John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Comments on Square Format Photographs

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square format photograph

A box of shapes

Square formats work well to gather up and highlight different shapes. With its very regular perimeter, the square allows other shapes to show off their indviduality. In this shot we see an organic circle and triangles do a little dance inside the cozy square space. The square format very powerfully focuses the eye on the apple - an effect enhanced even more by vignetting.

I placed the apple just off center to the right, in order to preserve the lines of the branch from which it hangs. Otherwise, the apple could have been placed almost anywhere inside, or even partially outside, the square container. That's one advantage of the square format: it allows all sorts of acceptable and sometimes intriguing positioning of the subject inside the image frame.

square format photograph


Squares are definitive, solid, grounded, unshakeable, regular, precise. Those qualities suited well in showing off the skills of this drummer. Here we also see a variety of lines - horizontal, vertical, and a strong diagonal - all well contained and organized by the square.

Although some photographers say that the rule of thirds does not apply to square format, notice how the drummer's hand falls near one of the "power points" of a rules of thirds composition, making that hand, that arm, and that drum stick about to strike as the main focus of the image.

square format photograph

Containing the unusual

The square shape works well when creating images that are abstract or surreal. On the one hand, the square itself is an atypical format in the age of digital photography, so it echoes unusual subject matter. On the other hand, the square is especially skillful for logically gathering up and organizing things, which provides a counterbalance to the abstract or surreal content of a photo.

This image also illustrates an unconventional way of using the square format to create a triptych - in this case with the same but differently cropped image serving as the three parts of work. This composition is based on the rule of thirds concept, with each image being approximately a third of the size of the one to the left.


square format photograph

When a square produces rectangles

If you introduce a horizontal or vertical line anywhere through the square image (except at the center), you will create rectangulars within the square. This image is actually a diptych of two separate shots taken through the sunroof of a car.

Square formats containing a diptych or triptych (as in the above image) often are not initially perceived as a square format. In the case of these car sunroof shots, the strong vertical lines of the rectangles override the impression of the square, at least at first glance. The square, when discovered, becomes a little surpirse.


square format photograph

Condensed vistas

Landscape photography thrives in the wide rectangular format of film and digital SLRS. Those long dimensions give us plenty of room for expressing vistas. And yet landscapes can also work well in the square format. especially when you want to convey a feeling of the landscape being contained, condensed, and organized. In this photo, the square format also echoes the rectangular geometry of the buildings.

square format photograph

Gathering up the plenty

This image illustrates how well the square format can gather up a plethora of objects into one very stable environment. In a wide rectangular frame, the eye would wander aimlessly around this acquarium of fish. The square format provides more focus. The glass edging effect, which I created in post-processing, adds to the feeling of containment. Even though the overall effect looks like a fishtank, you very rarely, if ever, see a square fishtank, which enhances the surreal quality of the image.

Amorphous, abstract subjects work well in the square frame because it helps tame any feelings of randomness or disorientation that abstracts might otherwise create in the viewer.

square format photograph

Grounding the vertical

Vertical diptychs can easily become top heavy. Sometimes they look like they might fall over. Restricting the diptych to a square format will keep it very grounded. In this image we see again how the eye first notices the rather long cropping of each separate image in the diptych, while only later realizing that they have been tucked neatly into a square. The square frame also makes each image seem less long than it actually is.


square format photograph

Up close and personal

Portraits work well in the square format when you want to convey a feeling of really zooming in on the subject. Although some photographers would disagree, think about the rule of thirds when placing the subject in the frame. In this case, I wanted to position her right (and less well lit) eye near one of the power points, while also retaining a clear view of her cascading hair.

square format photograph

Eliminating excess space

In this shot there was much too much space on the sides of the subjects who are visible in this reflective surface in a museum. Their forms would have been lost in all that space. Cropping to a square helped contain the subjects while focusing one's eye on them. The square format also feels appropriately "artistic" for these kinds of abstract and surreal images.

squares within squares

Box Cars

Either the top or bottom row of this image could have served fairly well as a diptych using square formats. The result would have created a "box car" effect with a very precise sense of lateral progression. However, in this four square style, the horizontal movement disappears. Instead, we see the shifting positions of the various star-shaped paper cutouts all joined neatly together in identical geometric compartments.



Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche