Square compositions….

Why is it SQUARE?

I ask that question a lot.  If I can’t immediately tell why it is a photographer has chosen the square shape, I usually ask.  Because, very honestly, a good reason to go square, is pretty rare.  There are a LOT of bad square compositions out there.

Just when DOES square work, is hard to explain.  I’m going  share a few….of what I call “special circumstances” where square does work.

But let’s first start with three really BAD reasons to go square.

We didn’t see very many square aspect ratio images before the last few years, and a lot of blame goes to social media.

  1. Instagram made me do it.  This is why so many artistic photographers, for so long, flat out refused to use IG.  And while it’s gotten better, Instagram STILL forces you into just a few choices for aspect ratio.  NEVER alter your aspect ratio, and thereby your vision, to accommodate social media.
  2. Similar to Instagram, many people crop their beautiful images square, to fit into the Facebook profile window.  Which is fine……I guess.  But THEN, having cropped to square for NO artistic reason, they re-use that image and share it other places.  STILL SQUARE!  Protect your composition.  Most of the time, square is evil.
  3. And the third common reason for square, is the misguided belief that you have to crop in as CLOSE TO YOUR SUBJECT as YOU CAN GET.  Of course not, don’t throw away context and environment and composition just to get closer.  Let your subject have some breathing room, let it be part of something bigger than itself.

….and now, a few of what I call the “special circumstances.”  Situations where going square can SOMETIMES make good sense.

Symmetry.  One of the problems with SQUARE, is it’s symmetrical.  That actually works out pretty good if your subject is ALSO symmetrical:

I still find the original version of the castle shot to be stronger, but because the architecture is essentially symmetrical, square CAN work.

Another example of symmetry in a square composition:

…another special circumstance is when you’re showing only a PART of the subject:

In the above case, the rest of the composition is implied.

..or when you have symmetry AND a lot of negative space:

In the above case, the symmetry is actually CREATED by the negative space.

…with people, it can help to be shooting from overhead:

…and any time you can still include several design tools, like this bird that manages to be at the one third mark AND form an implied diagonal:

…or this product shot that uses symmetry AND a strong diagonal:

…and when you can create EXTREME compositions, particularly with a lot of negative space:

…and lastly, when the subject can overpower the weakness of the aspect ratio:

(and it’s also, still symmetrical….not that many would notice)

These are by no means the ONLY “special circumstances” for getting a quality square crop.  But it’s a pretty good starting list.


Here’s that castle with context…definitely better:


And why is it, that SQUARE is such a difficult aspect ratio?  My belief is that it’s because our human field of view is very WIDE.  At least 16:9.  In fact, it may be right around two to one, and by creating compositions just slightly wider than that, we get a fully immersive experience.  BUT, creating compositions that are narrow, like a square, we get an underwhelming feeling.

Portrait orientation images, then, would be the tougher mystery to crack….but they seem to force our brains to re-orient.  “Why do portrait orientation images work….why do tall images greater than 2:3 usually NOT work…”   That’s for another day.