Square format composition

In another article I wrote that one of the main attractions of the square format for me is composition. Today I’m going to elaborate on that idea.

Composition in the square format is a different process than within a rectangular frame. The benefit of understanding of why that is so is that you will be able to apply the lessons learnt to improving the composition of your images in any aspect ratio. Even if you never intend to use it in earnest, it’s worthwhile playing around with the square format for this reason alone.

Let’s take a look at some of these factors:

1. Balance

A square is a perfectly balanced shape. Each side is equal in length. Using the square format encourages the eye to move around the frame in a circle. This is different 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). There are many factors that influence the way the eye moves around a photo, including the use of line, texture, colour, selective focus and negative space. But the shape of the frame is a major factor.

In this landscape, 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:

Square format composition

In this square format photo, the eye is encouraged to move around the frame in a circle:

Square format composition

2. Space

Negative space is the term used to describe the empty space in an image around the subject. Composition is often improved by getting closer to the subject. But sometimes you can create atmosphere or emphasise the shape of the subject by including negative space around it. In the rectangular frame, this can be difficult to do as it results in a lot of empty space. But it can be very effective in the square format.

Here is a photo that I took of a lizard in the 3:2 aspect ratio:

Square format composition

And here is the same photo cropped to a square:

Square format composition

Which do you prefer? There is no right answer – it’s entirely subjective. But it’s interesting how the dynamic of the image is changed by a single crop.

3. Simplicity

The square format lends itself to a simple approach. There is less room within the square frame than the rectangular one, 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. If there are other elements within the frame that pull the viewer’s eye away from the subject that can lessen the strength of the image.

The composition of this image is about as simple as it is possible to get:

Square format composition

4. Shape

How many shapes can you see in the images below? There are circles, squares, diamonds, rectangles and triangles within these photos. The square format lends itself to this style of composition. I think that’s because the square is such a powerful shape in itself, that it emphasises other shapes within it. Linked with this are the ideas of balance and simplicity. Simplifying the composition emphasises shape, and so does placing shapes within a square frame. Converting to black and white emphasises them further.

Square format composition

5. Central composition

In the square format you can often place the subject in the centre of the frame for an effective composition. Generally speaking, many photographers tend to avoid place the subject off-centre for a more interesting composition.The rule-of-thirds is a reminder of this. But in the square format that doesn’t apply.

It’s even more true when the image is simple. The less distractions there are in the frame, the more effective a central composition becomes. If the subject has a strong shape, the empty space around it emphasises the shape. And the square format provides the perfect, balanced frame:

Square format composition

6. Black and white

Take away colour and what do you have? An image that relies on tonal contrast for impact and that emphases 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.

Take another look at the photos in this article. Do you prefer the colour images or the monochrome ones? The answer may give you an idea for future photo projects.

Final thought: Have fun

Whether you shoot with the intention of utilising the square format, or go back over old images to see whether they can be improved by cropping to a square, the most important thing is to have fun with the process. Enjoy the challenge of getting to grips with the square format and its implications for composition. Don’t take it too seriously. You’ll create some beautiful images and the lessons you learn about composition along the way will help you create better images in the future.