Hip to be Square – Embracing the Square Format

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In the past the square format in film photography was really only achieved by either using 6x6cm format medium cameras and film or cropping your images at the old paper cutter. (BTW: Medium format was prized by magazine photographers because the results could easily be cropped for horizontal or vertical images.)

Some photographers made a name for themselves using this distinctive square format like Diane Arbus whose off-beat characters looked even more off beat in the square format.   Diane’s brand of street photography with a TLR Rolleiflex in the square-format, allowed her to look down into the camera so that she wasn’t staring ahead at her subject, who were typically those marginalized people in society — including transgender people, dwarfs, nudists, circus people.  Nothing puts a person “on guard” more than having a camera thrust in their face or pointed at them like the barrel of a gun.  The Rolleifliex being a twin lens reflex camera like this one:

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So the photographer looks down into the prism and looks out through the top lens.  The bottom lens is the one actually used to take the picture.  A lot less threatening to the subject compared to a big zoom lens held up at eye level.  These medium format cameras took short rolls of really big film – 6×6 cm nominal. Keep in mind not all medium format cameras took only squares, as different backs could be purchased which would give different aspects such as the popular 645 (6×4.5cm nominal) or 6×7 (6x7cm nominal).

Now with digital processing and even cameras that can switch aspect ratios, the square format is even more of a viable option. Plus there are plenty of ready made mats and frames in the 8×8 or 11×11 range.   Not every image fits comfortably into the square format of course.  We typically view the world has a wide horizontal like panoramic landscapes and cinema.  Or we see a lot of verticals like in magazines or book covers.  On the web we see a lot of horizontal banners but also smaller square images in ads.   Web designers love the square because it fits so well and doesn’t cause a lot of formatting problems.

A square is very versatile.  You can stack squares and form larger squares.  You can pair squares and form horizontals.  Or stack them up and form skyscrapers.  Squares can become throw pillow or get their edges cut off to become clock or other circle products.

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Composing in the square format can be the same or different than horizontal.  Rule of thirds is fine but the square allows the subject to fit very nicely smack dab in the middle of the image.  Lines and shapes become more pronounce in the square format.  The square heightens the graphic quality of the image.

To some the square is preferred for fine art photography because it goes against the norm.  Its unexpected in the typical world of photography so it stands out as perhaps different than the typical snapshot.

FUN FACTS ABOUT THE SQUARE FORMAT IN PHOTOGRAPHY

  • The first square format camera was made by Rollei in 1929.
  • Some famous square format camera photographers: Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus.
  • There are no current digital cameras that have a square sensor. But digital photography makes it easy to crop your images to any aspect ratio you want.

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