"THE SQUARE IS EVERYTHING !!!" Wait, that's not what I said......

Even in moments of quiet reading I am still haunted by the square.

I thought, and Michael Johnston thought, that I'd written a pretty clear and straightforward article for his "The Online Photographer" web magazine, yesterday.  If you haven't read it, here's a synopsis:
In the film days photographers had many different aspect ratios to choose from.  When digital destroyed film camera making we had most of our choices removed.  We were mostly relegated to shooting with a 3:2 ratio in professional, 35mm style cameras, and a 4:3 ratio in "amateur" or "point and shoot" cameras.  I made the argument that it's hard for some people to compose in formats they don't enjoy and, I expressed happiness and relief that electronic viewfinders have allowed camera makers to bring back the choice of seeing, framing and shooting in multiple image ratios.  I also professed my personal attraction to the square, or 1:1 ratio while calling on people to experiment and find the ratio that was right for them.

Most people got the basic ideas just fine and either agreed or disagreed.  But there were two camps that mystified me.  And one of the camps highlighted to me how differently people's brains are wired from mine.

One group must have read too quickly or, perhaps had been multi-tasking at the time, but they came away with the idea that the whole of the article was a fierce defense of the square and a damnation of every other combination of geometric borders.  Even though calm and patient editor, Mr. Johnston, posted several comments reminding them that the whole point of the article was, "Freedom of Aspect Ratio Choice."

But the group that disturbed me, and perhaps only because their thoughts seemed industrial, analytic, mathematical and process oriented while mine are not, was the camp that insisted that the whole idea that a camera need have a set aspect ratio was "absurd".   I, we, everyone, should be able to look at a scene, figure out exactly what the future use of the image will be, capture it with sufficient space around it and then unerringly crop it just so in post production.  Done, neat, finished.  No muss, no fuss.

I imagine their universe is one of tight order and high cleanliness. Every decision perfunctory and binary.

I can't imagine that people don't understand the friction and momentum that tools create in a creative process.  No matter what format camera you select there are two forces at work.  One is the way you like to compose (your inertia) and the other is the implicit idea, perhaps very sub-conscious for some but not for others, that perhaps you should take the boundaries of the supplied finder into consideration as you try to decide what to include and what to leave out. (There must be a reason they made the finder this way.  Right?).  Even if you are a square guy and you know you want to crop square in the end, having to include more areas than you want, wrapped in  configurations you're not comfortable with, means having to constantly choose and evaluate more parameters than you need.  It's all wrapped up in the tyranny of choice.

I think artists (and we'll entertain the conceit that photographers count too...) establish formalist restrictions for themselves in order to cut down on an infinite number of choices, to remove paralysis, to help them get started.  An amorphous or "hostile" frame is one that pushes on a photographer an infinite number of choices by dint of having to "float" some intended, future composition, unanchored in a framework that doesn't conform to character of the artist's intention.  It's a fight from the start.  The choice of a camera with a friendly aspect ratio helps one concentrate on timing and what to include.  The form has already been chosen.  It's like making a mathematical equation less complex.  Less time consuming.  Removing variables helps us narrow down with greater speed and certainty.  Then again, it could just be the way my brain works and everyone is wired differently.  

I don't care if you like or don't like squares but I don't understand why people think their choice of tools is meaningless to the empowerment of their best vision.  

I had a funny thought, just now.  People talked about cropping to the subject matter.  But in all the years and years that people experimented and made art with Polaroid SX-70 images I never saw examples of cropped ones.  Never.  Nor have I seen Holga or Diana images cropped.  What to make of that?  

Just a few thoughts after reading the paper and drinking coffe on a bright, Sunday morning.


Anonymous said...

People don't read well. Even people who think they read well, don't.

Craig said...

I've often found that no matter how clearly and precisely I write, there are people who think I said something quite different, even opposite, to what I actually said. C'est la vie.

