Posts by Gilly:

Square format shooting

Most cameras shoot in rectangles – a common one is 3:2, which means your photo (whatever its actual dimensions) will measure three units across by two units high.  For example, your prints will be 6 inches by 4 inches, or 9 inches by 6 inches or any size that has the 3:2 ratio.  The trouble with this is that we can get locked into this one way of composing and stagnate there.  Shooting to a different ratio forces you to compose your images differently and helps stretch your ‘seeing’ muscles.

Shooting Square

There are a lot of different aspect ratio options you can go for, but for the moment I want to suggest that you start by shooting square. Why square?  Well, it’s not something we come across that often and therefore it stands out – it’s a little unusual and we’re not used to seeing  potential pictures in that shape.  Most photos that you see in newspapers, magazines, adverts, and so on are rectangular, although one obvious exception to this is CD covers.

The square has some interesting properties. It’s a very stable shape, and it takes away the usual dilemma of choosing between portrait and landscape format – a square is a square, whichever way up you put it.  Some subjects very obviously suit this format – such as flowers – and while placing your subject bang in the centre is usually a no-no, with square format it often works well.

At the same time, it can work equally well to have your subject off to the side.

You can still use the Rule of Thirds for effective composition.

Sometimes the advantage of a square is that it allows you to leave out the ‘extra’ bits that would spoil your composition.  I cropped the next photo for this reason – the square contained exactly what I wanted to capture and no more.

Diagonal lines often work well within the square and set up a pleasant tension between the stability of the square and the movement and dynamism of the diagonal.

Symmetry also works well, as the square shape itself is symmetrical and so sets up a kind of ‘echo’ of the composition.

How to set your camera up to shoot square

If you’re very lucky, your camera might just have an option that lets you do this.  I’ve only ever seen this in compact cameras, but if you check your manual (under aspect ratio) you can find out if yours does it, and if it does then you’re off and away.

Traditionally, square format photography came from medium format cameras using 120mm film made by manufacturers like Hasselblad and Rolleiflex. These are very expensive and beyond the price range of most enthusiasts.  But….if you like shooting in film, and enjoy the toy camera effect, then Holgas, Lomos, and Dianas all use 120mm, produce square prints and are very affordable.  Some camera phone apps are in square format too, and prints from Polaroid cameras are, of course, square-shaped.

Most cameras don’t have a square format option, however, so let’s assume your camera doesn’t either.  You have two choices.  The first is that you just have to imagine you’ve got a square shape in your viewfinder instead of what’s actually there.  This is a bit difficult at first, but can be done with practice. If you do find it difficult to ‘see’ in squares, then a good tip is to cut a square in a piece of black card.  Hold it in front of you, look through it, and move it around till you see a good composition.

The second option is much easier: if you have Live View, put some tape on your screen so that the only bit you see is square shaped.  Then you just compose your picture using the part of the screen you can see.  Later on, of course, when you upload it to your computer, you’ll have to crop it square.  (And if you have a DSLR and don’t like composing using Live View, just use it to identify possible compositions and then take your picture using the viewfinder as normal).

In the picture below I’ve used light-coloured masking tape so you can see clearly what I’ve done, but black tape or a colour that blends with your camera is a lot less distracting.  If you’ve used light-coloured tape and it bothers you that you can see through it a little, you can get round this by placing a piece of dark card behind the tape (thanks to Kat for this tip).


Once you’ve taken your photo, you’ll have to crop it square.  If you use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, set the cropping tool to No Restriction, and hold down the Shift key as you use the mouse to crop.  This will keep your crop beautifully square-shaped.  Alternatively, if you know what size you want your final print to be, then you can just enter the dimensions and resolution in the cropping toolbar.

In my recent post on the Turner Centre you can see one example of how cropping to a square can change the whole way a photo looks.


Printing square photos can cause some problems for you if you have your photos commercially printed rather than print them yourself.  In the UK, Photobox offer a couple of sizes of square crops: 5 x 5 and 8 x 8.  This is a bit limiting and if these sizes don’t suit you, then DS Colour Labs offer a better variety of sizes although their prints are a bit more expensive.  If you’re in the US try Mpix, who offer a wide range of square print sizes.  And of course you could just get them printed out on a larger size print and then cut off the excess.

Finding square frames shouldn’t pose too many problems as they’re fashionable at the moment.  For anyone living in the UK and the rest of Europe, Ikea always have a good selection.

More Ideas

For lots of ideas about using a square shape for your photography, try the Flickr group B Square, or have a look here.

