In 2003 I made the transition from 35mm and medium-format film to digital and never turned back. The instant satisfaction of digital, combined with the absolute necessity of the digital medium for modern publishing means that there simply isn't a need for me to return to the land of film. Still, something kept calling me back, and it took me a while to realize what that "something" was: the square format.
Like many in my generation, I started seeing the world as images through the square viewfinder of a Polaroid instant film camera during my childhood years.
I never had a problem with the rectangular format of 35mm film, but I found something both familiar and comforting about the 6cm x 6cm format of 120 roll film cameras like my old Agfa Isolette, Kiev 60, and even the Agfa "Clack" (pictured above).
Composition Without Turning
The principal benefit of square format, in my opinion, is that you only have to learn to hold a square-format camera in one orientation. You will never need to turn the camera on its side, not ever. The simple square format provides equality for both vertical and horizontal compositions. Additionally, expensive and heavy rotating flash brackets are completely unnecessary because you never move the position of the flash.
The square nuts and square bolts of square photograph composition basically fall into two types: those images that cannot be cropped because the subject fills the square frame, and those images that could (in theory) be cropped to traditional rectangular format and survive.
Most of the more famous fashion, portrait and press photographers of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s who used medium-format film cameras composed their subjects in square format with the understanding that the images would have to be cropped in order to fit on a rectangular magazine cover or page. Photographers like David Burnett, Richard Avedon, and Diane Arbus often used additional empty space at the sides of subjects, making it easier to crop the images for publication.
Conversely, the square format allows you to fill the frame with your subject in such a way that the entire frame is used to deliver your message. Any cropping done to such an image will negatively impact the composition and will often cause you to lose important parts of the photo.
It's Hip To Be Square
The rectangular format has long been embraced by landscape photographers because of the ability to capture a wide landscape view without distracting foreground or sky elements. To make landscape pictures in a square format, you have to accept that that foreground distractions will be included in the view - and even find ways to make those distractions work to your advantage. The extra foreground and/or sky elements tend to be rendered in greater detail than distant subjects, therefore presenting an image that both "pulls you inside" and is more "balanced" than traditional rectangular images.
Studio portrait photographers embrace the square format mainly because of the use of medium-format film and expensive medium-format digital cameras that use the square format. A number of art scholars believe square-frame portraits create an added feeling of isolation because of the way the subject "floats" inside the square. Whatever the reason, I personally like square-format portraits that are tightly composed within the frame.
As someone who has worked as a wedding photographer for a number of years, I also appreciate the way in which the square format allows for taking candid portraits without excess distractions) in the frame. I can frame a happy bride and groom at their wedding reception without ugly aunt Betty and drunk cousin Ted showing up in the photo.
Can't You Just Crop?
Sure, it's possible to create a square-format image out of a standard rectangular image simply by cropping the excess area of the frame. However, part of the beauty of square format is composing your image inside the square. Unless you're an experienced square-format photographer you will encounter great difficulty translating the rectangular image in your camera's viewfinder into a square frame.
To put it simply, cropping just isn't the same as seeing and composing your images inside a square as you're creating them. You need a square-format camera if you want to get serious about square-format images.
Time to Square Up
square-format photography isn't for everyone, but you shouldn't consider this type of photography to be exclusive to professionals and art students. It wasn't long ago that every consumer in America was taking square-format images with a Polaroid camera, and 120 roll film was widely used by average shutterbugs after World War II before 35mm film became popular.
Until recently, however, there were no digital square-format cameras available unless you were prepared to shell out several thousand dollars (or tens of thousands of dollars) for a digital back for your medium format system. Fortunately, this is no longer a problem: the Nikon Coolpix P5100, Ricoh GR II Digital, and Ricoh Caplio GX100 all offer square-format options (there may be other compact digital cameras with a square-format setting, but if that's the case then I am unaware of them). Granted, these compact digital cameras aren't traditional square-format cameras; they merely crop the standard rectangular format down to a square-format setting. The 10 megapixel Ricoh cameras create a 7 megapixel square image, and the 12 megapixel Nikon P5100 creates a 9 megapixel square image. Given the amazingly deep depth of field and sharpness of their respective lenses, all three cameras are capable of capturing quality images.
With my current square-format digital camera of choice, the Nikon Coolpix P5100, costing less than $300 these days, if you're looking for a new angle in your photography why not give square format a chance? It can truly open up a realm of photographic possibilities that you just won't find with a traditional-format digital camera.