Film Photography

In praise of square photographs

I wonder why square photographs aren’t more common. Maybe it’s because starting in the 1980s 35mm point-and-shoot cameras became popular. That could have cemented the format’s 3:2 ratio as normal for photographs.

In the digital era the DSLR kept 35mm’s 3:2 aspect ratio. Point-and-shoots went with 4:3 for some reason, but that’s close enough to 3:2 to not look weird. My digital point-and-shoot, a Canon S95, has a 1:1 setting buried somewhere in its menus. My iPhone 6s also offers a square setting. But no digital camera I know of shoots square by default.

For me, however, shooting square feels like going back to my roots. For the first eight years of my photographic life, I shot nothing but cameras that made square photographs. It was the 1970s and early 1980s; square was very common then thanks to the wildly popular 126 format.

Here’s a scan of a print from my first-ever roll of film, Kodacolor II in a Kodak Brownie Starmite II, August, 1976. Side note: just look at how beautifully these drug-store-print colors have kept over the last 40+ years! These are my childhood friends Darin, Colleen, Christy, David, Mike, tank-topped kid whose face I can’t see and therefore whose name I can’t recall, and Craig just entering the frame from the right.

Here’s a scan of the negative, cropped 3:2 to the subject. Conventional wisdom calls this the better composition because the subject fills the frame. But what it lacks is the big blue sky we used to play under and the city infrastructure that lay all around and above us. The crop also cuts off the rounded tip of Mike’s grand walking staff. The square format brought in all the details.

That’s not to say that square format is inherently magic. Just like with any aspect ratio you have to find the subjects and compositions that work best. Here are some decent square photos I’ve taken more recently.

Wheeler Mision
Kodak Brownie Starmatic, Kodak Ektar 100, 2018
Fire Station 32
Kodak Brownie Starmatic, Kodak Portra 160, 2012
Benches
Yashica-D, Kodak Ektachrome E100G, 2014
Jet
Yashica-D, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros, 2013.
Charles H. Ackerman
Yashica-D, Kodak Ektar 100, 2017
Available
Yashica-12, Ilford Pan-F Plus 50, 2018

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35 thoughts on “In praise of square photographs

  1. My first camera was an Ilford Sprite, probably very similar to your Kodak, 126 film, one shutter speed, two aperture settings (B&W and Colour) and a plastic lens. I probably used that for about five years. Since then mostly 35mm and digital, but I have been shooting an Ikoflex for about a year now. Looking at my flicker account, which I have also had for about a year since I started shooting film again, the 6×6 images seem to get a lot more faves than the 35mm ones. Maybe it is the influence of Instagram on people’s preferences?

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  2. Andy Umbo says:

    Totally agree with the square format reality! Altho a “sheet film” product photographer for a career, most of all my ancillary photography was done with a succession of Mamiya 22’s, 220’s, 330’s, Yashica 124’s, Minolta Autocords, Rolleis and Hasselblads. One reason I latched on to Micro 4/3rd’s, besides being able to shoot 4/3 (I hate the 35mm 3/2), was the ability to shoot 1/1. I remember setting my Panasonic G3 on 1:1 and just walking around Zionsville shooting like I was using a Rollei. Loved it!

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  3. Compositional choices change in 1:1 format and things that might look uninspiring in rectangular formats can work wonderfully in a square.

    Sticking things dead centre (including horizons) or right at the edge of the frame can look great.

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    • That’s what I really love about square: dead center compositions work. I used to take my Yashica TLRs out into my front garden to shoot the flowers. (At my old house. No front garden anymore. :-( )

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  4. Jim as you know I predominantly favour 4:3 these days but often try some square shooting. Most of my favourite few cameras have 1:1 as an aspect ratio option.

    I love shots like the one of your childhood friends, where you get a great shot of the subjects plus extra sky to enrich the composition more.

    Typically I think we would assume only a rectangular aspect ratio would work for landscape shots, but with square photos you can somehow include more sky/sea/land in the frame and make more impact.