Michael Kenna takes beautiful, minimalist landscapes using square format.

Jaqueline Walters, on Flickr, has some great black and white and Holga square images.

Kawauchi Rinko is known for her rather dreamy, square format images; the link will take you to a selection of her images and an interview, but do a Google Image search to see more.

For an interesting, if slightly awkward to grasp, method of composing with square images, see Diagonal Method.

Kat Sloma also has an interesting post on taking square format photos that goes into lots of detail about how best to compose for this shape.







Mending spider’s webs and renovating mushrooms

I came across the work of photographer Nina Katchadourian a while ago, and was really taken by two of her projects: in the first, she mended spider’s webs with red thread and the in the second, she patched cracks in mushrooms with bicycle repair kits.

The spiders would often react to the repair by pulling out the red threads, leaving a pile of them on the ground below.  You can imagine them being disgusted at the standard of workmanship and outraged at the use of red thread!

There’s something very playful and whimsical about this that I find  enchanting, but it does pose some more serious questions about our interactions with nature.  Should we intervene?  Katchadourian says that she often destroyed the web further in her efforts to do the repair.  Sometimes we just blunder in and make things worse.

It reminds me of the story of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon and ‘helped’ it by pulling the cocoon apart.  What he didn’t realise was that the struggle to emerge was designed to force fluid from the butterfly’s body into its wings and that, without this struggle, the butterfly’s wings would never form enough to fly.

Putting all that aside, I do think there’s a wonderful innocence in the notion of repairing webs and mushrooms that takes us back in time to childhood when magic was around every corner and everything was possible. It’s refreshing to come across work that just has to make you smile.

Photo challenge: what could you do to ‘repair’ nature and then photograph it?



Why every photographer should learn to draw

I never intended to take up photography at all.  I came to it via an Access to Art & Design course that I took at my local college, because what I really wanted to do (I thought!) was paint and draw.

One of the first exercises on the course was to choose a partner and then each of us had to draw the other person in our sketchbook.  My drawing was the one you see on the left and if it hadn’t already been in my sketchbook, it would have found itself in the bin in short order.  It’s terrible!  My only consolation was that the drawing Kevin – my victim – did of me was probably even worse.

But… was only about two weeks later that I produced the self-portrait on the right.  It doesn’t look like me, but it does look like a real face, and it’s amazing what an improvement drawing all day for a couple of days a week has made.  In Kevin’s portrait there’s no shading, no real observation of what his face actually looked like – I didn’t draw what my eyes were seeing, I drew what I thought was there.

Naming stops us seeing

Frederick Franck, in his book The Zen of Seeing, says that the minute we label something we stop seeing it properly.  So I looked at Kevin and saw two eyes, a nose, a mouth, some hair, etc.  You can see I made some attempt to observe the shape of his face and that’s probably because you can’t pin a label on that so easily.  In contrast, when I did the self-portrait I was closely observing things like the folds round my eyes, the shape of my mouth, the way my hair curled, and so on.  I didn’t think ‘this is an eye’ while drawing my eye, I simply observed the shapes and the tones that were there without naming them.  And instead of ending up with Kevin’s flat, white face, I’ve seen where the shadows and highlights lie, drawn them in, and subsequently my face has volume and shape.

So what does this have to do with photography?

To be a good photographer you have to learn to look at the world differently, and learning to draw is a very good way of changing how you look at things.  You begin to notice patterns of light and shade, interesting little shapes, and the lines and curves that make up your subject.  Even something boring becomes interesting when you try to draw it.

For instance, maybe you think the view from your window is really dull.  And if you look at it and just see houses, cars, washing lines, and so on, it will be.  If you stop seeing it in terms of these things and start noticing the fabulously clashing colours of the clothes on the washing line, or the soft, golden light hitting just one window of the house opposite, or the curved lines that form the shapes of the cars, or how no two leaves on the tree in your garden are exactly the same shape, then a whole new world will open up to you.  Nothing will ever look dull and boring again once you learn how to really look at it, and you’ll be able to find a picture anywhere.

You don’t need to be good at drawing for this to work, although you will become good at it naturally when you start really ‘seeing’ the world.  It’s not the end result – the drawing – that’s important; it’s the process you go through to arrive at it.  It trains you to look carefully and closely at the world around you.  And if you do this then you can’t help but become a better photographer.

I hope I might have convinced you to give it a go.  Apart from anything else, it’s a lot of fun.

