Just a couple of years ago, you wouldn’t catch me alive or dead using that dreaded 1:1 ratio – but then there was Instagram. It forced me to start looking through square eyes at my already existing images. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was my calendar. At the end of 2015 we decided on putting out a calendar for the following year, and guess what, the design dictated that each image would be – you guessed it – square. Over the course of 2016 I eased into a special relationship with this particular aspect ratio, and gradually I started visualizing my end product as a square, sometimes even before a photo was taken.
It ended up being so ingrained within my psyche that now, I instantly see a square crop. How and why was I so convinced that I was to steer clear of this again? Perhaps I just didn’t understand it. It’s unnatural, the way we’ve been introduced to visual art, there’s generally a long side and a short side. 3:2, 4:3, 5:4, 7:5, 16:9, all that we work with conforms to this special “comfort zone” within our designing mind. To think that both sides would be equal, how weird is that? How would we know if it’s portrait or landscape?
Before we need to mop up any exploded brains, we start with the basics. An image that has width just as it has height must be compositionally sound. The simple, effective “bird-on-a-stick-with-clean-background” is your go-to, textbook image for a bird photograph. Whether birds sit or stand is an entirely different issue, but generally they’re oriented either horizontally or vertically. Which should correlate to landscape or portrait framing, respectively. How would it ever fit into a square? Well, implied motion coupled with the notion of negative space in the right place does the trick. For the Yellow-headed Caracara image below, the perch is coming in at a harsh, steep angle – but slightly from the right. The bird is perched left-to-right. But it’s looking right-to-left. That extremely slight S-curve is the famed Line of Beauty that has its own intrinsic appeal, it draws our eyes from the bottom right, moves upwards and to the left, to the right, and finally ejects our eyes into the direction the bird is staring. Into a convenient and aesthetically necessary void.
When the scene has more players, the “science” behind it actually gets simpler. A backlit Dickcissel that paused for a moment is framed perfectly within the middle of three panels the negative space is divided into. Also, there are three main textures to this image, brown vegetation, green grasses and the distant, pleasantly blurred plains that form the background. Three is an appealing number. In fact, I made an image of three Dickcissels a couple weeks ago, see how many triplets you can pick out of that image here.
Combining both Line of Beauty and the number three, can you pick out the S-curve (it’s way more apparent here than in the first image) as well as the magic 3?
That zig-zag from the top left of the frame – it makes the letter ‘Z’, and the Saffron Finch is positioned to take the eye on the final leg of that journey. It’s also smack in the middle of three panels. Well, it’s in panel #2 and #3, looking at the space left in panel #1. Other elements play their part in sprucing up this image as well, the leaves and flowers complement the basic colour palette, and the texture of the soft bird is at opposition with the thorns on the branches of the Bougainvillea. I made sure to not clip any thorns when I was making this square crop – had I done that, the contrast between softness and harshness would be absent.
Image design is an inexhaustible topic, without a doubt. There are many ways to bake this cake.