    Squares look particular good on a website where they’re the width of the column like yours above too, because they appear (and are!) so much bigger than 3:2 or 4:3 photos of the same width.

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    • I shot 4:3 at a car show last Saturday and I admit it felt good. I also shot 3:2 and it frequently felt constraining in ways 4:3 did not. I’m not going to walk away from 35mm cameras any time soon but it was interesting to notice that.

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      • That is interesting. 4:3 is like the bridge between 3:2 and 1:1. And of course if you started out with 1:1, 4:3 is much less of a difference to embrace than 3:2.

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  5. It’s hip to be square. :)

    The first stuff I shot in the 1970s was square, too. Class trip in grade 3 to Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I actually took pictures of the Bluenose II (the namesake of the schooner on the Canadian dime) moored in the harbour. Man, I sure wish I still had those shots. What interested me when I was 8? What caught my eye and made me click the button? I’d give a lot to see those shots now. Too many years, too many moves; they’re long gone.

    Anyway, blah blah. My guess is that people grew accustomed to wider formats because of movies and television. Something in the mind said, yes, this is the central theme, but shouldn’t I be able to see more at the edges? Why so cramped? Film going through movie cameras was wider than it was high, and it must have been some sort of convenience for still photography film and camera makers to adopt the same standards… something that cut costs here and boosted profits there. Just guesses, of course, but hey. :)

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    • You might be right about that. You know, as a guy who grew up in the analog TV era there’s just something right about 4:3.

      It’s a shame you no longer have those Halifax images.

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  6. There’s quite a bit to the issue of square vs. rectangular formatting. It includes photographic history, and the psychology of aesthetics. We see it as a simple “why is this camera 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 and that one 2 1/2 3 1/4?” observation, but it’s really more complex. I could probably write a great long blog about it. Maybe I will someday. Until then, just remember everyone is free to crop as they choose with a digital camera; no forced constraints of format!

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  7. Michael Holland says:

    Jim
    The problem with square format is that it challenges our binocular vision/field of view… of course to a cyclops, square is normal!
    Look at a square image with one eye closed and then both eyes open and then you’ll see those left and right deficits. Or at least, this is how it happens to me.
    And yet I like it, the square format. And it would surely be good to have square sensors behind our lenses, don’t you think?

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    • Ah! How interesting! I don’t have binocular vision. My left eye is weak and has never worked in concert with my right. So I’ve never seen this effect!

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  8. Dan Cluley says:

    One of my favorite thing about square pictures is that I can crop them and not need a calculator to keep the ratio correct. ;)

    My guess is that 4:3 was the default for digital since it matched the computer monitors. DSLRs went with 3:2 like 35mm to show that they were “serious” cameras for “serious” photographers.

    And then there’s my phone which does something wider than 4:3, but not as wide as 16:9 widescreen.

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  9. Andy Umbo says:

    Forgot to mention that I remember the teachers in college photo classes kind of admonishing students to preserve the sanctity of the format, i.e. shoot to the edge of the frame and compose for the frame. This would have been the mid-70’s. Having worked in studios since I was 16, in the commercial world everything was “crop-able” to make it better. Old ads for Rollei’s mentioned that it simpler to shoot because you cropped for horizontal or vertical in the darkroom; no juggling the camera around. Art directors took your work and did whatever they wanted to with it anyway.

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  10. billeccles says:

    I prefer cropping everything to square, and I think it’s because the thirds of the format are equally spaced both vertically and horizontally—a nice square 3×3 grid. Do I know if that’s why they look better to me or not? Nope. But generally when I put things at an intersection of that grid, the composition looks pretty good to my undiscerning, untrained eye.

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  11. Rick says:

    So much conversation around square photos, but no interest in the “… tank-topped kid whose face I can’t see….”

    Given the height, and the pose (which strikes me as masculine, in that small-child way), it’s gotta be JR (uncharacteristically wearing a shirt).

    Discuss.

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