Just before taking the image above, I felt a series of familiar mental signals telling me: “this has the potential to be a good shot.” The composition has all the elements I love: movement, aim, engagement, color matching (orange), color distribution (blue), objects of interest — no, two or three interesting objects!
However, even when I took it, I felt that it didn’t work. There’s an empty area on the bottom left, too many cars on the top left and distracting detail on the other side of the pillar on the right.
I didn’t save the photo with the one I liked best until after I had given some general thought about the square format. I’ve made several other images square by cropping them — and now I see the potential to save this image.
As a square image, this photo works in a way it never could as a rectangle. I’ve tried it in portrait format, but it’s even worse than landscape as it gives a distant view of the street outside, distracting from the woman’s activities. Only perfect squares can counteract vertical differences, as long as one of them (I chose the gray pillar) is nearly upright.
Taking Another View
If composition plays a major role in your street photography, as it does mine, you will find that even small adjustments can make a big difference to the overall effect. Deeply cutting two opposite edges is much more than a “small adjustment”, so you need to know what you’re doing.
It helps if you go back to work after a month or two and look at it objectively. Once you do, try to remember what prompted you to take the shot and how you felt at that time. By cropping to a different format, you can be more faithful to your original intent than if you just kept the whole image.
But be careful!
Trimming to a square can take you places you’ve never been before. You will gradually start to see square compositions in reality. You will become a square street photographer. You will turn into Vivian Maier.
We readily accepted Vivian Maier’s image because she shot with a square format Rolleiflex and saw a square image in her viewfinder. Today, the 35mm format with the ubiquitous 3:2 ratio means that we expect street images to be landscape or portrait, not something in between. Even web page layouts in WordPress (like here) make square images look a little out of place, like an intruder in a well-ordered world.
One Focal Length, One Aspect Ratio?
Almost all good street photographers recommend using a prime lens over a zoom. They do so because there’s no time in the heat of the action to mess around with changing focal lengths. But there’s also another reason: it encourages beginners to see the subject not only in terms of the subtended angle but also from the rectangles it creates.
Their advice is great. However, as you gain more experience, you can start to become more adventurous and versatile. I’m not suggesting you put heavy zoom on your camera, but I think you can start varying the rectangle in your mind’s eye – occasionally changing from the landscape/portrait option to seeing the composition as a square.
Studios vs. Road
Fitting people into a square format is easier to do in the studio. For example, in the days of Page Three glamor shoots, photo editors at “The Sun” would urge photographers to use short models that could curl into a compact shape to fit a tabloid page.
In taking candid shots on the street, we can’t be as selective as pin-up photographers. But sometimes one takes a position that positively invites a square frame. This is one example (above). I took it from the boat on the canal with the camera in portrait orientation.
Over the subject’s head on the left is a long neon sign which I cut out because the composition was unbalanced. The result is an immaculately composed and remarkably honest portrait of a person in an everyday (albeit somewhat unusual) setting, taken from an angle rarely possible on an ordinary street.
What’s Wrong With Square?
Lastly, 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 is no natural dynamic to induce the observer’s eye to move from left to right or up and down. Invite her to stare only at the center because you can see the entire photo at one glance.
It’s because of the static nature of the square format that I’ve introduced a diagonal line in the two images I’ve shown here. The first has the orange pipe on the left while the other has the foremast on the right. These two elements go a long way in enlivening the image, making them both more aesthetically pleasing than they could be.
I’ve never been able to make square format my default aspect ratio. Street photography requires a dynamic rather than static treatment. But on some occasions there really isn’t an alternative to using a balanced, symmetrical, traditional, honest, totally conformist, one hundred percent kosher, rigid square.