I write this with a little trepidation, as I am by no means an expert on this subject, and you should not take my word as anything but my opinion and method that works for me. Now that I have issued that disclaimer, I want to talk about this subject - which I consider fascinating, and if there is any value in it for you I am delighted, but if there is not, well, writing it is an exercise in focusing myself and providing clarity on the subject at hand, so it is not a complete waste. I want to discuss some of the things that go through my head as I put together my pieces, not just to tell you how I think, but the why of it, and the where to put things is constantly changing and evolving, and, as ever, subject to change with the whims and needs of the artist and the particular needs of the piece in question.
Squares And More Squares
One of the things you may have noticed about my work is the fact that they are all squares. I came to that decision about a year ago, and they motivation for it was two-fold. One: the work of Brooke Shaden, who also works in squares. Her rationale behind it was she wanted to take it away from the familiar aspect ratio of a rectangular photograph, and make it more like an art piece or painting. This made a lot of sense to me, as I too wish my work to not be considered just photography, and usually push my imagery to a painterly aesthetic. So, good to go - square it is. But also, and this is closer to home, is I am a symmetry junkie. I love things all in a row, in order, in logical dispersion. It is true of my home and how I lay out objects and furniture, and also true of my art. I like that the squares will always be presented online with uniformity, and with a linear quality to them. I like the fact that a gallery presentation of my work - something I hope will happen soon, will also be presented with the same ease and consistency.
But there is more to consider than idiosyncrasy and uniformity when working with square format. A LOT more.
This is where composition needs to be considered, before and after the shutter is released. Unless you have a square format camera, you are not going to come about these squares naturally, as almost every modern camera shoots rectangular in both portrait and landscape. So you have two choices: You can crop your rectangle into a square or you can shoot additional material to make your rectangle a giant square, stitching the pieces together. The first one is certainly easier with a few caveats: you will get a smaller raw image, which may limit the size potential of your prints, and therefore the price you can fetch for it, and you have to consider in your viewfinder how you might have to crop what you see. You are therefore going to have to shoot wider to get a whole person into your eventual square, or know where they will be cut off eventually when you crop your subject. This takes some practice, and a lot of learning by doing. If you recall, I shoot always against a solid gray background, a blank canvas, and my subject is usually the only thing in the shot. However many years you may have under your belt in learning how to frame your shots by what you see through the viewfinder, you now will have the added task of composing in theory, supposing your crop area in what you are seeing live, and making a good guess as to what you need to capture. This feels like double the work sometimes. For me, I have to consider the remaining negative space around my subject in this future square crop, and know how much I am leaving myself, as this space is often left for me to fill in the "missing pieces" - the icons or symbolism or objects that complete my concept or metaphor. I often don't know what will be in the shots or what the idea will evolve into, so that leaves even more guesswork to be done before and after the image is captured in the camera.
If you choose to expand your rectangle into a larger square, you are likely always going to need a tripod for your shoot. Nothing wrong with that, but there is a loss of randomness in that, as you have to take care to set it up and lock it down, and try not to shake or shift it when you hit the shutter. Let's say you are shooting in landscape mode, and you are shooting a person on the beach. You capture that person and the scenery behind them, but now you have to either tilt the camera up or down to grab more sky or foreground to add to your rectangle and turn it into a square. Okay, so you do that - now you have a lot of "negative" space above or below there subject. What are you going to do with it? It seems Brooke Shaden employs this approach a lot, or almost all the time, and therefore she has a lot of "free" space above her subjects. This is where the "story" elements go, or can go, unless there is a compelling reason to have a giant swatch of sky above your subject. This is why Ms. Shaden often depicts things happening in the sky above - because there needs to be SOMETHING going on there, to make that choice deliberate and mean something. It's not always enough of a reason to shoot a great expanse of sky above the subject just because the sky looks great and breathtaking. If your subject is a person, as it is in the example I am using here, then that much of the image being just sky starts to compete with the person for attention, and the dominant element in the image is decreased and devalued by these combatting percentages. I won't get into rule of thirds here - there are people and information available out there that know more about it than I do, but, if in my example of the person on the beach, the bottom third of the image is foreground and model, and the upper two thirds of the composition is vast cloudy sky, then what is more important? What is taking up more real estate? Why is it given such priority? Now, if you use the same image, and you have birds circling the subject above her head, or smoke emanating from her head out into the sky, then you have a story, you have a supported reason and justification for all that space, and it becomes germain to the image. With these expanded rectangles, with these two rectangles becoming one giant square, you are given a much larger file, larger print size potential, but you also have to be less spontaneous in your shooting, are beholden to a tripod, and you best have a fast computer stuffed to the hilt with RAM to deal with editing a file that size! There is another thing to consider too, and I would be narrow minded to consider this invalid or irrelevant…sometimes, a large negative space is the exact right choice for your composition! if you have that model in the shot, alone on a beach, depending on the tone and the mood, if you are trying to convey a sense of being overwhelmed by nature, or isolation or loneliness, then a vast vista and a puny human is the exact right choice, or can be, based on what and who you are shooting. There are NO right answers or definitive rules in composition, only truisms that can sometimes be turned on their ear, depending on the composition and the skill and thought process of the artist.
