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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful images.