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Composition in the square format works differently than it does in rectangular aspect ratios such as 35mm (3:2) and Micro Four-thirds (4:3). Once you understand why this is you can apply the lessons learned to creating stronger compositions in any aspect ratio. Even if you don’t take the square format seriously, it’s fun to play around with occasionally for this benefit alone.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways that composition is different in the square format…and how it can help you improve your composition in all aspect ratios!
1. Square format and balance
A square is a perfectly balanced shape. Each side is equal in length. As a result using the square format encourages the eye to move around the frame in a circle.
Compare this to the rectangular frame, where the eye is encouraged to move from side to side (in the landscape format) or up and down (in the portrait format).
This is a good time to point out that there are many factors that influence the way the eye moves around a photo, including the use of line, texture, color, selective focus and negative space. So the idea that the eye moves around a square frame in a circle is not true all of the time. But it’s a strong tendency that holds true a lot of the time.
For example, in this photo, composed within the 3:2 aspect ratio of my 35mm camera, the eye is encouraged to move from side to side by the shape of the frame and the horizontal lines created by the cattle.
In this portrait, the eye is encouraged to move up and down.
But in this square format photo, the eye is encouraged to move around the frame in a circle.
Learn more: How To Use Balance In Composition
2. Square format and negative space
Negative space is the term used to describe the empty space in an image around the subject. You can often improve the composition of your photos by getting closer to the subject. But sometimes you can create atmosphere or emphasize the shape of the subject by including negative space around it.
In the rectangular frame, this may result in a photo with a lot of empty space. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t (it’s a careful balancing act).
This usually happens when you’re composing according to the rule of thirds. Take a look at the photo below. In the initial composition I placed the Chinese temple on a third, with the result that there is a lot of negative space (and little of visual interest) on the left.
But what happens if we crop it to a square? The temple is now in the center of the frame, rather than on a third. There is still negative space that helps define the subject and add mood. But the empty part of the frame that doesn’t hold much of interest has been removed, creating a stronger composition.
Which version do you prefer? There’s no right answer – it’s subjective. But the option to crop to a square gets you thinking about the role of negative space and whether composing according to the rule of thirds is the right thing to do in this kind of situation.
Learn more: How To Use Negative Space In Composition
3. Square format and simplicity
The square format lends itself to a simple approach. Keeping the composition simple is usually a good way to create a stronger image anyway, but you almost get forced into it with the square format as the square frame has less spare space. Therefore simplifying the composition becomes a necessity.
Creating a simple composition is often much harder than it seems. But it’s a very useful exercise. For your photos to have impact, you want to eliminate as many distractions as possible. The focus should be on your subject. Any other elements that pull the viewer’s eye away from the subject lessen the strength of the image.
The composition of this photo of a dandelion is about as simple as it is possible to get. As you can see, I used a wide aperture to make the background go out of focus, which is another form of simplification.
Learn more: How To Simplify Composition With Telephoto Lenses
4. Square format and shape
How many shapes can you see in the images below? Look closely and you’ll see that there are circles, squares and rectangles within these photos.
The square format lends itself to this style of composition. The square frame has such strong geometry that it emphasizes other shapes within it.
This idea is linked with the ideas of balance and simplicity that we looked at earlier. Simplifying the composition makes any shapes within it stronger.
Once you’re aware of the power of shape in composition, you can utilize it in all your photos, regardless of the aspect ratio you’re working in.
5. Central compositions in the square format
Generally speaking, many photographers place the subject off-centre to create a more interesting composition. Love it or hate it, the rule of thirds is a reminder of this. But in the square format that rule doesn’t apply nearly as much.
Simplified compositions help with this. Central compositions become more effective when there are fewer distractions in the frame.
As we learned earlier, when the subject has a strong shape, the empty space around it emphasizes that shape. And the square format provides the perfect, balanced frame.
We saw this earlier with the photo of the Chinese temple. Here’s another example.
Learn more: Framing, Placement and Composition
6. Black and white photography and the square format
Take away color and what do you have? An image that relies on tonal contrast for impact and that emphasizes visual elements such as line, texture and shape. The square format and black and white seem made for each other, which perhaps explains its popularity with fine art photographers.
As an experiment I’ve converted some of the color photos used above to black and white (you can see them below). Take a look – do you prefer the color versions or the monochrome ones?
Again it’s subjective and there’s no right or wrong answer. But hopefully you can see that some of the concepts we’ve been discussing in this article, such as simplicity, shape and negative space, become stronger in black and white. And of course, once you’re aware of it you can apply this idea to all your photos.
Learn more: How to Appreciate Black and White Photography
A square format assignment
Here’s a suggestion – why not put these ideas into practice and set yourself the challenge of working in the square format for a short period? Most digital cameras let you set the aspect ratio to 1:1. If your camera has an electronic viewfinder it will show you a cropped display (as does Live View on a digital SLR camera) to help with composition.
You can take these ideas and treat them as mini assignments:
1. Take a series of photos that use negative space.
2. Create a set of photos that use simple composition.
3. Take photos that use strong geometric shapes, such as circles, squares, rectangles and triangles.
4. Deliberately use a central composition rather than the rule of thirds.
5. Work only in black and white.
The most important thing is to have fun with the process. Enjoy the challenge of getting to grips with the square format and these suggested assignments. The lessons you learn about composition along the way will help you create stronger photos in the future.
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I keep forgetting that I like the square format and black & white as well!
Great, informative article Andrew. I look forward to seeing differently by composing in a square format.
Great reminder of all those composition guidelines. I like square format but haven’t yet thought much about the negative space in square format images. It does accent the subject. Thanks for this great article.