Shooting Squares – Rejoicing In The Restrictions Of 1:1 Photography

It started with a Holga 120N, given as a birthday present in 2012, and, in retrospect, a life changing camera.

Not only my first film camera, the Holga was my first medium format camera, and the first that only shot square images.

Before this, my only association with 1:1 aspect ratio photography was vague recollections of Polaroids from my childhood, perhaps not even of my own family.

All the images I’d made myself in the previous six or seven years had been in 4:3 format, the standard for the camera phones and Nikon digital compact I’d been using up to then.

In fact, even more than being the first square format camera I’d used, the Holga was the one that brought to my conscious mind that photographs could be made with different aspect ratios.

Since then I’ve tried 3:2 (the standard with 35mm film, and an option with many digital cameras I’ve used), 16:9 (commonly called widescreen, and influenced by cinematic films) as well as the 4:3 I already knew.

But let’s get back to 1:1 square photography.

What was most strange initially with the Holga is, previously I’d seen every potential scene quite clearly as either a landscape or portrait orientated photo.

I rarely stood there with my camera flicking back and forth through 90 degrees to figure out which look best.

I just kind of knew.

With square images though of course, portrait and landscape are exactly the same.

Which means that taking pictures of, well, landscapes, you can’t rely on a rectangular aspect ratio to crop out any unnecessary foreground or sky. You get more of one or the other, or both, with 1:1.

Similarly, with photographs of more vertical subjects, where a rectangular crop in portrait orientation elegantly mirrors the subject, again with 1:1 you have to be aware of possibly extraneous clutter each side of it.

When I first started out, the compositions that felt easiest and most natural where ones of square or circular subjects, which neatly fitted the square format better than a rectangle.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

But seeking out only subjects that were roughly square was going to be rather limiting longer term, and would likely soon become formulaic.

So I started looking for different opportunities to make the most of the square format.

For example, with the beach flag photograph below, previously I would have likely shot this as landscape in 4:3 without a second thought.

But the square format allows us to reveal more of the sky and, I feel, add more drama to the scene.

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A landscape rectangle would have not shown as much sky vertically to give the same effect, and a portrait shot wouldn’t have shown enough of the sea horizontally to appreciate its suggested drama and tumultuousness.

I haven’t used my Holga in years, and even longer for square format – my later pictures most being experiments with loading it with 35mm film.

But I haven’t forgotten about the challenges and pleasures of square photography.

With my iPhone (5C) I shot a fairly high proportion of square images (perhaps one in three).

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Using the Hipstamatic app, it was a great deal of fun, and became as close to I’d got to a digital equivalent of my Holga.

My Ricoh GRD III has 1:1 as an option, though I’ve used it less than I did the iPhone.

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It’s an excellent option for when I want to explore square format again.

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But the camera now most likely to help me make some new square photographs is my current favourite, the Pentax Q.

There’s virtually nothing the Q doesn’t offer, for my needs, include having the option for 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 and 1:1 images.

In the next few weeks I plan to explore some more square format photography with the Pentax Q, and see what comes of it. I’ll likely publish a follow up post too.

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Just as an aside, I know some people shoot 3:2 or 4:3 with the intention of making square images, then crop afterwards. I’ve never been comfortable with this – or indeed cropping at all.

I just feel that, for me, the edges of the frame are there for a reason, and I should be striving to fill them the best way I can, by the choices I make about where I stand and where I point the camera, before pressing the shutter button.

Not just making sure everything I want is in the frame and relying on cropping later to neaten up the edges.

Call me pedantic or controlling, I just don’t like messing with photographs afterwards by cropping.

Plus it’s another decision I can make in-camera, so I know once that shutter is released, the image that’s made is the way it’s going to stay – no cropping, processing, tweaking or enhancing afterwards, I either keep it, or delete it. Irreversible Photography!