Books to help you learn to draw

I tend to avoid the kind of learn-to-draw book that teaches in a very technical way.  I’m not a very technical person and I find it off-putting and boring.  I like the kind that gets you enthused and inspired, or helps you use a more right-brained approach to drawing.  Here are some I can totally recommend:

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards

This is a classic, and I never thought I could draw at all until I tried the exercises in this book.  I was astounded at the difference these made in just one day of drawing.  If you only buy one book, make it this one.

Keys to Drawing and Keys to Drawing with Imagination by Bert Dodson

These are FUN!  If you don’t feel inspired to pick up a pencil after reading one of these books, then you never will.

Start to Draw Your Life by Michael Nobbs

This is a charming – and free – downloadable ebook, written by a man who found drawing helped him deal with the death of his mother and a chronic illness.

There are loads more books out there but I’m not going to overload you.  I hope you’ll think about picking up a pencil and doing some drawing – I guarantee it will change the way you see things forever.

The Turner Centre, Margate

A friend and I went to the new Turner Centre in Margate last week.  From the outside the building is veering towards the ugly – rather blank, cube-like shapes with one edge elongated into a pointed roof – but inside is much better.  What immediately grabs your eye is the huge window overlooking the sea.  Everyone is drawn to it and I spent some time photographing people as they looked out.  The image above is taken on the second floor and I’m really happy with the way I’ve caught this elderly couple standing just to the side of the open circle.

In the picture below, I liked the huge wall of mirror that extends to each side of the window and the way it distorts everything.  The woman in the wheelchair was an added bonus that adds a sense of scale.

I enjoyed most of the exhibits and I particularly liked the kinetic sculpture with lights, although I don’t have a picture of that.  I also liked the work shown below; it reminds me of a flock of birds wheeling through the sky.  What look like shadows falling beneath each point are actually marks drawn on the wall in pencil.

What’s really great is that, for the moment at least, they’re allowing you to take photos inside the centre.  It’s a refreshing change from the usual prohibitions.  A friend told me he once tried to photograph the artist’s statement that was fixed on the wall next to the work it referred to and was stopped by a security guard.  When he asked if he could copy it by writing down what was said instead, the guard said yes, that would be fine!  I sometimes think the world is crazy.

Most of my shots were of the window and people:

When I posted this one on Flickr, someone suggested that it could be cropped to a square shape to emphasise the window circle, and that the figures would be better turned into silhouettes.  Although I feel it loses the sense of space I was aiming to capture, I think it really works like this (and also loses the person who’s crept in on the right side – I didn’t notice them till after I’d edited the picture).  It’s always interesting to see what variations you can get out of one image by cropping it in different ways.

When I went over to look out of the window myself, my eye was caught by a row of brightly coloured flags on the harbour.  I just had to walk down there afterwards and take a picture.  I do love these colours; they’re so cheerful.

Before we left, we had some fun browsing in the gift shop.  We decided to leave behind the ‘I’d rather be in Margate’ mugs but my friend did buy a rather stylish giant egg-timer filled with lime green sand.


Colour Workout 1

It’s spring, and the world is bursting with colour.  One very nice, and very simple, photo project is to choose a colour and then go out and photograph it wherever you see it.  If you want to make it a bit more challenging, then get a friend or family member to choose a colour for you.  Or, you could write some colour names on pieces of paper, put them in a container, and pull one out.

Pink & orange

Blue & Green

Collected by LethaColleen; images by, left to right top to bottom: 1) mactastic , 2) Majlee, 3) Jen Bekman, 4) BooDilly's, 5) Majlee, 6) Mervyn Hector


You can do this just as well using neutral colours.


Collected by LethaColleen; images by, top to bottom, left to right: 1) Camilla Engman, 2) Bird in the Hand, 3) Lucky † 13, 4) Blind Spot Jewellery, 5) Bergman's Bear, 6) bldgblog


A variation is to shoot a rainbow of colours.  There are seven colours in the rainbow so you could do a square seven rows wide by seven rows high.  Just in case you’ve forgotten, the colours are: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.  And if you want to get really adventurous, you could try something like this:


Mosaic Blossom

Mosaic Blossom

I’ve no idea how they did this, but if you want a much simpler mosaic-maker, try here:

At Big Huge Labs you can choose a layout, the number of columns and rows you want, the background colour and border colour, as well as being able to import your photos from Flickr or upload them from your own computer.  You have to sign up, but it’s free.

This is a really easy, fun and effective project – even quite ordinary photos can look really good when you put a collection of one colour together and once you start looking for a particular colour you’ll be amazed at how often you see it and where it turns up.