Hatter: Am I Square?

One of my favorite sculptures in Central Park (anywhere really) is Alice in Wonderland.  And I particularly like the Mad Hatter. Years ago, I was reading an article on black and white photography that used this subject to illustrate a point.  I no longer remember the point, but the photo made me realize the time that I wanted to make pictures.  There is something about finding a subject, finding a point of view, and then capturing it.  Very appealing!

Why Square?

A couple of people (two, actually) have commented on the fact that a lot of my pictures are shot (or cropped) to a 1:1 aspect ratio.  Where did this come from?  On the one hand, the square format fits this blog style very well. Good presentation on the page and it fills the available space.  But there is also an historical reason. I first encountered the square format studying the history of photography and the history of the Hasselblad camera in particular.  Hasselblad popularized the square format with their 6 x 6 cm medium format camera (V System) that used 120 film.  It was very popular for portraits and product work, which was Hassy’s bread and butter.  It’s also excellent for album covers and many were shout using this camera.  Ernst Wildi of Hasselblad argues for the square format in his book The Medium Format Advantage. The argument goes that the lens makes a circular image and using a rectangular film wastes much of the film.  The square image maximizes use of the good circle of definition formed by a lens.  It avoids having to turn the camera for landscape and portrait shots.  There is also a certain formality to the square.  I think a lot of people shoot this format for the Hasselblad look.

Most of this no longer applies to digital cameras, which have a rectangular sensor and forces you to “throw away” a lot of the available pixels. Personally, I just like the way it frames a lot of what I’m shooting now days, particularly abstracts and found objects.  Enough history… here is the complete picture of the Alice sculpture.  I had to sit on the toadstool to get the Hatter portrait.

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5 Responses to Hatter: Am I Square?

  1. That Hatter face has an amazing glow to it. Very appealing…

    Interesting essay on the square format. As always, a lot is subjective. I’ll try to counter your arguments if I can, not to be a pain, but just to test them. You say that 1:1 fits your blog style really well. Wouldn’t any horizontal aspect ratio also work well with this blog? As far as I see it, only vertical images can pose a challenge (either the photo is narrower than the text or it is too high). Sure Hasselblad popularized the square format, but other systems have made different aspect ratios popular as well.

    The square format does indeed use the largest portion of a lens’ imaging circle (64%), if the sensor or film is square to begin with. A lot more of the light entering a lens is wasted as the aspect ratios get wider and a 16:9 sensor uses only 54% of the imaging circle. Of course modern digital cameras crop a square format out of a rectangular sensor, which is very inefficient. Maybe that’s one reason why I don’t shoot 1:1 very often: an irrational fear of losing pixels.

    There’s certainly something to be said for not having to rotate your camera or all the photos you’ve taken. The down side is the large amount of wasted screen real estate when previewing images on the camera. On a computer screen, square images leave huge black bars on the left and right. Only vertical images are worse.

    So a digital system would really need to be optimized for the square format. Start with a camera with an oversized, square sensor where all aspect ratios make optimal use of the imaging circle. Then either the LCD screen and/or the EVF would have to be square in format or at least higher so that it can display an adequately sized 1:1 preview.

    In the end it comes down to liking the way a square frames the subjects you want to shoot. That’s a very valid point and what I do as well. I was just wondering if there was a lot more to it than that.

  2. Reese says:

    You make a number of provocative points. I started responding to your comment a number of times, only to stop and start again because what I was writing didn’t ring true. I wound up with a few of thoughts:

    As you say, it is a subjective thing and based in personal aesthetics. It’s an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. Other aspect ratios work OK with the blog, but I find aspects other than the square to visually jarring. I’ve also noticed that I don’t enjoy some of the blog posts as much when I add a caption and it changes the dimensions of the photo presentation.

    I find a certain elegance to a square composition, particularly when the subject is well suited to 1:1 and you can compose the four sides against the middle. I think the Apple Store stairway is a good example of that. In retrospect, the Hatter is not a good candidate for this aspect ratio. It really should be a bit more vertical. Which brings me to my third thought…

    The right crop is the one that’s right for a particular photo. In the past, I was always shooting to fit a standard mat and frame because I was planning to print. For the Internet or for computer presentation, you have a lot more freedom to add a crop that’s appropriate to the subject.

    I also have the irrational fear of losing pixels. Rationally, I realize that some of my really good photos were taken with a 6-10 megapixel cameras. When I bought my first digital, I was sold based on 8x10s shot with a Nikon D1H (which was under 3 mp if I remember correctly). For the Internet and the sizes I shoot, I don’t think the lost pixels matter too much.

    Finally, I can’t see a 3×2 picture well enough on the LCD to evaluate an image and the EVF for the GF1 is even worse. I use them mainly for composition. I’ve spent way more years shooting film than digital, so I’m content to wait until the the pictures are on the computer – and I can always crop!

    Björn, for some reason, I keep thinking I’ve read something of yours in the past or looked at your photographs. Aren’t you an engineer or architect? If so, what does design theory have to say about the square?

  3. Reese, it took me a lot longer to respond to your comments as well. I guess that’s what happens when I’m actually forced to think about something for a change. You seem to have a good memory; yes I am an architect. Eventually I’ll get around to filling in the obligatory “about me” section on my blog. As to lessons from architecture about the use of the square, that started getting long enough that I posted my thoughts on my own blog: http://www.bmupix.com/journal/2010/4/1/square-challenge.html
    I have this sneaking suspicion however that the subject still remains largely subjective.

  4. Devon says:

    I recently heard a bit of trivia regarding the Mad Hatter that you may enjoy… Years ago, milliners would quite often go insane because of their long-term exposure to the mercury used in making the hats. 🙂

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