How about you? How often do you shoot square format? What do you like about it? What do you find challenging? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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24 thoughts on “Shooting Squares – Rejoicing In The Restrictions Of 1:1 Photography”

  1. That Holga beach flag photo is great. What film stock was that? I need to start using my Holga. It’s just that whole issue of scanning… Ha! Don’t worry, I’m not going to start up again.

    I agree with you that a person really ought to make every attempt to effectively utilize the entire frame in whatever aspect ratio they happen to be shooting, and avoid cropping if possible. However, I’m not entirely against cropping because it is something that can be done in a darkroom, and my opinion is that anything that can be done to a photo in a traditional darkroom is fair game, but nothing more. That said, I do think it should be performed sparingly. I do not see it as a means to fix what was a poorly composed image to begin with, but if something needs to be straightened slightly or there’s a tiny piece of something that managed to get into the very edge of the frame, then fine, by all means crop to fix such issues.

    Occasionally, I will be out shooting 35mm and will see something that I think would be a great photo in a different aspect ratio, typically a very wide one rather than square, so I will go ahead and take the photo knowing that I’m going to cut the bottom (or top) completely off. This is rare, but it does happen, and typically only when I’m shooting a very fine-grain film. After all, the more you start chopping down 35mm, the quicker the grain becomes overwhelming. Usually this results in an image that is something like 3:1 since I typically cut the frame basically in half.

    Regarding a topic that is somewhat related to what we’re discussing here — What is the deal with almost all movies these days being 2.35:1 (or 2.4:1 or 2.39:1 — all nearly the same). With the exception of some films shot for IMAX, that seems to be what 95% of everything is now. That is an acceptable ratio for some movies, sure, but personally I think it is just too wide for most. I was really pleased when the first Jurassic World was shot at 2:1 because I think that is a great aspect ratio for motion pictures, despite very rarely being used. I also think 1.85:1 (used for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014), which used to be extremely common, is much better suited to most movies than the ridiculously wide ratios we see almost exclusively now. Am I the only one with this opinion?

    1. P, thanks for your input.

      Re the Holga shot, I’m not 100% shot, but I know I mostly shot Acros in those early days, so that’s the most likely emulsion. Definitely Fuji (the only other one I used was Neopan), I can’t recall ever using Kodak or any other brand for b/w 120 film.

      Yes perhaps as a learning tool cropping can be helpful. Getting an image composition almost right, but needing a minor crop, then bearing that in mind next time and getting it right in camera. It does depend on the camera sometimes. If it has a poor viewfinder that only shows 85% of what the camera actually captures, then composing is going to be more hit and miss. I remember using cameras like the Holga and Superheadz Black Slim Devil where the VFs were very approximate, so it took a while to get used to how to frame with the VF to actually get the composition you want. Some cheaper DSLRs have rubbish coverage, so it makes it harder in the same way.

      This is another reason I only use digital cameras with screens now (aside from being far easier on my eyes) – what you see on screen is what you get in the final image. I think some very cheap digital cameras have a less than 100% view on screen, but anything half decent is 100%, and you can compose very precisely because of this.

      Re movies, yes I do know what you mean. Even with a widescreen tv some films still have a large black bar top and bottom, it seems such a waste of screen space. I like older films with a 4:3 ratio (presumably cropped from the original cinematic ratio) and watched on a 4:3 CRT TV so every square millimetre of the screen space was used!

      We used to have a huge Sony Bravia TV (probably around the early 2000s) that had the most amazing resolution and colour (and very good sound too). The screen was “only” maybe 23″ or something, but back then when most of what you watched was 4:3 and filled the screen, you had more visible picture than a much larger widescreen TV today where half the screen is black borders… The old Bravia was amazing for playing video games too, very immersive!

      1. I do hope that by some miracle Fuji resurrects ACROS. I still can’t believe they discontinued it. That was a sad day.

        Cameras with poor frame coverage can be a challenge, for sure. I still don’t understand why most DSLRs don’t have viewfinders even remotely as good as vintage SLRs did. I guess manufacturers just thought that nobody would care anymore since they gave them an LCD screen to look at. Maybe they were right.

