Picture This: Hip to be Square
Shooting square requires a different type of photographic thinking.
By Earl Nottingham
Through most of the history of photography, cameras have typically produced images in a rectangular format regardless of the size of film or digital sensor being used. The photographer must turn the camera one way or the other to produce horizontally or vertically oriented compositions, depending on the subject or scene. However, the 1930s brought a new era in camera formats with the introduction of the square-format camera – namely the venerable Rolleiflex, which was soon followed by other names such as Hasselblad, Yashica and Mamiya.
The new format quickly became the darling of photojournalists and fashion photographers worldwide and gained popularity through the years in amateur cameras such as the Brownie Hawkeye, which documented many generations of American families. Even “toy” cameras such as the Holga or Diana are now a tool of choice for many fine art photographers. Most square-format film cameras are also considered “medium format” and typically shoot a 2¼x2¼-inch image that offers a good combination of film sharpness and lens resolution.
So, what is the allure of a square format? To begin with, there is a simple elegance in the geometry of a square image. Unlike the typical horizontal or vertical frame, which inherently creates its own visual “pull” to the viewer’s eye, the equilateral nature of the square allows the subjects and other compositional elements to determine the feeling imparted by the image.
Subjects and other shapes become more prominent within the tighter bounds of a square, requiring more thought when composing an image. It can be somewhat of a balancing act — moving the elements in the scene or the camera itself until the image “feels” right and conveys the intent of the photographer. As a result, shooting a square image requires a different mindset from existing rectangular composition. You must “think” square.
Obviously, the square image may not be appropriate for all scenes, such as landscapes, which tend to have horizontal orientations. However, with the right scene and careful composition, great landscape and nature images can be achieved in a square format. Even the black-and-white landscape master Ansel Adams experimented with a square-format Hasselblad in his later years.
While most square-format photographers retain their final compositions as a square, many shoot square knowing that there is always the option to crop the original picture either vertically or horizontally in the darkroom or on a computer, eliminating the need to rotate the camera when shooting.
In recent years, there has been a revival of the square photograph, due primarily to several smartphone apps, such as Hipstamatic and Instagram, which emulate various iconic camera, lens and film combinations. Even native smartphone cameras offer the option to shoot — or crop to — a square.
However, you don’t really need a square-format camera or app to shoot a square image. Any rectangular image from any camera can be cropped square with photo retouching software or some smartphone apps. Obviously, if you plan to crop a square from the original rectangular format, be aware that you will lose part of the subject matter and surroundings on the edges of the frame, so leave a little extra room.
Shooting square can be a great creative and enjoyable exercise for any photographer. It forces you to visualize and compose a photograph in a completely different manner and will fine-tune your compositional eye. You’ll discover that it’s hip to be square!
Please send questions and comments to Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more tips on outdoor photography, visit the magazine’s photography page at www.tpwmagazine.com/photography.
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