011 03:22 am

    Since some time I have started to like square format a lot. At this point I am still shooting in traditional way but more than before i find myself composing in such way so that i can crop them in square later on. For some reason it just feels right for me :)

  • Marco December 9, 2011 03:18 am

    Some of the best square format "art" images that I have seen have been very peaceful floral or nature shots. For some reason the square format lends itself to calming images. If you have any really peaceful shots you might want to try a square crop just to see if it works for you.

  • Ahmed Sharif December 9, 2011 02:52 am

    nice post!

    in my view, when the original image isn't square, it gives an option....
    whereas in case of cameras producing only square images, its more like forcing the photographer to think how to use a square frame, and to get used to a different type of composition...

  • danfoy December 9, 2011 02:19 am

    Square format has an impact on composition beyond merely being able to discount the rule of thirds - it means something completely different to, say, 3:2. When you're shooting in a rectangular format, you tend to concentrate on the subject and let the surrounding background and foreground slip outside of your focused vision, making the photograph feel like it could continue beyond the frame of the photograph. Square is much more definite - you're looking at what's inside that square, and you're much more aware that this is a section of the world that you've decided to share to the exclusion of everything else. Humans don't naturally see in a square, we see in a horizontal rectangle - looking at square images isn't natural, and has a tendency to make things look abstract.

    Hasselblad used to have a leaflet or something on the benefits of the 6x6 format, the main point being that it allowed gear to be smaller whilst using the maximum amount of the sharpest part of the image circle, from which you could then crop out 6:4.5 or 3:2 ratio images if you wanted - my 6x6 Bronica SQ even has guidelines for 645 cropping on the viewfinder, with the idea that you can frame using the guidelines and then print either horizontal or vertical from the same negative, without having to rotate the camera or use an L-bracket on a tripod when you're shooting.

  • raghavendra December 9, 2011 02:17 am

    It is more clearer and unique
    people don't distract a lot in square format.
    "black and white pictures" in a square format is awesome point in this article!

  • sillyxone December 9, 2011 02:10 am

    I haven't printed any images since 2003, thus I'm not even aware of formats anymore. I just cropped my images based on my feeling, thus, some of them are nearly square, some are thin, and some are very wide (my love for panorama might have an effect on this too). Perhaps only about 20% retain their original 3:2 format.

    I wonder if any one on the same boat? You can still trim the print to a random format, right? it's just hard to find a frame for it, maybe mounting it instead.

  • ErikKerstenbeck December 9, 2011 01:21 am

    I guess it's hip to be square,eh?

    I still am a traditionalist - it would be hard to covey the feeling behind these sailboarding shots in a square format. Guess it all depnds on the subject.