When Your Street Photo Really Has to Be Square

Just before taking the above image I felt the familiar set of mental signals that tells me: “this is potentially a good shot.” The composition has all the elements I like: movement, purpose, engagement, colour matching (orange), colour distribution (blue), a curious object — no, two or three curious objects!

Yet even as I took it I had a sinking feeling that it didn’t quite work. There was a blank area at bottom left, too much car at top left and distracting detail on the other side of the pillar on the right.

I didn’t store the photo with the ones I like best until after I’d thought generally about the square format. I’d made several other images square by cropping them — and now I saw the potential for rescuing this one.

As a square image this photo works in a way it never could as a rectangle. I’d already tried it in portrait format, but that was even worse than landscape because it gave a distant view of the street beyond, distracting attention from the woman’s activity. Only a perfect square can counteract the diverging verticals, as long as one of them (I chose the grey pillar) is nearly upright.

Taking Another Look
If composition plays a major role in your street photography, as it does in mine, you’ll find that even slight adjustments can make a huge difference to the overall effect. Heavily cropping away two opposite sides is considerably more than a “slight adjustment,” so you need to know what you’re doing.

It helps if you go back to your work after a month or two and view it objectively. Once you’ve done so, try to recall what prompted you to take the shot and what you felt about it at the time. By cropping to a different format you can stay more true to your original intention than if you simply retain the entire image.

But be careful!

Cropping to square can lead you to places you’ve never been before. You’ll gradually start to see square compositions in reality. You’ll become a square street photographer. You’ll turn into Vivian Maier.

We readily accept Vivian Maier’s images because she shot with a square format Rolleiflex and saw a square image in her viewfinder. Today, the ubiquity of the 35mm format with its 3:2 ratio means that we’ve come to expect street images to be landscape or portrait, not something in between. Even the layout of web pages in WordPress (as here) makes the square image look slightly out of place, like an intruder in an otherwise well ordered world.

One Focal Length, One Aspect Ratio?
Nearly all good street photographers recommend the use of prime lenses rather than zooms. They do so because there’s no time in the heat of the action to mess around with changing focal lengths. Yet there’s also another reason: encouraging beginners to see subjects not only in terms of the subtended angle but also by the rectangle it creates.

Their advice is good. However, as you gain more experience you can start to become more adventurous and versatile. I’m not suggesting you mount a heavy zoom on your camera, but I do think you can start to vary the rectangle in your mind’s eye — changing occasionally from landscape/portrait options to seeing the composition as a square.

The Studio vs. The Street
Fitting people into a square format is easier in the studio. For example, in the days of Page Three glamour shots, photo editors on “The Sun” would urge photographers to use short models who could curl up into a compact shape to fit the tabloid page.

man on phone, squatting

In taking candid shots on the street we can’t be as deliberately selective as the pin-up photographer. Yet sometimes a person assumes a position that positively invites a square frame. Here’s one example (above). I took it from a boat on a canal with the camera in a portrait orientation.

Above the subject’s head to the left was a long fluorescent light which I’ve cropped out because it unbalances the composition. The result is a neatly composed and very candid portrait of a person in an everyday (if somewhat unusual) environment, taken from an angle that’s rarely possible on a normal street.

What’s Wrong With Square?
Finally, I think I should mention one problem I’m sure you’ve encountered with square photos: their static tendency. With all sides perfectly equal in length there’s no natural dynamic to encourage the onlooker’s eye to move from left to right or up and down. The invitation is just to stare at the centre because you can see the whole photo at one glance.

It’s because of the static nature of the square format that I’ve introduced diagonal lines in both of the images I’m showing here. The first one has the orange pipe on the left while the other has the foreground pole on the right. These two elements do much to enliven the images, making both of them more aesthetically satisfying than they would have been otherwise.

I could never make the square format my standard aspect ratio. Street photography cries out for dynamic rather than static treatment. But on some occasions there’s really no alternative to using the balanced, symmetrical, traditional, honest, totally conformist, hundred-percent kosher, strait-laced square.

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