The Beautiful Square

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Square format photography

This article is written by Andrew S. Gibson, the author of Square, on sale now at Snap N Deals for a limited time.

The square format seems to have gone in and out of fashion over the decades – and there’s no doubt that it’s currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity. This is at least partly due to the popularity of toy cameras like the Holga and smartphone apps like Instagram. But it’s also got a lot to do ease of access. With film cameras, cropping aside, the camera you purchased determined the aspect ratio you worked in. With digital cameras you can take a photo and crop it to any aspect ratio you desire. That makes working in the square format a whole lot easier.

84 years of history

The first square format camera was made by Rollei in 1929. Square format cameras have been used by venerable names such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Diane Arbus. Hasselblad, the mark of choice for many professional photographers in the film age, used the square format in its film cameras from 1948 to 2002. There are no current digital cameras (to my knowledge) that have a square sensor. But digital photography makes it easy to crop your images to any aspect ratio you want.

By the way, it’s well worth taking some time to study the works of the masters mentioned above. It will teach you a lot about composition, and hopefully inspire you to try out the square format. Click on the links to learn more about each photographer:

Square format photography

Richard Avedon was known for his stark, minimalist portraits. His approach changed the way fashion photos were taken forever. The first image in this article shows Avedon using a Rolleiflex camera.

Irving Penn is another famous fashion photographer who used minimalism and the square format to make his mark. His photos are known for their formal, graphic composition and stark use of white space.

Diane Arbus took the opposite approach to that of photographers like Irving Penn. She photographed outcasts and people on the margins of society, celebrating the ugly and unusual rather than the beautiful.

If you’d like to see the work of some of the modern exponents of square format photography, then take a look at my article 40 Beautiful Square Photos. I’ve collated a series of beautiful images from some of the best photographers around today.

Using the square format

Hopefully the above links have whetted your appetite for the square format. 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. Get the best quality scan you can of the 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:

Square format photography

3. Use a smartphone camera and convert the photos to square format using an app like Instagram. Another approach is load photos that you already have taken onto your phone or tablet and run them through Instagram. I used that method to create this photo:

Square format photography

4. Use a digital camera and crop the images to the square format when you process the Raw files. Many recent models let you take square images in Live View. I’m sure this is the method that the majority of readers of this website will use.

The appeal of the square format

I think of the square format as the fine art photographer’s format. It has a venerable history and has been used by some of the great names of 20th century photography. Now, in the digital age, photographers are using the square format in fields as diverse as long exposure photography and iphoneography. Here are some more reasons that I like the square format:

  • It changes my approach to composition. The square format is different, and there seems to be a certain inherent beauty to well composed square format photos that other aspect ratios lack. Shapes become more prominent, there is little wasted space and the balance between the elements changes. The subject of composition within the square format is so interesting that I will write an entire article about it.
  • It works well in black and white. There’s something magical about the combination of black and white and the square format. The lack of colour lends emphasis to graphic shapes and textures within the frame.

Square format photography

  • The square format seems to suit certain subjects. It seems to work best with subjects like portraits, the nude, landscape, still life, architecture, details and abstracts. These are all artistic subjects, and they all work well in black and white – which is perhaps why the square format is popular with fine art photographers.
  • It’s fun. I enjoy going through my old images and seeing which ones can be improved by cropping to the square format. It may seem like an abstract exercise but it has taught me a lot about composition. Thinking about whether an image could be improved by cropping to a square makes me thing about whether I composed the image in the best possible way in the first place. Here’s an example. Cropping the image to the square format, and placing the flower in the centre of the frame, has created an new image with a different dynamic.

Square format photography

Square format photography

Conclusion

If you’ve never used the square format before, it’s well worth the effort. It’s so easy to crop your existing images in Lightroom or Photoshop that anyone can try it. It can give new life to old images – and the process will teach you a lot about composition and the use of space within the frame.

Square

Square format photography

My ebook Square explores the square format from the digital photographer’s perspective. It shows you how to use the square format on your camera, and how to make the most out of what I think of as the fine art photographer’s format.It’s available now at Snap N Deals for a special price for a limited period.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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 get $4 off his latest book Mastering Composition Book Two with the code december4.

