These Are The Reasons Photographers Should Give the Square Crop a Chance


Determining how to crop a photo is as vital to its visual aesthetic as composition and exposure. Of course, if you get everything exactly the way you want it in camera, you might not feel compelled to do any cropping at all, and there are definitely photographers who take this approach; it certainly saves you some time, if nothing else. But most photographers do crop their shots, even if it’s just a “little bit.” You’ll always find something you want to remove from the frame or, after gazing at your work for a minute, you’ll come to the conclusion that the framing would be slightly more interesting or better balanced after a quick crop.

Almost without fail, you will probably stick with the camera’s native aspect ratio of 3:2. Even if you do this purely out of habit, it’s hard to deny that the rectangular (opposite sides being congruent) format — whether horizontal or vertical — works perfectly well; it’s aesthetically pleasing and lends itself to 4×6 size prints. Now, if you plan to print other sizes you’ll need to use different aspect ratios to correspond with your desired print size, but whatever aspect ratio you use, it’s going to be a rectangle.

Unless it’s a perfect square (to be overly technical about it, a square really is just a rectangle that has four congruent sides).

This 1:1 aspect ratio can be somewhat divisive; some people hate it, some love it. Others might be unfamiliar with it or never have given much thought to using it themselves. But it’s there, and it’s not going anywhere. In fact, square format photos have been around for quite some time; there were cameras designed in the late 1920s whose native aspect ratio was a square. So, it might be easy to think this seemingly antiquated format has no place in the modern photography world.

But consider some of the virtues of a square crop before dismissing it entirely.

  1. Simplicity. Simplicity isn’t necessarily a synonym for boring. There are times when less really is more. Given that you’ve got less working room within a square, it forces you to simplify your composition and framing, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. A square crop can impart a degree of focus on your subject in a way that a more traditional crop might not.
Running vehicles on road by Bob Ward
  1. Centrality. Using a square crop allows you to break that old photography maxim of not placing the subject in the center of the frame. With a square crop, you get to do exactly that and still get a great looking photo with all the emphasis on the subject.
  1. Balance. Photographers care a lot about how their work is perceived, how the viewer reads, interprets, and responds to the work. The “reading” of an image is all about the ways in which the viewer’s eyes traverse a photo, and framing is one of the biggest influences on this process. Whereas a rectangular crop will promote side-to-side scanning of a photograph, a successful square crop tends to encourage the eye to move in a circle around the frame.
Silhouette of Couple Standing during Night Time by luizclas
  1. Power. Simple, balanced, and powerful. The square has a natural ability to accentuate other shapes. A standard rectangular crop might come across as cluttered if too many shapes appear within the frame, but with a square crop you can single out one shape, place it in the center of the frame, and just let it work. Because it often does. This format also serves to bring power and focus to portraits.
  1. Emptiness. Or negative space. Including the empty space around a subject is an excellent way to emphasize mood, call attention to the unique shape of the subject, or give greater definition to your composition. A 1:1 crop can dramatically change the dynamic of both the subject and the space around it and how the image as a whole is perceived by the viewer.

I am not presenting the square as a better way to crop your photos, just a different way to go about it. If you’ve never tried it, give it a shot; if you’ve tried it before and didn’t like it, perhaps you’ll want to revisit some of your photos and try it again. Or maybe this has all reaffirmed how much you dislike the square crop. That’s fine, too. There’s always more than one way to do something. Do what you like.

About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

I appreciate your work and your comments. I will rethink some of my work and look for what I didn’t see/in the square. 😉

I love this square format. Tho I shoot professionally with my canon 5dm3. I shoot for fun and fine art with my antique hasselblad from 1958. I love the square that this achieves. And find myself cropping my digital work to square when it called for it.
Thanks for posting this.

Interesting. I’ve always used square crop in the past when all else failed – a fallback. It sometimes works when nothing else does. I will pay more attention to it. Thanks for the encouragement.
As for square format cameras, is anything more iconic than the 2&1/4 Hasselblad?

My name is Saul M. Detofsky How can we persuade any camera manufacture to go with a 1×1 aspect ratio sensor? It’s might be a little more costly at first. The advantages out way everything. I don’t want to waste time in raw. I would much rather aim for the right composition first rather than make compromises later. I wrote this on the Nikon Forum on 2012
Nikon user’s need a 1 x 1 Aspect ratio cropping in the view finder [not in post].When is this firmware coming out.I need it in my D-800 now. If not I’m sending it back to where I bought it. It’s been long needed by camera consumers.All bridge cameras have this important feature built in, why not Nikon’s
flagship? Most of the photographs you see on the Internet social sites are square. My Lets Meet TV Show needs distinctive look, need a square crop 1×1 in the view finder, consistent looking headshots with a tight square picture frame look, not all over the place. Anyone have email addresses or phone number at Nikon. We need to persuade them for new firmware. I’m going to have two thousand head-shots taken daily at all my locations nationwide. Far too costly for post-production and the photographs would be consistent looking either. Well, I gave back the D800 and got the Canon 5 D Mark 3 for myself not my TV show. Go to TVFACES.Com and read about it. Soon I’ll be buying 2,000 or more Panasonic FZ200 cameras. I don’t want to rely on photographers cropping for square in any DSLR. The FZ200 has a 1×1 aspect ratio in the firmware. Send me an email so I can send you a sample and a very recent McDonald’s McFaces Proposal. My email is [email protected].
Keep up the good work.
Best regards for a Happy New Year,
Saul M. Detofsky

I know a number of folks who are less than enthused with the square format because they find it to be dated. I guess it reminds them of the old polaroids shots.

But I find the square format to be quite appealing. It’s not for every shot, certainly, but I really like using it when I want to add a level of simplicity (as you mentioned), but also when I’m shooting an image that has a strong symmetry vibe.

One downside to the square crop is that it can sometimes be tough to get a lab to print square photos. I usually get around that by printing them myself…

A square image, especially when framed, seems to form a “weak” border compared to the standard horizontal oriented frame. The horizontal format corresponds roughly to the area we see with our two horizontally placed eyes. It also corresponds to a proscenium stage and and an image to bounded often seems to be more complete in itself.

However, the “weakness” of the square format is sometimes a good thing. If you are making a photo of detail or a portion of some object such as a botanical or a still life the shows only part of a bowl or table, the square form can suggest to the viewer’s imagination that more lies outside and beyond what is seen in the actual image. The effect can be powerful – if successfully executed. That may be a big IF, however.

On a negative (and maybe too cynical) note I think a square format is picked sometimes because it suggests something especially serious and artistic. This dates to the pre-digital era where square implies Hasselblad which implies serious (and expensive) “fine art”. After all, who would use a Hasselblad for the family vacation?

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