For me, the former approach works best. I leave a lot of room for improvisation with my models, and I don't have a completed vision in my head when I shoot, and enjoy darting to and fro composing as I see things. This means I have to crop my rectangles into squares (on some occasions I get lucky and have so much blank space on the top I am able to push my rectangle's negative space into a large rectangle) and that means a smaller file and raw image. I have accepted that limitation because working in square is, for now, worth it to me. I also have seen my work in 16 x 16 and 24 x 24 and it seems big enough for me. Larger than that starts to go into EPIC scale, and I don't know if I want that experience for the viewer. I much prefer my images, again, for now, to be more intimate and personal, and I think 24 x 24 is just right for that effect. I am sure I could push them to 32 x 32 or more, given my camera pixels and quality, but I have not tried to yet, so I cannot attest to the quality and how it holds up.
Lastly, I want to leave you some things I have learned in this year of square imagery, just some things I have noted and learned, and if this is of interest to you in any way, maybe will give you some tidbits to consider.
Humans are rectangular….most of us are taller than we are wide, so that means, in order to work in square format and capture a full head to toe human being, you will have a lot of negative space to the left and right to consider. Do you always want them dead center of the square? Do you need the whole body to convey your idea? If you choose to shoot them laying down, body relaxed, and shoot them profile, you will have a TON of space above or below them to consider. What will be there? Are you losing intimacy with the face of the model in favor of capturing their whole anatomy? Why is this important? Will you have enough to say in the space given to fill it adequately?
Landscapes like a lot of room! - so, if you shoot beautiful scenic vistas, if that's your thing, then square may be a bad choice for this. If you come across a thicket of tress that naturally frame something, then perhaps a square is bang on the right choice for you. It really depends on your compositional needs.
YOU MEAN I HAVE TO MOVE???
Prime Lenses, or Fixed lenses work better for cropping and expanding than zooms. They create less distortion, less curvature, than their zoom-capable cousins, and therefore stitching two images together at the common points will be a lot easier than if you have two fish eyed images to try to make sense of. I tend to shoot with two lenses in particular: a 50mm and an 85mm, though the 85mm is usually reserved for closeups and portraiture. The 50mm offers minimal distortion of your subject and a lot less chromatic aberration around the edges. But these fixed lenses mean you WILL have to back up and move forward on your own, and until you get used to it, you may yearn for your zooms!
I will say this about square format, in closing: It's brought on a new set of challenges, a lot of new things to consider when shooting, and I really enjoy the challenge of it. It's not as common as rectangular imagery, and I enjoy presenting things in this format for now, and of course love that the end result gives me the symmetry that I love so much. I find, in many things, and in every creative medium I have tried my hand at, that working with a set of limitations really makes you work harder, and in turn makes your work stronger. If you have every crayola in the box at your disposal, you may want to use a ton of color. But limit yourself to 5 or 6, and those colors and where you use them and how much you use of them become more important and vital. I like the idea of limitless creative tools in theory, but in practice, limiting your palette has more rewards than obstacles, ultimately!
Just a little background on this image and the compositional challenges involved in it....
Aside from my central character in the foreground and the throng of worker drones behind them, I wanted a clock to be dominant in the scene, to drive home the time-centric workday - a sense of being dominated by the 9 to 5 world. Originally I wanted to put these workers in an industrial setting; pipes, steel, girders and rivets - a sort of Metropolis aesthetic. It would have worked that way, but all the detail in the background was competing with my already busy foreground, and the background was not the point. Adding to that, I wanted to add a waxing and waning moon, a nod to Rene Magritte, and once you talk moons, you kind of need sky. Then the issue became how does a clock work in the sky, and it bothered me, the logistics of that. But in the end, the moons and the clock settled into their positions and they just became icons of the sky, and the symbolism, I feel, carried and overrode the logic issues of how the clock is just "there." But, even though that was all worked out, I still didn't like the sky and the implication of this workforce working in the outside air, so I backed off the clouds towards the workers and created a gradient of no sky/sky as you go upward. It was sort of a conceptual compromise to make all the elements I wanted in the shot work together. Finally, the eyes of the drones were turned into slightly ethereal white glows to give them less personality so my main character, dressed as all the others, would be more unique.