A couple of months ago I wrote about shooting in square format, once upon a time compulsory thanks to Rolleiflex and Hasselblad, but now that digitally there are no square sensors, the only way to achieve it is by cropping. Given that back then there were more times when people cropped in order to escape the rigidity of square, it’s a mild surprise that it still finds favour. I was going to follow that introduction with an article on situations and a frame of mind (!) that encourage shooting for square. As it turned out, I skipped a couple of months, but I’d like to get back to this minor obsession of mine.
I’ll admit that it’s partly prompted by my own nostalgia for the first serious cameras I ever owned, which were Hasselblads, bought secondhand from a buyer in the media department of the advertising agency where I worked. A justifiable nostalgia, I think, as they were the cameras that I took up the Amazon on my escape route into photography from advertising. One of them came from a Swedish client, a 38mm Superwide at a ridiculously low price, and it was one of the few cameras to which I ever had what you might call an attachment. I had it overhauled recently by Hasselblad, who admirably will repair and restore any camera from their history, though at a cost that made sure I have to use it to justify this self-indulgence. Hence my renewed interest in square, which I used to think of more as a limitation than any kind of graphic opportunity, but now, perversely, have come to enjoy more. Not as much as wide formats like 16:9, but nevertheless…
A square format was never seen in the visual arts as a natural frame, and was used just occasionally, often to make a point about rigor and severity. The equal sides give a sense of strictness, formality, even constraint. Photography was different, because for decades there was medium-format 6x6cm film, and this pushed photographers into finding square compositions. They found that square could be good – particularly on the following occasions:
1. When the subject happens to fit.
2. When you want to divide things equally.
3. To centre things.
4. When you have a uniform field or a symmetrical subject.
5. When you want to enclose another shape.
6. To bring a formal graphic order to an image
Let’s look at these in turn, beginning with the first three this month, then the last three next month. First, the simple and not particularly imaginative condition of just fitting a square frame. The exemplar is an obvious one, and arguably what really kept the square 6x6cm film format going for all those years – a face portrait. Depending on how you define a face (including the hair, for example, or part of the neck), a head-on portrait fits pretty well into a square, and while you might argue that heads tend towards the vertical, the key elements of eyes, mouth and nose more closely fit the square, as the diagram shows. In any case, there is a long history in portraiture, including work by David Bailey (David Bailey’s Box of Pinups, from 1965, in particular), Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus. And, having framed the face so conveniently, it was natural to find ways of pulling back slightly to include shoulders and upper torso. It also came naturally to some photographers to move in slightly, so as to crop into the head, particularly at the top.
The second occasion is equal division. This comes into play most often when there’s a symmetrical subject, though this is not to say for one moment that the one has to follow from the other. For some reason, symmetry often gets criticized, generally on the grounds that it shows lack of imagination. Like other things in composition, it has a time and a place. Don’t believe there’s any compulsion to shoot a symmetrical subject symmetrically. But it certainly is one logical option, as here, with the delicate roof of the Chapter House in Westminster Abbey. In this instance, the bilateral symmetry is in the subject itself — the vaulted ceiling in stone — and the photograph simply follows the lead. This very formal symmetry focuses all on the centre and does anything but encourage the eye to wander. Static does not necessarily mean dull and lifeless. It suits this subject, but is probably best used sparingly.
Another occasion for using symmetry is when you seriously need to bring order to a scene or subject that has none whatsoever. Here were 23 rare orange pearls, the subject of a magazine story, and they needed to be arranged and placed somehow. This meant doing more than simply emptying them on a table like a bag of marbles. First, they needed a background, and I went for contrast and texture with river-worn pebbles, meticulously blackened with shoe polish by an assistant. These had the advantage of offering resting places in the gaps, and we tried a number of arrangements, all of them attempting some sort of pattern. This was one.
Third, centering. Off-centre is certainly the most popular idea for placing a subject, and tends to come naturally to practised photographers, but don’t let the accompanying criticism of dead-centered, bull’s eye positioning make you believe it has no use. Far from it, there are any number of situations in which centering the main subject makes a firm and strong statement. Here is one, the unusually bright orange eye of a Thai elephant, and this makes a difference; a more normal elephant eye is not so insistent. Eyes attract attention more strongly than probably any other kind of subject, and this one is both colorful and circular, and because of the shape of an elephant’s head sits within a fairly flat area of skin. More than that, most of the folds in the elephant’s skin are arranged in curves around it, like sections of concentric circles. Everything points to the centre. Remembering how a square format, with its equal sides and sense of strict enclosure, tends to concentrate attention towards the centre, there is a good argument for cropping this image, shot on 3:2 format, to square.
Although shot on 35mm, to a 3:2 ratio, the image arguably works better cropped to square