Photo Essay

No Room for Squares

Extracting the Moment

Photo essays such as this always begin with a puzzlement. It is not enough to know that something has specific attributes, at least not for me. I always want to know the why of it. I suppose that's because when I do the math and look at the answer, I want it to add up. When it doesn't, I'm on the hunt for the missing information.

At a glance, online photo recognition seems random at best... something most of us never quite get a handle on. So I dug a little deeper and was surprised and intrigued by the math of it. I started by looking at the statistics of the first 20 pages of JPGs published images. There are 21 images per page, so 420 images total used for this project. Of that total, 85% were rectangles. Horizontal rectangles made up 66% and vertical 19%. The poor little square squeaked in at a paltry 15%. This seems to suggest that if you want to be published, avoid the square.

Knowing I don't, I took a look at my stats and was more than a little surprised to see that 33% of my images are square. Given that clear disadvantage, I almost wanted to start whittling away at the sheer number of them. Then a 'Cloud Atlas' quote floated down, "All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so". For me, the convention is far less important than the end result. The image is finished when it 'sits well with me', and often that feeling doesn't fit in a rectanglular tin.

So, is the world really just an ocean of rectangles? You bet it is. Look around yourself right now. Excluding your keyboard, I challenge you to find even 5 squares. Some of it makes sense. Humans are physically rectangular so rectangles exist to accommodate our form. Also, our vision is binocular, so we view the world as a horizontal rectangle. It also makes architectural sense. Building up instead of out conserves land. Still, there had to be more to it than that because our world is more than a bit rectangular. You just proved it.

The why of it was unearthed hundreds of years ago. The Golden Ratio, or Golden Rectangle, is used to describe aesthetically pleasing proportions. Removing the offensive square from a Golden Rectangle creates a smaller glorious golden rectangle that spirals down to infinity (lead image). As it turns out, we've been spoon-fed a never-ending diet of pleasingly proportionate rectangles for hundreds of years and we've adapted well. We have evolved into geometric lemmings.

These 'magical' proportions (a 3:2 ratio) dominate our visual and, therefore, our photographic world. When we think photos, we think rectangle. Most DSLR cameras shoot in 3:2 ratios. So, it is a rare photographer that strays from the rectangle. Even the few photographers who use square format cameras most often crop their images and present their final work as a rectangle. If you want to see yourself in print, the golden rectangle appears to be your golden ticket.

Vertical rectangles work well with magazine and digital layouts. But generally, a vertical format is seen as less natural and less comfortable because it creates visual tension. JPG featured member, Ryan Notch's frequent use of vertical format is not only stunning, it is powerful. Even so, horizontal format continues to rule. Our eyes can scan an image fastest when its shape is a golden rectangle (such as a paragraph of text). It speeds up our ability to perceive the world so we use it whenever we can. But aren't the images we find most compelling those that we don't speed read... the ones that include visual metaphors and asymmetry... the images that demand we linger? Truly great images are anything but predictable.

It is no wonder we photographers return to our old friend, the golden rectangle, time and time again. People are driven by a desire for order and clarity in a world filled with ambiguities. We find the familiar, soothing... even comforting. Our brain likes information that we can interpret without conscious thought. In that dulling process, we become human lemmings... relentlessly choosing it and its strangling effects. The power to fit in with one's social peers is irresistible. In the end, the logic behind an opinion doesn't matter as much as the power and popularity of the opinion.

Interestingly enough, the square format is fighting back. Instagram uses this format exclusively. But true to our lemming ways, we try to coerce these images into our beloved rectangle by pinching to zoom out. To rein that in, the latest Instagram update actually forces users to adhere to the square by snapping the image back to a square. Not surprising, users absolutely hate it. Holgas, Dianas, and other toy cameras also use square formatting but those are not the cameras that dominate the industry.

So... how did the square become Cinderella in this fairytale? The obvious reason: squares are avoided because they are a very stable and symmetrical shape. The square has powerful geometry that forces the viewer into the center. Therefore, the content within the square must overcome that geometry. Also, digital cameras kick out digital rectangles. If editing isn't your thing, you're stuck with the rectangle you shot. However, before sticking to your rectangular guns, take a look at Josef Hoflehner's work which demonstrates the true power of the square. Black and white has never looked better.

This essay is about alternative formatting, but it is also about taking a walk on the wild side... about dumping predictable, the rule-of-thirds, and convention. Image rebels have appeal. They are the John Benders of photography. They are confident, adventurous, challenging, mysterious, and indifferent. Image rebels are inmates trapped in rectangular insane asylums on the hunt for an unmanned key. For them, it's about getting out, not fitting in.

