It’s good to be square

5:4, 6:4, 7:5, 16:9. I’ve tried, I have, but there’s something about 1:1, the square format, that speaks to my heart when it comes to creating images. With its sides of equal length, the dependable square appeals to my sense of order, balance and harmony. Perhaps, as this blog’s title suggests, it’s also a little conventional and old-fashioned (I’d argue, classic and timeless). What’s more, creating square images also means that thumbnails form neat rows and columns on my website: clearly, I have OCD tendencies.

Perhaps my love of the square is due partly to visual conditioning: some of the photographers whose work I admire most, such as Jonathan Chritchley, David Fokos, Michael Kenna and Michael Levin, have utilized the square format extensively. But I think there are more scientific reasons why it didn’t take long for the square to become my default image format:

  • Forget about the rule of thirds – anything goes with a square. Because its sides are of equal length, compositions that might look unbalanced in a rectangular format often work in a square, whether that’s placing your image in the centre or near the edge of the frame.
  • The amount of negative space can be increased without the composition becoming unbalanced. Conversely, it’s often easier to fill the frame without wasting space.
  • A square format encourages the eye to move around the frame in a circular motion; it helps to draw the focus inwards, creating a feeling of introspection even with the most dynamic subject matter. In contrast, a rectangular image encourages the eye to travel in a linear direction, side to side or up and down, creating a sense of movement however subconscious.
  • With a square format there is less space to utilise. Composition must be simplified, resulting in images made up of distinctive shapes: squares, circles and triangles, the three forms that, according to Zen belief, can represent all things in this universe. It’s one of the reasons why square images are so effective in monochrome – the square helps reduce an image to shapes, forms, texture and lines – the essential elements for powerful black and white images.

Most digital cameras allow you to change the aspect ratio in-camera, allowing you to see a cropped square through either your viewfinder or in live view. My live view is also set to black and white most of the time, my preference when it comes to processing. Just make sure if you change your camera’s aspect ratio that you’re shooting in RAW to capture all the sensor’s data. Even if you plan to crop your image to a square, it’s advisable to have some extra pixels to play with, for example, if you need to adjust the crop or straighten your image. (There are a lot of other reasons for shooting in RAW which I won’t cover in this blog.)

When I started shooting images that I intended to crop to a square, I often found that I wasn’t shooting wide enough. When I came to process my files, I found that I’d composed for the widest part of the image, leaving me short of (usually) sea or sky. Take the image below, shot on a foggy day on the island of Burano.

On the left is the composition I captured in camera using the standard 4:6 ratio. It’s a competent image but it lacks context and balance. As the middle images shows, it clearly doesn’t work cropped to a square format as the composition feels cramped and lacks context. Thanks to Photoshop, I was able to extend my original canvas, enabling me to place the lamppost at the centre of the image; this anchors the subject, creating a focal point for the eye, and  the negative space on the left creates a feeling of calm and tranquility and captures the mood of the lagoon on that morning.

Montage

For me, the final square image conveys a feeling that the other two images lack and captures the mood on that foggy, January morning in Burano. But despite my love of the square format, I have now accepted that not all images work in 1:1 ratio. The answer? I’ve progressed to 2:1 format… the double square.