  • I am one of those who never tried it out, have to try it out now.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Jason Racey

    I’m not certain but i think the Canon 6D has a setting to allow you to change the image ratio. I never considered using it until now. You mention 1:1 being good for landscapes. That’s surprising. Seems like it would lead to static images. I’ll have to give it a try. Will require a new way of thinking about composition.

  • By coincidence I have just started to experiment with the square and agree it has something to say for itself
    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Nature-and-Wildlife/G0000dNdDRq9HKXg/I000071yGvfZNyZ8/C0000KeBDGBBOd0E

  • Peter

    The cameras mentioned in the article were all 21/4 square format for a very good reason. They could only be used one way up, hence the square format. You could crop for landscape or portrait, so you did not have to turn the camera, they were never designed for square format prints, because square format is not considered to be ascetically pleasing. The same reason that they never made square photographic paper.

  • ScottC

    I recently participated in a “square” crop weekly subject project on flickr, it will make you think!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/8213947041/

  • Baz

    I have recently been playing around with the square format

  • It seems that I go in cycles with this. I’ll shoot square format almost exclusively for a while, then go back to rectangular format… Also square format got popularized by and currently associated with Instagram. (I’m not a big fan of Instagram, though 😉

  • I tried this before and was told I was cropping wrong, lol…but I liked it!

  • Ratkellar

    Flower and wildlife photography can work well in square format. Usually, it seems to depend on the subject and surroundings. I have been editing recent vacation shots and ended up using a lot of squares.

  • My old Olympus 620 have also this image ratio, but I am not at the level to shoot directly in this format. I prefer to crop after.

    Some of my pics
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/2013/06/dealuri.html

  • romu

    Great article. The Leica d-lux 5 has a built-in square image ratio.

  • I recently needed some square shots for a website I’m doing so I looked through my collection and found quite a lot of photos that looked so much better when they were cropped square. Unfortunately I can’t upload any of the images, for some reason.

  • Love the square shots…I must do more of them!

    LOVE the light “stars” in the first shot…can you tell me the secret? I can see it’s a long exposure due to the traffic light trails, but what else makes that happen??? I think those starts totally make the photo.

    Thanks for your help!

  • Valerie

    Although I think that the links to nudes were unnecessary, at the very least, there should have been a NSFW note next to the link.

  • Angelia

    I’ve done the square format lots of times. I didn’t know it was “a thing”. 🙂

  • Jean Waldhalm Glasgow

    I think the square format makes for great portraits. Unfortunately, frames are hard to find!

  • Feenix

    The first camera I used was a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex and I’ve also used a Mamiya. This was shot with my Pentax K-3 using a 50mm macro at ISO 100, f/13 for 1/25. I had to use focus stacking for the center portion.

  • The walrus

    Tried to buy the book but it says the deal expired in 2013!

  • Alaric Simeon Crowley

    I have always loved the 1:1 ratio! It’s simplicity is hard to beat, and it allows for very comfortably balanced photos. I actually recently discovered that I can shoot in square format on my Canon EOS 60D. I was quite pleased at the discovery of this.

  • Yes, the offer expired a long time ago. But you can still buy the book from my website:

    http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/square/

  • Steve Sperdacion

    hey walrus. You should boycott disinfo site whowhatwhy.com because they are censoring anything that proves their articles are false.

    The walrus upvoted you on The Bernie Bubble 2 days ago

    Steve Sperdacion 5 days ago Removed Good to see readers of this site are too smart to fall for this propaganda. My question is why did the site allow this. Russ made his name with a great book about how the Bush family was involved in the killing of JFK and Watergate. It’s clearly not the place for pro establishment propaganda. So how did this get by the editors? 1 Edit ViewView in discussion

    The walrus 1 other upvoted you on The Bernie Bubble 2 days ago

    Steve Sperdacion 2 days ago Removed Has this site officially sold out? This was proven as false propaganda a week ago yet it still hasnt been taken down. Ill give it 3 more days but then ill stop coming here and spread the word that this is another disinfo site. 2 Edit ViewView in discussion

    nha16 upvoted you on The Bernie Bubble 2 days ago

    Steve Sperdacion 6 days ago Removed ahhh, kept reading and see you are doing the same: “If he does get within 20 points nationally, expect the media to turn a spotlight on Sanders and his record. At that point, progressives will find out that he is not the unblemished champion they imagine, especially in key areas like gun control, US military interventions, and immigration.” So next I will research who you are, Klaus Marre. 2 Edit ViewView in discussion

