David Hay • Square Format And Landscape Photography

In today's digital era, is square format suitable to landscape photography? David Hay explains.

How does the shape of a picture affect your perception of it?

Traditionally we have had two main film sizes, 35 mm and 6x6 cm. This gave rise to a rectangular 3:2 format for 35 mm images and a square format for 120 film. The large size and quality of the 120 negative was designed to allow it to be cropped to a vertical or horizontal shape later, if required. The square format was necessary as it was difficult to view through a waist-level viewfinder held sideways. Other formats for 120 film came along such as 6x4.5, 6x7, 6x9 and even 6x17 cm, each acquiring their own followers.

The rectangular format offers the flexibility of vertical or horizontal framing depending on the shape of the subject. Landscapes were traditionally done in the horizontal frame as this was more suited to linear subjects. One way to make your landscape photographs look a little different is to use the portrait format instead. This is very popular nowadays with a rock or clump of grass filling the foreground and a distant hill or castle in the top of the frame.

The 3:2 horizontal frame is very stable and gives a tranquil feeling to photographs. Imagine a box of the same dimensions. You would have to tip it over a long way before it fell onto the short side. The vertical frame is less stable and therefore more dynamic.

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The square format has great symmetry allowing a very stable composition to be constructed within it. Modern landscape photographers have probably been brought up on a diet of Charlie Waite photographs which make great use of the square format. Indeed, if you crop a rectangular image to a square it seems to confer a traditional, old-fashioned quality feel to it. I noticed in the days of film, judges seemed to imagine they saw better image quality in 35 mm prints cropped to a square as they assumed they had been taken on medium format film.

My current camera, a Canon EOS 70D, has a variety of formats built in. As well as the normal 3:2 ratio it has 16:9, 4:3 and 1:1. The Canon G12 has the same choice of formats plus a 5:4 option.

I find the 16:9 shape attractive for certain landscapes and have also been using the square format recently. In the square format the camera still produces a useful 12 Mp file. I haven’t used the 4:3 format as it seems to be neither one thing nor the other. Of course it is also possible to crop any of your photos to these shapes later when editing.

I used to have great difficulty using the square format in my Polaroid SX 70. It was fine for family pictures but my landscapes always seemed to have too much foreground or sky. However, when I returned from Mykonos recently, I found that around 90 of the 200 photographs I had selected could be successfully cropped to the square format. Using these I put together several sets of 12 square format images in a 4x3 grid, one of which you see above.

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About Author

David Hay

I took up photography at the age of eleven and have been passionate about it ever since. As a retired biologist I still marvel at the beauty of the natural world and try and capture the colours and forms of natural things around me.


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    Funnily enough, the rule of thirds is unimportant in square format photography. This is one of the key steps to understanding it’s strengths. Instead look for lines, patterns and, yes, even symmetry. This emphasis on shapes and forms explains why it is so good for black and white photography.

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      We would say so. Although the rule of thirds is not really a rule but more like a guidance.

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