Personally, I would rather see a composition in the viewfinder as I want it to appear. I don't really want to have to include excess material to crop out later. Viewing a rectangle tends to lead me to compose for a rectangle.

Peter said...

Well said. I think that very many people read what they think is written rather than reading to understand what is actually written. I wonder if they also 'see' what they think is in front of them. I will admit I have a constant struggle not to do exactly that myself. My photography helps me in this.

As for the second group who think the constraints of the tool don't help creatively – I don't think any solutions exist. I find that using a prime (as opposed to a zoom) helps for exactly this reason.

Anonymous said...

"artists establish formalist restrictions for themselves in order to cut down on an infinite number of choices, to remove paralysis, to help them get started"

I think you said it right here.

Leaving the house with one prime lens on a favorite fixed format camera leaves you free to focus on the art without worrying about equipment choices - and generally results in better images.

sey said...

people think they are personally being criticized and immediately go onto the 'attacking' defensive.
also there are those who see themselves and that to brings out all the rationalizations/justifications again in 'attacking' defense mode.
oh well..........

James Weekes said...

All I can tell you is what works for me. I have always loved the square format more than the rectangle, and I didn't even know it for years. I had portrait/wedding studios in Vermont and a pair of Rollei SL66s that I used a lot for portraits. The portrait rig of choice for us young guys, at that time was a Nikon body and the wonderful old 105mm f/2.5. I was a bit of a fad-follower and tried and tried to make that combo work. My square portraits were better and it made me angry. (Call me stupid, but at the same time I was trying to force portraits out of the Nikon set-up, I was trying to do landscapes with the Rolleis, to no great effect.)

While I was doing this I was having a ball with the first SX-70 and getting good portraits of friends and family out of that.

Then the Diana craze hit. Two fellow photographers bought a case of them from Power Trading Co. in Hong Kong, kept 12 each and sold the rest to break even. It took a whole roll of duct tape to learn the proper method of leak prevention, and I was off. I loved it, there was no pressure to be technically perfect and, once more, square seemed perfect for what we were doing. Granted we were developing most of it in Pyro and even tried Amidol for printing, but the negs were it. Sixteen beautiful squares per roll of Tri-X.

The wedding business got better and it was Canons and flashes for years. I still have an EOS 3 that took the last wedding. Digital came along and I retired and moved here to Northeast Florida, set up a darkroom again, just as film flickered away. I moved up the digital chain, mostly Canons and a side trip into Pentax (Who can hate the K-5 with the lovely little 35mm f/2.8?)

Them micro 4/3 and square was back in my life. Then TOP and your blog. I am so happy to be able to shoot square again. It feels like an old pair of jeans and I just see more pictures. I may even haul out the Rolleis again and use a lab, just to remember.

So, thank you for talking about this and getting me out there every day, shooting, just to see what comes up.

I will also state that, like you, this is just what works for ME. 4x5, 3x2, 6x7, 8x10,4x3 are all beautiful ratios and all have people that do their best work in that ratio. As one of the commenters at TOP wrote, Ansel Adams cropped all of his (known) Hasselblad work into a rectangle. So put me down as one of the people who got what you meant and....keep blogging.

Jim Weekes

Tyson Habein said...

I think there's an inherent problem in a newer generation of photographers who, while they may say something different, in practice do all of their heavy lifting (composing, editing, frame selection, etc.) in the post-processing realm. That's not a negative comment towards the practice, but rather a simple statement of different technique.

For someone who doesn't worry about composition until it's on the computer, the initial format doesn't matter so much.

Coming from that generation that tends to follow these habits, I like to do a bit of both. I'll compose within the given viewfinder ratio, and then after that's said and done, I'll rework images with the concept of "what if I had been working in this format?" A bit of fun, if nothing else.

I think the reason the initial camera format does less to inform artistic intent is because that side of the artistry is largely unused now. The majority of the artistry is on the screen. For good or bad.

John Taylor said...

… also there is that aspect of the "fix it in post" crowd that is really just laziness, which of course often produce more work in the end.

