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.
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.
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.