Square Format: not so weird

Famous London landmarks at dusk. Roof shingles on Fantoft Stavkirke, Bergen.

First, a disclaimer

What follows is mainly an amalgam of what I've learned from researching square format. I'm just now starting to work with it myself, so I don't have a lot of personal experience to offer. This article is intended as initial guidance for the new-comer, not as gospel.

The photos included here are my own, and doubtless reflect my lack of experience. Below you'll find links to challenges which contain stronger examples.


Why Square Format?

Square format doesn't get much respect these days. For example, Michael Freeman devotes only four paragraphs to it in his book on photographic design, The Photographer's Eye. He considers the square "unsympathetic" with its "formal rigidity," and calls its effect on design "tyranny." He writes that square is "the most difficult format to work with" and that "very few images lend themselves well to square composition." You'll find plenty of similar sentiments expressed by experts and non-experts alike.

However, past and present usage suggest that the square format isn't as evil as its reputation suggests. There are some good reasons that you might want to consider using square format occasionally.

The primary artistic reason for using square format is that the subject or the composition calls for it. We'll look at those aspects in more detail in a bit.

Another artistic reason for using square format is simply that it's different. Square photographic prints tend to stand out in the crowd. 

From a practical viewpoint, square images are used quite a bit for avatars and icons. Here on DPReview, the user's photo is a square. The same is true of many other web sites. Many of DPReview's thumbnails — for galleries, challenges, etc. — are shown in square format.

Album cover art is a more specialized use for square format.


Popular uses in the past

You might have the impression that square format has always been unpopular, but that's not the case at all.

For about a quarter of a century, from the late 1950s to the early 80s, Kodak had America convinced that snapshots should be square. In 1956 Kodak introduced the Starlet, the first of its square-format Star series cameras, and in 1963 the square-shooting Kodak Instamatic began its formidable reign. The square-format snapshot died out during the 1980s — the victim of affordable 35mm compacts and SLRs, abetted by the rise of the automated minilab — but Polaroid picked up and carried the square flag for a couple of decades... until the digital era arrived.

About the same time that Polaroid was losing out to digital, an artistic movement was building around the unusual imagery produced by "toy cameras." Some of the most popular of those cameras, including Holga, Diana, and Lubitel, produce square format images. In late 2010, the movement expanded into digital with the arrival of iPhone apps that make it possible to take intentionally low-fidelity photos while using a high-tech pocketable device. The most popular of those apps, including Hipstamatic and Instagram, produce only square-format images.

For pros and well-heeled serious amateurs, the 2-1/4" (aka 6x6) square format was introduced around 1930 with the Rollei and Voigtländer TLR (twin-lens reflex) cameras. Hasselblad joined in with a 6x6 SLR in the 1950s, and some other brands also sold 6x6 equipment. By the turn of the millennium, professional-grade 6x6 roll-film cameras were pretty much out of production, but those cameras are very durable and a number of them are still in regular use today.

In 2012, the Lytro light-field camera introduced square format into digital photography.


Suitable subject matter

Square format is more stable and relaxed than rectangular formats, so it's a good match for inanimate or serene subjects. Architecture, posed portraiture, flowers and still lifes, abstracts, and even some landscapes can thrive in a square frame. More dynamic subjects can be made to work, but it will be up to the composition to capture the subject's dynamism; the square frame isn't going to provide any assistance.

Geometrics work particularly well. Circles, squares, rectangles, and the like are naturals for a square frame. Symmetrical subjects also can find a comfortable home inside a square.

A scattered assemblage of objects is usually more interesting in a square format than in a rectangular one. The square frame doesn't try to push the viewer's eyes toward any particular object, and the resulting impression can be a bit on the abstract side.

Having a single subject is even more important in a square format than in a rectangular one. Don't try to split the viewer's attention. Including some background for context is okay, and may even be important, but make sure that the background stays in the background.

A corollary to that: one often finds a rectangular photo that is weakened by the amount of superfluous background. Simply cropping that photo to a square might well strengthen it.

Square images can make some very interesting diptychs and triptychs. A panoramic image might work as a series of two or three squares.

Subjects that are suitable for square frames have a lot in common with subjects that are suitable for monochrome (B&W). It's not surprising, then, that an unusually high percentage of square photos are monochrome. There is a series of over 150 (!) B&W Square challenges here on DPReview:
http://www.dpreview.com/challenges/Series.aspx?ID=11

Casual snapshots often work best when cropped square. There's probably a reason that square snapshots completely ruled during the 1960s and 1970s. The "toy camera" movement regularly uses square snapshots as the foundation for its low-fidelity aesthetic, and vignetting works particularly well on a square image.

In addition to the B&W challenge series mentioned above, here are some other Square challenges:
http://www.dpreview.com/challenges/Challenge.aspx?ID=1757
http://www.dpreview.com/challenges/Challenge.aspx?ID=1921
http://www.dpreview.com/challenges/Challenge.aspx?ID=2031
http://www.dpreview.com/challenges/Challenge.aspx?ID=2538
http://www.dpreview.com/challenges/Challenge.aspx?ID=3622
http://www.dpreview.com/challenges/Challenge.aspx?ID=3644
http://www.dpreview.com/challenges/Challenge.aspx?ID=3900
http://www.dpreview.com/challenges/Challenge.aspx?ID=4963
http://www.dpreview.com/challenges/Challenge.aspx?ID=5689 


Composition

The usual "rules" of composition fly out the window with square format. For many subjects, placing them dead-center works best. There are plenty of subjects that don't work best in the center, though. For full-length (or nearly so) images of people in profile or partial profile, having them off to the side but facing the center usually works a bit better. With landscapes, it's quite reasonable to have the horizon running across the center of the image, something that one generally tries to avoid with rectangular formats.

Move in close, or crop fairly tightly. This comes back to having a single subject. With square format, it usually helps to stick that subject in the viewer's face. That also emphasizes the detail in the subject, giving the image some depth.

Diagonal lines, especially 45° diagonals, are very powerful in a square format. Try placing them so that they go through a corner of the image.


Just for fun, an example of the "toy camera" look:

That's all I have to say about square format for now. I don't want to go into detail about the "toy camera" movement, sometimes called lomography (although that's a trademark for a company that promotes film over digital), because it's not the topic of this article. But here's one example of mine:

 

This fifty-year-old slide wasn't worth restoring, so I gave it the "toy camera" treatment using CameraBag 2.