        The Holga and similar cameras can be especially interesting because there’s no parallax correction. So what you think you’re framing is not necessarily the case, especially the closer you are to the subject. Ironically, that’s about the only technical thing that has to be considered when using a Holga, while it doesn’t ever have to be considered with proper rangefinders and SLRs.

        Regarding motion picture aspect ratios, it’s good to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t care for how wide most films are today. Yep, some of my favorite movies were actually natively 1.33:1 (or 1.37:1), which is of course 4:3, and I always enjoyed how they perfectly fit old CRTs without any letterboxing also. But you have to go way back for that to be the norm. Now, what I don’t like is for movies to be modified from their original ratio (i.e. pan and scan) in order to fit a screen, because then it’s not how the director and cinematographer meant for it to be seen. The history of aspect ratios for motion pictures is actually quite interesting, in case you ever want to look into it.

        Sony Bravia TVs were phenomenal. I actually miss the CRT days (except for how heavy they were).

        1. Oh tell me about the poor DSLR viewfinders. When I first looked into one for shooting vintage M42 lenses on, I went with the early Sony Alpha bodies. Really neat little cameras overall, lovely images, easily adaptable to M42, and their native mount Sony inherited from Minolta so all the old Minolta AF lenses fit straight on and work perfectly – some of which are fantastic.

          But the VFs were rubbish, and a real shock when I first picked them up.

          The Pentax K10D I think is about as good as they get, with 95% coverage and 0.95x, but even that was a pale imitation of the VF of something like a Pentax ME Super, Minolta X-700 or Contax 139…

          I can only think because the DSLRs were all made for AF lenses, and the makers didn’t expect people to want to use old, slow, manual focus lenses, the VF was more just for basic framing, not for critical focusing.

          I’ve been reminiscing about playing SSX Tricky and Silent Hill on my PS2 with the Sony Bravia. Incredible! Especially as it was one of last ones, with the flat screen, rather than the curved screen liked earlier CRTs.

          We have a (quite expensive) Panasonic TV now but the picture quality is nowhere near as good as the Bravia. But yeh they were beasts, and weighed a ton!

          1. SSX Tricky! Yes, that game was amazing. Man, that brings back a ton of memories. Videogames were just better back then. The PS2 era in particular was just incredible. And yeah, due to how vibrant the colors in that game are, it would’ve looked fantastic on one of the later flat screen Bravias, which not only reduced image distortion due to the image not being on a curved plane, but they also had some of the richest blacks, whitest whites, and best color reproduction of any TVs I’ve ever used. Plus, being CRTs meant effectively zero input latency, so fast paced games like SSX just felt more responsive on them than they do on modern TVs.

          2. I think also because modern TVs seem to all be massive, to get the same resolution per square inch as it were, the TVs have to be much higher res than perhaps those old 21 or 23″ Bravias were. Like looking at a photograph made with a 4MP camera – great at 8×6″ but the imperfections would show more if it was blown up to two or three times that.

          3. There’s definitely some truth to that. Plus, the fact that most games were interlaced signals — 480i, or 576i in your part of the world — also helped disguise many visual problems when rendered on an interlaced TV. Very few games supported progressive scan in those days, and even fewer CRT TVs. Games from that era were generally very low resolution, but they were so well engineered for output on CRTs that many of them are still impressive today. Game designers were also much more creative, in my opinion.

  2. Thanks for reminding me that other aspect ratios exist! Typically I use 4:3. I have used 16:9 before but this was ages ago, and it was by accident! The only time I shoot square format these days is when I use my Yashicamat.

    Similar to P, I usually avoid cropping, but sometimes after the fact an image will look better in square format, or there’s something distracting at the edge of the frame that I missed, so I will crop it (or get the spot healing tool out!).

    1. If you crop, say, a 4:3 image, do you preserve the aspect ratio? Or just chop off whatever side has the offending intrusion?