    nha16 upvoted you on The Bernie Bubble 2 days ago

    Steve Sperdacion 6 days ago Removed “It is telling that Hillary Clinton has not yet attacked Sanders – neither directly nor through surrogates.” this part is false. I’ll keep reading but her surrogates have attacked him a lot and are saying he is racist. 3 Edit ViewView in discussion

    nha16 replied to you on The Bernie Bubble 2 days ago

    Steve Sperdacion 5 days ago Removed Good to see readers of this site are too smart to fall for this propaganda. My question is why did the site allow this. Russ made his name with a great book about how the Bush family was involved in the killing of JFK and Watergate. It’s clearly not the place for pro establishment propaganda. So how did this get by the editors? 1 Edit ViewView in discussion

    nha16 2 days ago

    TRUST is important. Mine is waning.

  • Chiyaa.Pasal

    When I started using Instagram 3 years ago, there was only the square format (unless you placed the image within a square background). I enjoyed the challenge of composition with the format that was different from what I was use to seeing in the camera. It also gave me an opportunity to revisit and re-edit many old photos giving them new life and me a new perspective. In the intervening time, Instagram has opened up their format rules and I shoot a lot with my phone. With my phone, if I am shooting with Instagram in mind, I still choose the square format rather than the rectangle with a in-post crop.

Some Older Comments

  • Valerie July 27, 2013 03:20 pm

    Although I think that the links to nudes were unnecessary, at the very least, there should have been a NSFW note next to the link.

  • Terry July 27, 2013 01:55 am

    Love the square shots...I must do more of them!

    LOVE the light "stars" in the first shot...can you tell me the secret? I can see it's a long exposure due to the traffic light trails, but what else makes that happen??? I think those starts totally make the photo.

    Thanks for your help!

  • Lesley July 26, 2013 03:44 pm

    I recently needed some square shots for a website I'm doing so I looked through my collection and found quite a lot of photos that looked so much better when they were cropped square. Unfortunately I can't upload any of the images, for some reason.

  • romu July 26, 2013 07:28 am

    Great article. The Leica d-lux 5 has a built-in square image ratio.

  • marius2die4 July 26, 2013 05:21 am

    My old Olympus 620 have also this image ratio, but I am not at the level to shoot directly in this format. I prefer to crop after.

    Some of my pics
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/2013/06/dealuri.html

  • Ratkellar July 26, 2013 02:22 am

    Flower and wildlife photography can work well in square format. Usually, it seems to depend on the subject and surroundings. I have been editing recent vacation shots and ended up using a lot of squares.

  • Penelope July 26, 2013 01:18 am

    I tried this before and was told I was cropping wrong, lol…but I liked it!

  • Serge July 24, 2013 09:28 am

    It seems that I go in cycles with this. I'll shoot square format almost exclusively for a while, then go back to rectangular format... Also square format got popularized by and currently associated with Instagram. (I'm not a big fan of Instagram, though ;)

  • Baz July 23, 2013 09:32 pm

    I have recently been playing around with the square format

  • ScottC July 23, 2013 08:43 am

    I recently participated in a "square" crop weekly subject project on flickr, it will make you think!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/8213947041/

  • Peter July 23, 2013 07:16 am

    The cameras mentioned in the article were all 21/4 square format for a very good reason. They could only be used one way up, hence the square format. You could crop for landscape or portrait, so you did not have to turn the camera, they were never designed for square format prints, because square format is not considered to be ascetically pleasing. The same reason that they never made square photographic paper.

  • Steve July 23, 2013 07:09 am

    By coincidence I have just started to experiment with the square and agree it has something to say for itself
    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Nature-and-Wildlife/G0000dNdDRq9HKXg/I000071yGvfZNyZ8/C0000KeBDGBBOd0E

  • Jason Racey July 23, 2013 05:25 am

    I'm not certain but i think the Canon 6D has a setting to allow you to change the image ratio. I never considered using it until now. You mention 1:1 being good for landscapes. That's surprising. Seems like it would lead to static images. I'll have to give it a try. Will require a new way of thinking about composition.

  • Mridula July 23, 2013 02:53 am

    I am one of those who never tried it out, have to try it out now.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

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