Squares and Rectangles

06.16.10 | 3 Comments

What’s the best shape for a photograph: a square or a rectangle? How do you see the world: in squares or rectangles?

I’ve always photographed with cameras that produce rectangles. 35mm film has an aspect ratio of 2:3 (i.e., two units in one direction and 3 units in the other direction), as do many digital cameras. My Pentax 645 is a little more towards square, with an aspect ratio of 3:4, and my former Mamiya 7II and Pentax 67 were closer still with an aspect ratio of 6:7. The large format camera that I once used was also close to a square, with a 4:5 aspect ratio.

Some digital cameras have aspect ratios that can be changed, so they may be 2:3, 4:5, or even square (1:1).

Panorama cameras will have one length that is significantly longer than the other, with common aspect ratios of 1:2, 1:3, or something even more extreme.

Because I’ve always seen the world in rectangles, and because nearly every camera I’ve ever used has produced rectangular images, I think it’s time to shake up my world view and look at the world in squares. To do that, I’ve purchased what may be the world’s most famous “square” camera: a Hasselblad. I want to challenge myself when I view a landscape by looking at it more closely and from a different perspective. I think this will help me appreciate landscapes even more.

That said, I don’t think any one aspect ratio is perfect or even preferred for all types of landscape compositions. Depending on the elements, one aspect ratio might express the essence of a place in an aesthetically pleasing manner better than a different aspect ratio. In the past, the 2:3 aspect ratio has worked best for me. In fact, I tended to dislike 4:5 and 6:7 because they were too square, and my eyes just didn’t naturally view the world like this. So what better way to shake myself than to go to a full 1:1 square!

As I look a photos taken by other photographers and posted on forums like photo.net and fredmiranda.com, I think most have chosen the best aspect ratio (and this is aided by the use of zoom lens that can more easily find the best composition while looking through the viewfinder). However, I’ve been having fun thinking about other possible aspect ratios of some of these photos. Some rectangular photos I’ve viewed could, in my opinion, be better shown as squares, and some square photos I think would look better if cropped to a rectangle. Of course, this is what many photographers do when they work on an image by cropping to what seems to be the best aspect ratio for a given image.

It’s a bit different, though, when looking through a viewfinder that is square when nearly every experience in 45 years of picture taking (except for a very brief stint with a Rolleiflex) has seen nothing but rectangles. I want to find images that are initially best represented by squares, rather than producing a square image after the fact by cropping a rectangle.

In addition, I think it will be fun to use a camera system that has a very long history and has been used by some of the world’s best photographers (not that I have any illusions of becoming part of that group!). It’s also the camera that “went to the moon.” Finally, the model I’ve chosen (501cm) is strictly mechanical; there’s not a battery to be found anywhere. The lenses I’ll be using include a 50mm wide, 80mm normal, and 180mm moderate telephoto.

The mechanics of this camera are remarkable. This is the first time in many years that I’ve had to read the manual carefully just to manage the basic operations of taking a single photograph.

It’s a very different approach to photography, one that I think is entirely appropriate as I “celebrate” my 62nd birthday (and the start of social security!). What a great time and way to learn something new and to challenge my artistic vision.


  • On 07.19.10 Pat Trent wrote these words:

    What I like best about the square format is that it’s not necessary to tilt the tripod head on its side. I can shoot squarely and later crop to a horizontal or vertical image, should I chose to do so.

  • On 07.19.10 Stephen Penland wrote these words:

    Agreed. The biggest draw for me, however, is to find compositions that are best rendered in a square format. That’s not easy living in eastern Washington where it’s relatively flat. But I just want to shake up and challenge my vision a bit. Besides, I now know what the Hasselblad “ker-thunk” sounds like, and that’s priceless!

  • On 07.27.10 randy dawson wrote these words:

    Here, here for Hasselblad!!! I have been shooting the hassey for over 25 years and it is my go to camera for most of my work. Clients still want that digital fast turn around. The square format, for me, is the only way to go.

    Just love it!!!