To crop or not to crop. Every photographer has to make a decision about this vital facet of editing an image. Some do it in camera and refuse to crop after the fact. Others crop — either out of necessity or preference — in post-processing. A case can be made for both techniques, and I don’t believe one is inherently better than the other.
I think a more interesting consideration revolves around aspect ratio and the often overlooked square form factor.
Most people tend to stick with their camera’s native aspect ratio. In most cases, this is 3:2, just like a single frame of 35mm film. It’s aesthetically pleasing and lends itself to 4×6 size prints.
The native aspect ratio for a Micro Four Thirds camera is 4:3, like a standard definition TV, if anyone remembers those.
When you look to various film cameras, you’ll find greater diversity in aspect ratio, including 1:1.
The square aspect is undoubtedly an acquired taste. While it is the native aspect of many medium format film cameras, it was Instagram that played a crucial role in reviving the square for the digital era, as it was initially the only way to post. Yet, enough users clamored for the ability to post their non-square-format photos that Instagram ultimately conceded.
But consider these 5 virtues of a square crop before dismissing it entirely.
The Fundamentals Of Four Walls
A square is basic in the best way possible, epitomizing the idea of less is more. Given that you’ve got the same amount of space to work with in every direction, you will learn to simplify your composition and framing, a task that takes more skill than one might assume. It’s a skill worth acquiring, as a deftly composed square frame can serve to put all the focus on your subject.
Center Of Attention
Speaking of putting all the focus on your subject…a square crop makes it easy to ignore the compositional directive about not placing a subject in the center of the frame. You get to break a rule and place your subject at the center of attention. The square crop is looking better by the minute, isn’t it?
A rectangular crop (3:2, 4:3, etc.) tends to encourage viewers to scan an image from side-to-side. This feels natural, as it’s also the way we read text. If, however, you want to promote a different “reading” of your image, a square crop is an effective way to do just that. A well-executed square crop will encourage a more circular examination of the contents of your photo, an examination that can greatly impact how your photo is interpreted.
A standard rectangular crop can come across as cluttered if too many shapes appear within the frame, but a square crop has the potential to accentuate other shapes, especially when also applying the aforementioned principles of centering and simplicity.
Negative space. It’s a topic we’ve covered before. You may recall that including the empty space around a subject (negative space) is a brilliant way of emphasizing the unique shape of a subject or providing greater definition for your overall composition.
A 1:1 aspect ratio can dramatically alter the visual landscape of both the subject and the space around it and how the whole image is interpreted by the viewer.
Square photos are still a thing. They always will be. Of course, trends come and go, and the square crop has enjoyed varying degrees of popularity over the years. But if you’re looking to break out of the rectangular norm, working with a 1:1 aspect ratio is an obvious choice.
With practice, you’ll discover that square isn’t so boring after all.