It all comes down to what you want in return for the effort. If the answer is more, a good place to start might be thinking INSIDE the box.

21 responses

  • Roger Bixby

    Roger Bixby gave props (4 Jun 2013):

    Thoughtful. Thanks you for that.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (4 Jun 2013):

    Thank you Roger, for the generous nomination. I appreciate your time and the nod.

  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh (Deleted) said (5 Jun 2013):

    As usual, Bailey, U R ahead of the crowd! I loved this photo essay! Keep those wheels turning, my Friend & keep making squares! ox

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (5 Jun 2013):

    Michele ~ You are so damn cute. Thanks for the feedback honey child. It's always a thrill when somebody actually appreciates my drivel.

  • Litz Go

    Litz Go gave props (5 Jun 2013):

    This a very interesting and informative. Thank vou. Bailey! Personally, I love the square format.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (5 Jun 2013):

    I love it too Litz about 1/3 of the time it appears. Thanks for taking the time to read and browse the imagse. Also thanks for the feedback. Hugs baby girl.

  • Deborah Downes

    Deborah Downes   gave props (6 Jun 2013):

    Brilliant, Bailey, your words, as well as your artistic and moving images. I often use the square format. Have loved it for years.

  • Susan B. Griffith

    Susan B. Griffith said (6 Jun 2013):

    I'm a fan of the square photo. It comes from my old twin lens camera's square negatives. I've always liked the shape. I glanced up from my computer and looked at a square table in the living room and four pieces of art work on the wall that are in square frames and a square cabinet. I will agree that many images and things in the world (like the windows and four doors in the living room) are rectangular but I like the symmetry of the square to give the world a little variety.
    Like your story.

  • Susan B. Griffith

    Susan B. Griffith said (6 Jun 2013):

    I also meant to add that you have a great group of photos.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (6 Jun 2013):

    Deborah - Thanks for stopping over. I am not at all surprised that you love square format. The artist and John Bender in you sort of demands it. Your work is strong and you are gifted, and one just never knows what shape that will take on any given Sunday. Again, thanks for the feedback. Adore your work.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (11 Jun 2013):

    A special thanks to Deb Downes for the Story of the Week nomination.

  • Jason Platt

    Jason Platt said (12 Jun 2013):

    Not only should this be story of the week but a new photo challenge that I suggest to the jpgmag powers that be in the future. Bailey you offer and have great visual sense. Your child like curiosity propels you to find and explore new ways of expressing yourself. In short, you are an artist!

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (12 Jun 2013):

    Unfair Susan. Anybody but you can look for squares. I would've bet my first born that they're everywhere in your space (she's not only John Bender, she is James Dean... the original rebel without a cause. Were you separated at birth?)

    You and Deborah both remove convention from your art and you do it effortlessly... images that always include lingering.

    Thanks for the shout out and such. Adore your work as well, but you knew that.

  • Andrew Dutton

    Andrew Dutton (Deleted) said (12 Jun 2013):

    Thanks for the well written essay, full of a lot of useful information.
    I also like the square format.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (12 Jun 2013):

    Hey Andrew ~ Thanks for viewing and commenting. I know you like square format. Your 'hot' image 'Snowy' in 'Create a Filter' is a perfect example. Another example of 'forced into the center' is just not the case. Love the image and appreciate your words.

  • Cedric Tesson

    Cedric Tesson said (17 Jun 2013):

    I vote for the story of the week ! Of course !
    It is so fascinating to read all you write!

  • Saroj Swain

    Saroj Swain gave props (8 Oct 2013):

    Great shots!!! and nice narration....Bailey!!!

  • Delmas Green

    Delmas Green said (15 Nov 2013):

    Even with all the photographic knowledge my meager earnings could buy floating 'round my brain, I still find the image seems to know what format it wants to be. Try as I might to shoot full frame, Come edit time a few of those pesky squares make their way in. Do we really format an image.....or are we the ones being edited. Think less, Shoot more. Everything else will fall into place.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (15 Nov 2013):

    Stellar advice Del. Regardless of how it goes through the tube, the final product is what it picks to be. I know it when I see it and it has little to do with geometry. I think that's how I ended up with this boatload of squares.

  • Delmas Green

    Delmas Green said (15 Nov 2013):

    By the way, The only image JPG published of mine was square.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (15 Nov 2013):

    Hmmmmm Del... imagine that.

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