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Understanding Square Format

Andrew S Gibson shares his composition tips for shooting in a square format.

| General Photography
Understanding Square Format: SquareWords and images by photographer and writer Andrew S Gibson. Andrew is the author of the book: Square - The digital photographer's guide to the square format. You can learn more about Andrew and his book on his website:

Understanding Square Format: Ford
A square photo. Central composition can be very effective within the square format.

If you have a 35mm digital SLR then the default aspect ratio is 3:2 – the frame is one and a half times as wide as it is high. This is something that's easy to take for granted – after all, while it's easy to change the lens you are using or settings such as shutter speed, ISO and aperture, it's harder to change the aspect ratio. Some newer cameras offer the option of shooting with different aspect ratios, but in most cases you are be stuck with the camera's native aspect ratio.

Understanding Square Format: Buildings
The photo above shows one of the difficulties of composing images with 35mm cameras. It could be argued that there is too much empty space around the buildings in the photo.
 Understanding Square Format: Sqaure Crop
Cropping to a shorter rectangle, or in this case a square, strengthens the composition by eliminating wasted space.

This matters; aspect ratio has implications for composition that you may never have thought about. The 35mm frame is a long, narrow rectangle and it can be difficult to fill the entire frame properly. Turn the camera on its side and the problem is even worse, especially for landscape photography.

This is one of the reasons for the popularity of medium and large format cameras with professional photographers before the advent of digital – the 'shorter' rectangles of these cameras makes composition easier. The micro four-thirds system is also a shorter rectangle and preferred by some photographers because it is easier to compose effectively with.

If you do find that you are struggling to fill the frame and you have a digital camera, it's easy to crop the image in post-processing. One of my favourite techniques is to crop not to a shorter rectangle, but to a square. The square format is experiencing something of a resurgence at the moment. Before digital cameras, you really needed a 6x6cm medium format camera to use the square format. But now anyone with a digital camera can take advantage of this very interesting aspect ratio.

Understanding Square Format: Aspect ratio of images produced by 35mm cameras and the square format.
This diagram shows the difference between the aspect ratio of images produced by 35mm cameras and the square format.

The square format is intriguing because it circumvents the 'rules' of composition that we are accustomed to using within the 35mm frame. The rule-of-thirds becomes more or less irrelevant – compositions with the subject placed in the centre or close to one of the edges are just as effective.

The square is a very stable shape. The eye doesn't follow the longer edge of the rectangle from side to side (or up and down in the portrait format). Instead it goes around the frame in a circle.

When it comes to composing within the square frame, rather than the rule-of-thirds I prefer to concentrate on what I call the 'four S's of composition': simplicity, subtlety, shape and space. They are all valid elements of composition, regardless of what aspect ratio you are working in, but they seem to become stronger in the square format.


Understanding Square Format: Statue
The composition of this image is extremely simple – it would have been possible to include more of the building but I chose to concentrate on the shape of the statue.

Keep the composition as simple as possible. This may mean getting closer to your subject so that the background is less cluttered. Another technique is to use a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus. Regardless of how you do it, the aim is to keep the composition as simple as possible; eliminating distractions so that your main subject is the focus of attention.


Understanding Square Format: Window
This image is quite subtle. It relies on the textures on the wall, and the shape of the hanging plant, to work.

Images with bright colours and high contrast may grab your attention, but they usually don't leave much of a lasting impression. It's a bit like someone wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt at a party; it may be eye-catching but ultimately it's a bit tiring on the eye.

You can create more sophisticated images by cultivating an awareness of subtlety. Both light and colour, the building blocks of colour images, can be subtle as well as strong. Black and white images can be even more subtle thanks to the lack of colour; for this reason I think of the square format as the fine art photographer's format.


Understanding Square Format: Strong circular shape
Here, I closed in the sculpture to emphasise the strong circular shape.

Shapes become stronger in the square format. They also become stronger when you simplify the composition. Look for shapes, such as circles, rectangles and triangles, in your subject.


Understanding Square Format: Tree Branch
The negative space in this image is the white background. It helps define the subject; if the background had been cluttered, perhaps by other trees, the shape of the branches would not have been as strong.

Negative space is the empty space within the image – it acts as a background to the subject and gives it room to breathe. You can use negative space to help simplify the image and emphasise shapes within your subject. But beware of including too much negative space – otherwise your subject will be too small in the frame and it may just look like you didn't get close enough. It's important to find the right balance.

Putting it all together

Understanding Square Format:

The four S's of composition: simplicity, subtlety, shape and space; work better together rather than in isolation. These four concepts form the basis of my approach to composition, both within the square and rectangular formats.

For those of you interested in the square format, I've written an ebook called Square that explores this popular aspect ratio in depth. It's written for digital photographers and covers everything you need to know to explore and make the best use out of this most intriguing of aspect ratios. There are also a couple of case studies with two film photographers, Matt Toynbee and Flavia Schaller, that use the square format. It's priced at $9.97 and you can learn more about it on my website:

Understanding Square Format:
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