Square format photography seems to be all the rage, thanks in part to the popularity of Instagram and toy film cameras such as the Holga and Diana. The 1:1 aspect ratio imparts a profound sense of simplicity and stability into images. The viewer’s eye tends to gravitate towards the center of the frame, and takes in everything holistically instead of traveling from left to right, which is frequently the case with 35mm DSLR photographs with their 3:2 aspect ratios. Being drawn to simple compositions and medium format film photography, I love this format as there is the perception of “less to take in”.
My Mamiya c330 is a medium format film camera that takes square photographs. It is fun to shoot with since it forces the user to compose for a square outcome in-camera. You can score this camera or other brands such as Rolleiflex or Hasselblad from eBay or reputable used camera dealers for relatively cheap. The Holga 120N and Diana F+ are less-pricey alternatives.
There are plenty of iPhone apps that can create 1:1 aspect ratios without cropping. The built-in camera on the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 is 4:3. Apps like Instagram, Hipstamatic, and 6×6 allow you to compose for a 1:1 aspect ratio.
If you don’t have an iPhone or a medium format film camera, you can also utilize your DSLR by placing tape on the back LCD screen or attaching pre-measured cardstock. Just make sure to maintain a consistent area in the middle of the frame by blocking off equal distances from the left and right of the screen. Some DSLRs (including the 5D Mark III) allow you to manipulate the aspect ratio using the Live View feature.
Finally, you can experiment with square format photographs by utilizing the crop overlays in Lightroom or the crop tool in Photoshop. However, when I’m shooting with a DSLR I’m less inclined to shoot for a 1:1 aspect ratio, and usually end up making the crop decision in post if I recognize an opportunity.
Next, I’ll discuss and illustrate several compositional elements that really work with a square crop.
Scenes that contain a lot of symmetry are oftentimes great candidates for a square crop since the aspect ratio of the square crop itself is symmetrical at 1:1. Landscapes and places can create some very intriguing results.
Centering of subject
Center compositions are a natural fit with square crops as the eye is drawn to the center of the frame. Still life scenes are great since the focus is unquestionably on the subject at hand. The eye locks in with nowhere else to go.
Of course, center compositions can also work for walking and breathing subjects:
It is my belief that the presence of a strong primary diagonal makes a square crop work since it bisects the square into two equal triangles. Although this doesn’t necessarily highlight symmetry in the image itself, it creates symmetry in a compositional sense.
In this image, the implied line of the subject’s gaze forms what I would classify as a strong diagonal:
The simplicity and symmetry of the square format is a natural fit for simple geometric shapes. See all of the circles and squares/rectangles in the two images below?
Portraits composed in square format undeniably showcase your subject. If you’re not trying to tell a story and want to elicit an emotional response in your audience, consider a 1:1 aspect ratio.
Although a square crop can enhance a photograph’s impact by eliminating excess and/or ineffective negative space, it is still a powerful, sometimes unconventional compositional tool with this type of crop.
Stuck in a creative rut? Try giving square format photography a try using any of the photographic mediums discussed. You just may fall in love!