John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
History shows that the square endures
Square format cameras have been around a long time, since approximately 1930, starting with the Rolleiflex and Voigtländer TLR that were favored by professionals. In the 1950s Hasselblad joined in, later followed by Kodak whose Instamatic (my very first camera) convinced photo amateurs and aficionados of 1960s that snapshots are square.
In the 1980’s things started to change. With the advent of affordable 35mm SLR and compact film cameras, the rectangular frame gained dominance. The Polaroid did manage to carry on the square tradition for a time, until it took yet another hit when digital cameras appeared in the 1990s. They too supported the rectangular concept.
The rectangle was taking over.
Although seriously weakened, the square format refused to die. About the same time that Polaroid caved under the pressure of the digital wave, an artistic movement sprung up around the unusual imagery produced by the inexpensive, plastic "toy cameras" such as the Holga and Diana, which all produced square film images. The professional square format cameras were becoming treasured antiques, yet the artistic appreciation of the square endured.
In the world of digital photography, people quickly realized you could have your cake and eat it too. With incredible versatility in post-processing, you had the choice of sticking with the intrinsic rectangular format of the camera, or easily cropping it to a square one. That was never easy to do with film. Amateurs and professionals alike took advantage of those digital options.
Recognizing the undying aesthetic love of the square, several iPhone apps in 2010, such as Hipstamatic and Instagram, touted the square look along with a smorgasbord of filter effects. While introducing the ground-breaking idea of light-field photography, the Lyto also tipped its hat to the square tradition. Some digital SLR cameras even enable you to use the square format while shooting by displaying a square grid on your view as you compose a shot.
Despite all the changes in amazing evolution of camera technology, the square keeps bounding back.
You won’t see many of the great masters painting on a square canvas, probably because they wanted a wider space to create complex, sophisticated compositions. Some contemporary photographers even go so far as to claim that the square is so formal, rigid, and unyielding that it’s too difficult to work with effectively for most images.
Of course, as we’ve seen in our brief review of history, other photographers strongly disagree. Some love it simply because it’s different. In the hoi polloi world of rectangular photos, the square one stands out. People are curious about it. Given its perfectly predictable symmetry, the square possesses a certain beauty or precision that the rectangle lacks. If you’re looking for a clearly symmetrical composition, or an image that will reign in the viewer’s awareness to details and abstract forms, the square might be your go-to format.
These are all artistic attitudes about photography, which is why the square image appeals to fine art photographers – especially those who work in black-and-white or monochrome as they strive to concentrate attention on form, patterns, and textures, rather than colors. Many photographers also claim that the square works well for portraitures, nudes, still life, flowers, architecture, and even landscapes that don’t call for a dramatic horizontal sweep. That wide leeway doesn’t leave much out in terms of subject matter.
Unlike a rectangle, a square image has a natural sense of balance. It is a very stable, grounded, and predictable shape, especially compared to an upright rectangle. No matter how you flip or invert it, the square stays the same while refusing to fall over. Due to its quality of stillness, it works well for inanimate and serene subjects.
It is possible to create dynamic movement and tension in the square arena, but the composition will have to do that work. The square frame isn’t going to offer much help on that score – except in how it can provide a balance to energy and chaos.
The various meanings we attach to the word “square” reveal the many possible ideas and emotions conveyed by a photo of that shape. SQUARE can refer to being:
- boring, rigid, conventional, and out of touch with current trend
- proper, decent, straightforward, acceptable, just, fair, and honest
- in accord or agreement with something (“that idea does not square with the facts”)
- balanced, settled, or even in a matter, as by paying a bill, returning a favor, or tying a score
- direct and straightforward
- defensive, offensive, oppositional, resistant, or confrontational, as in “squaring off” with someone
Reigning in the eye
Because the square minimizes feelings of up-and-down and back-and-forth by eliminating longer vertical or horizontal lines, the viewer’s eye tends to move around the image in a circle, often towards the center of the photo. Vignetting and circular compositions, especially those with the subject near the center of the square, can magnify these sensations of circling, spiraling, and zooming in. Diagonal lines serve as an effective means to break up these movements, encouraging the eye to experience some back-and-forth and up-and-down energy.
Trimming space and gathering up objects
Excessive space in a photo invites a person’s eye to wander away from the subject, or to the feeling that the subject is lost inside that space. You can solve the problem by cropping to a smaller rectangle. If that shape feels awkward - and sometimes truncated rectangles do look awkward - crop to a square format instead. When placing the subject at the center, very few eyeballs will drift from that definitive emphasis on something right in the middle of a square.
A scattered collection of objects in a photo is usually more compelling in a square format than in a rectangular one. While the rectangular shape tends to lead the eye towards some of the objects rather than others, the square format nicely gathers them all up in a neatly boxed bundle.
Placing the subject inside the box
Squares call out for a centralized composition, which can be a very powerful treatment for a single subject. The obvious choice is to place the subject in the middle, which works extremely well in concentrating the viewer’s attention on it. The details of the subject will stand out more than in a rectangular format.
If you decide against a centralized composition, it’s hard to go wrong when placing the subject anywhere else. The neatly-boxed feeling of the square allows you to position the subject almost anywhere. If you put it near the top, bottom, or either side, the square will still contain and cradle it. Depending on the subject and the effect you’re going for, some non-centralized placements will work better than others.
Throw out the rule of thirds?
Some photographers claim that the “rule of thirds” works great for the traditional rectangular aspect ratio, but performs miserably in the square format. When applied to the square, it results in a contrived, formulaic, overly boxy look. I’m not sure so about that claim. Just as we should avoid thinking of the “rule of thirds” as an absolute rule for any kind of format, we should also take with a grain of salt the idea that square formats always look bad with a rule of thirds composition.
Showing off shapes
Due to its talent at focusing the eye and gathering up objects, the square format is a good way to show off geometric shapes of all kinds. Those shapes seem to grow even stronger inside the formal boundaries of the square. I especially like a circle, or portions of a circle, embedded inside a square frame. The pure natures of the curving circle and the linear square balance each other in an archetypic dance of the two most basic, ideal forms. Symmetrical subjects also fit comfortably inside the square frame.
Diptychs and triptychs
Square images have an interesting effect when used in diptychs and triptychs. The overall effect feels very linear, regular, predictable, solid, definitive, and grounded – like a precisely rhythmic march. They might even appear as building blocks set together for the creation of an idea much bigger than the separate images.
If you enjoyed this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also like these:
Square by Andrew Gibson
One of the only, if not the only, book written about square format photography, including the history of the square format, composing and cropping to the square dimensions, black and white photography in the square frame, and square format photography using the Holga and Instgram.