I was just writing a script for a new video series I’m doing on photography, about format. Or to be strictly accurate, aspect ratio. There was a time when most of us shot just 35mm film, and there was no choice of aspect ratio. It was 3:2, or 2:3 if you turned the camera. You could crop, but the truth is that the frame in the viewfinder pretty well insists on being composed within. This was especially so if you shot transparency film, and even more so for those black-and-white purists who printed the rebates of the film (the sprocket holes) to show that was exactly how they had framed the shot.
Now, digitally, things are slightly different, and not necessarily in expected ways. DSLRs still shoot 3:2, but most other models shoot the slightly fatter 4:3, and some allow you to switch to the 16:9 widescreen proportions of television. Moreover, pan-and-stitch, which with some cameras is built in as a semi-automatic trick, has made it normal and fairly common to shoot wider than the frame of your camera whenever you feel like it. On the display end, the screen has come to dominate how we look at photographs. And that screen varies in size and shape. Laptop screens got wider, then the iPad made it fatter. Then the iPad competition came up with other screen aspect ratios. All in all, there seems to be more shape-changing going on that there used to be – at least outside the professional world, where layout in print was rarely constricted by the shape of the original image.
I found it interesting writing about the subtle influences that fatter or wider frames have on the images composed inside them, but then it wasn’t the first time I’d tackled this. There were pre-digital books that I wrote on photography in which the subject of film sizes came up. Because of course, though 35mm dominated the world of photography, there were others, particularly for professionals. I used to shoot 4×5-inch sheet film for studio work, and for architectural, and automatically changed gears mentally to compose within this much fatter shape. The sheer size of it also made a difference. 10×8-inch was even grander, though exactly the same proportions. Even earlier, I shot, and still do occasionally, with 6×6-cm film in a Hasselblad, and this was even more of a challenge when it came to framing a shot well.
A square frame was for most subjects considered difficult, or at least constricting. Not many publications had square pages, for one thing. For another, there is something rigid and buttoned-down about an image frame with equal sides. It seems locked somehow. One of the reasons for 6×6-cm film was its size, in days when print reproduction technology was not as good as it now is, and repro houses wanted larger film. With this in mind, it was widespread to shoot this medium-format film with every intention of cropping it one way or the other, and many photographers simply got used to mentally ignoring part of the frame as they composed the shot.
For the video series I thought I should look at square format in the interest of being thorough, having done the 3:2, 4:3, 16:9 and wider. It certainly has special needs. Yet there is no digital square camera, so who would need to know? Time to look at the positive attributes of shooting square. And they do exist. I remember that Hasselblad used to produce an excellent magazine, and recalled that I used to collect it. A trawl through the attic unearthed several copies. Always present in each issue was the promotion of square as a good format to shoot in – Hasselblad knew they had a bit of a struggle to persuade people, but they worked hard at it by showcasing Hasselblad photographers and pointing out successful square image ideas. Some, like Reinhart Wolf’s food still-lifes, were wholly convincing in their clean lines and precise organisation. Others were less so, as in the argument that a square format gave the feeling in location portraiture that “the people have space to move around”, supported by a picture captioned “The square format allows you to include a large background area, thus creating a real outdoor location portrait.”
Next month I’ll show some of the ways in which square can really hold its own – to my mind, at least. Now that square is elective rather than compulsory, I certainly find it’s more of a pleasure to consider than I used to.