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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.