      Your GX7 probably has 1:1 if you wanted to play digitally with square format too?

      1. I preserve the aspect ratio, often because I composed with that in mind and it looks off if I try to do otherwise!

        Yep it does, I might try doing just square photos this weekend to spice things up a bit

    1. Strange it was such a default format for many years with things like 127 and 126 cameras, Polaroids etc.

      I wonder when 4:3 became the dominant aspect ratio – and why it was chosen rather than just following the 3:2 of 35mm film…

      Answers on a postcard please everyone!

  3. I have used both MF (1:1) and 35mm (2:3) film for as long as I have been taking pictures. My percentage of “keepers” is higher with 1:1 MF but I’m not sure how much of that is because of the aspect ratio and how much is because of the larger film format.

    Lately I have been using 35mm exclusively because the cameras and lenses are smaller and lighter and my developing and digitizing process works much better with the smaller format.

    I crop very few of my 35mm pictures to 1:1, but a good number of the portrait orientation ones to 4:5, and I have that in mind when I take the picture.

    1. Doug, do you think you’re more considered with your MF shots because of the greater expense (I’m assuming, compared with 35mm)? Hence why you end up with more keepers?

      With the 4:5 crop, do you have any indication in the viewfinder, or any other way of (super)imposing this on the 3:2? Or you just are so familiar with it you know how much space to leave at the edges?

      1. Higher cost was not a significant issue when I was taking a lot of MF pictures. The square format just seemed more comfortable and I think that was reflected in the results. My circumstances have changed and cost is now more of an issue. I think I’m pretty much finished with MF in any case.

        I have no lines or other indications in my 35mm viewfinders to demarcate a 4:5, or any other, crop. It just seems that if I get everything important in the frame of a portrait orientation picture it often benefits from a 4:5 crop.

        1. Isn’t 4:5 the ratio for large format? Is that where this comes from, or did you just pick it as a ratio that worked for you for portraits?

          1. Yes, 4:5 is a standard ratio for LF, All of the “large” prints in the family archive are 8×10. I periodically change the photographs on our walls and only have frames with mats for 2:3, 4:5 and 1:1 so that’s what I use for my work too.

            (All of the prints I make of my iPhone pictures are printed 4×6 because that’s the de facto size and ratio for the little plastic frames everyone uses.)

          2. On the last point Doug, do you shoot the iPhone with a 3:2 aspect ratio? Or just crop to that from the default 4:3 when you make a print?

  4. I always liked to keep the original ratio of the camera that I used. So 1:1 for Holga (and yes, Hipstamatic), 4:3 for phones and compact cameras, and 3:2 for most other cameras. However, this presents a problem when you show your photos mixed in an online feed. It just doesn’t look right to me.
    So now I take/crop all photos in landscape mode in 3:2, and all photos in portrait mode in 4:3 (otherwise they look “too long” anyway). Now that the Holga is only on display in my living room, instead of being in my camera bag, I don’t shoot square photos anymore – and to be honest, I don’t miss it.

    1. Robert, thanks for your thoughts.

      I don’t really like to chop and change, but in practice there isn’t a huge difference between 3:2 and 4:3. Obviously both are very different to 1:1!

      I like the idea of honouring the camera’s native format, and that’s generally what I’ve done too. Earlier DSLRs seemed to be 3:2, as they flowed on from the last 35mm film SLRs. I’m sure this was intentional.

      I have a number of (digital) cameras where you can select 3:2, 4:3, 1:1, 16:9. I generally go with 4:3 but on some this is a little jarring as it’s not the natural aspect ratio of the screen. For example the Fuji FinePix F810 I used in February had a 16:9 screen, so 4:3 had large black borders at the side and seemed a waste of the screen space. And on my Lumix GF1 I don’t like that on 4:3 there are grey edges (the screen is 3:2) rather than just the black borders.

      It would be fun to have a digital camera that had a square screen. It does make a difference (to me) that all the screen space is filled.

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