Low Budget Dave said...

It amazes me how many people read articles written by professionals, and then write in to put words in the professional's mouth. (And then disagree with those words.)

I read here to learn about a fun hobby. If I want someone to disagree with, I will read an economics blog.

FoToEdge said...

And.... All iPhone Creative Images are done in the Square. I have never seen any Rectangular Hipstamatic Shots. I loved the old Mamiya 330 and it never failed. I thought the days of Square were gone until I discovered a little Panasonic Digital Point and Shoot that gave me a Square Shot. A cheap little camera got me hooked all over again. Cropping Later is a Fake Square! It is not what and how we saw the scene.

Richard said...

You need to fix your avatar at the top left corner of this blog. I would just crop it square, but you may want to re-shoot it with the viewfinder set to square. ;-}

Brad C said...

One of the great things that the Panasonic GH2 introduced to me was the ability to shoot AND SEE in a square format, and black and white as well! I agree with your analysis - with so many things to decide it helps to eliminate a few variables.

On a related point - I find it interesting how much time people spend in forums debating DOF and 'creative potential' of the various sensor sizes, yet you never hear anyone talking about how the DOF is greater in the shots when they crop the image a little bit... I've never seen anyone list their focal length and aperture with an adjustment because they cropped a little :)

Steve L. said...

On the subject of cropping that a lot of commenters have raised, what a strange thing to be pedantic about. But then I guess most photographers are into the technical stuff - left brain and all that. I'm about as right brain as they come I guess. I couldn't care less about sticking to a "proper" aspect ratio. Each image is an individual, and ends up printed whatever those dimensions happen to be. And no, I don't "leave space all around" when I'm shooting, I get the composition as close as possible in camera, and crop one (or two) sides in post if necessary. Sometimes just a half an inch, sometimes more, sometimes all the way to square. Been doing the same thing since the '70's in the darkroom, so this has nothing to do with "Photoshop" laziness, or laziness while shooting. I'll put my "in camera" composition skills up against anyone else's, but it's rarely "perfection". Whats the big deal with trimming an inch off the side if it serves the image better? If I had done it "in camera" it would mean losing a bit of the top or bottom as well, but what if that was important? I just don't get the angst over the whole cropping subject. Maybe its because photography has always, right from the start at age 13, been purely about art for me, and never about the "documentary". And my first and only photography teacher (Jr.High and High School) was a painter and an outstanding teacher of art. Painters make their canvases or their drawings whatever size and shape that fits the image they want to make. Why shouldn't we?

To get more "on topic", I agree with you Kirk that square can be wonderful. I spent a good part of my youth with a Mamiya C330 twin lens. Of course I sometimes cropped it rectangular (GASP!!), but the images that did end up square have a certain something. For the past two years I've shot exclusively with a Pentax K7 with the lovely DA35/2.8. Quite a few of those images have ended up square. But having a choice to shoot in square (in camera) with the Pentax wouldn't interest me much. After all these years it's totally natural and easier for me to just visualize it. We all see and work differently, and we all need to work the way that's most comfortable for us. You've got your method down and I've got my method down. The end results are all that matters...

Bold Photography said...

A similar thing happens when you have but one focal length to work with...

Libby said...

I read the post over at Mike's. Bravo. Finally someone said it. I love square myself and with digital have always liked 4:3 better than 3:2.

I've made myself a little cardboard mask that I throw in he camera bag to use with the DSLRs. It helps.

Oddly my next photo book will be Squared. Started about a month ago and hopefully will have it done by summer.

Craig said...

Actually, I'm jealous of you that you found your ideal format so early in your career. Maybe I just have taken enough photo, or, more likely, I just haven't paid enough attention.

Either way, I'm still wandering aimlessly without a guidepost. It must be nice to know that all you need is the right framing and you can easily start finding compostions. Without a guidpost, I'm forced to look at the world without a fixed aspect ratio in mind, which place one more variable between me and a composition I'll find pleasing.