In this current age of the so-called “full frame” digital camera, with its 2:3 proportions, the square format, or 1:1 proportion, is somewhat of an outlier and perhaps even disparaged as a remnant of the age of 120 roll film. Even Instagram, which started as an emulation of square format instant photographs has opened the gates to a host of aspect ratios.
In this article, I dispute the notion that the square format is an outlier and argue that the format, and the film cameras that use it, are an ideal match. Furthermore, for those enthusiasts who are just getting into film photography, cameras using the square format can be purchased for quite reasonable prices, and I’ll get into some suggestions shortly.
But first, what accounts for the hesitation about the square format?
We might have the ancient Greeks to blame for this: the Parthenon in Athens has a 4:9 proportion, decidedly rectangular, which has long been thought of as an “ideal” proportion, pleasing to the eye. Or there might be some connection to human evolution, in which the ability to notice predators to the left and right was more important for survival than the ability to see up and down.
In any case, shooting to a square format does seem to require some care in the choice of subject matter.
For starters, landscape photography is not a good match for the square format. Indeed, the common rectangular formats are generally considered “too square” as well. Vast expanses of land, and pictures, including distant horizons, seem to want photographs that are wide and flat, what we used to call a “slim Jim” format. For full-length portraits, it seems natural to want a quite vertical rectangle; a square format would leave excessive space left and right.
All in all, I accept that a gentle rectangular format, such as the 4:5 proportion of sheet film, is a good compromise for many subjects, leaving the square format somewhat of an outlier.
Not so fast…
Photographic roll film started with George Eastman and the long history of Kodak’s amateur photography business. However, roll film, in particular 120 film was not considered a professional medium until the late 1940s, and it really didn’t hit its stride until the mid-1950s.
At that time, emulsion technology had progressed to the point where film stocks had enough sensitivity and fine grain to produce images worthy of large reproduction. So from then on, until the digital revolution, 120 roll film was a natural fit to replace 4×5 sheet film for photojournalism, portraiture, baby photography, weddings, and all-around subject matter.
You might be interested in...
I am currently using a number of twin-lens 120 cameras, including a 1949 Rolleiflex Automat twin lens reflex camera (TLR) that my late father left me. It works perfectly, and when I was a rather broke new professional, I used the camera for paying clients. As my career advanced, I was able to afford interchangeable lens 120 cameras (Hasselblad) and yes, I made a living shooting the square format.
Both the twin-lens design, and the interchangeable lens Hasselblad were cameras that worked best when you were holding them at your waist and staring down into a ground glass image. Clearly, it was impractical to turn a Rolleiflex, with its two lenses, sideways to shift from horizontal to vertical format, so these cameras had to use a square format, always held level from the waist. Then when the Hasselblad became a “go-to” camera for professionals, the square format settled in, and photographers learned how to use it well.
For one thing, improved film stocks meant that if you needed a rectangular picture, which was often, it did not degrade the final quality much if you simply cropped the square to a rectangle. For a full-length portrait for example, you still had the full 6 cm. of film width.
It actually turns out that many subjects fit naturally into a square format. I have shot hundreds of headshots of executives, models, and children, a natural square format consisting of a more or less round object in the frame of a square space. In other words, circular subjects, human or otherwise, just look right inside a square. Photographs with strong diagonals — say shafts of light — look right in a square format from one corner to the other. With practice and experience, you will soon find that a square box is a great place to put a lot of subject matter.
As I mentioned earlier, I started out with a twin-lens Rolleiflex Automat, and I like that style for people photography. A curious little detail that I have noticed is that subjects in front of my Rollei seem to calm down a lot quicker, and appear more relaxed, when I am not holding a camera up to my eye. The twin-lens design, held at waist level, allows you to maintain eye contact right through the snapping of the shutter, which might explain that observation. Also, these cameras are quiet, so quiet that often the subject is not aware you have actually fired the shutter.
Rolleis have zoomed in price lately and are worth every penny, but there is no good reason not to start out with a Yashica or Minolta twin-lens reflex camera instead. I own a camera named a “Wardflex”, apparently a private label branded for Montgomery Ward in the late 1950s I bought it off of eBay for a couple of hundred dollars, and the camera is built like a tank. It’s fun to use, has a decent lens, and I don’t worry about it getting stolen.
My experience with the film negatives from my Mamiya Six, an amateur camera using rangefinder focusing, all the way up to the best Zeiss glass on my Hasselblad, can, with good scanning, give me a digital file that equals any high-end DSLR.
In short, that large square negative from modern emulsions contains a great deal of data, and can produce some lovely results.
Share your knowledge, story or project
The transfer of knowledge across the film photography community is the heart of EMULSIVE. You can add your support by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.
If you like what you're reading you can also help this passion project by heading over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and contributing as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.
Well with the square format there’s no reason why the image cannot be cropped if one thinks it would suit the rectangular format better.
With the square format it can be cropped in either direction either horizontally or vertically.
Many years ago I had a Rolleicord Vb which took the normal 12 6cmx 6cm shots on 120 film but i also had the 16 on conversion kit which gave you 16 6cm x 4.5cm or 16 4.5cm x 4.5 cm shots.
I thought this camera ONLY works if meter works?
Lee in Denver Colorado USA
I will shoot in any format. I began shooting 120 film when I began photography in 1970 with 2 1/4 camera that was lent to me by a family friend. I got used to the image size right away and when thought several rolls of film until I save enough to purchase a Minoltia SRT 101. That began me shooting 35mm until I became a military photographer and began shooting 120 format again for various job assignments from “grip & grins”, Accident report photos and other photos that were required for publication and visual reports. At that time I purchased a Hasselblad 500CM and love working with it. I have since had the camera overhauled and continued using it.
Great article. Although I mainly shoot 35mm, I also have a Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex which with it’s Tessar lens really punches above it’s weight – some of my favourite images have come from that camera, and I still use it from time to time!
If you really want to get into Film photography, there is no better tool than square, from Rollie, Yashica, Mamiya TLR (interchangeable lenses) Etc. Hasselblad slightly expensive!! Large contacts and prints 6×6 inches!( 150mm) are a revelation.I was given this advice! I didn’t hear! A few years into pro work, I embraced 120 film.
This was interesting to read, thanks for sharing your experience. I do agree that the square format has something to it. It’s bolder, diagonals seem more daring, a center perspective is a statement and not an error. It’s as wide as you like it and as narrow as it can be. I love it and I don’t shoot it enough.
Take care and thanks!
Excellent piece on 120 film use/camera’s. Never once thought about the way looking down at finder, made the sitter seem more at ease. Break’s down barrier of shooting “behind”, the camera, also easier to direct, given photographer’s view is uncluttered.
Efendim! If you are an ancient backpacker addicted to Balanology, you should consider folders as a substitute for your TLR. The latter is a superb machine albeit rather heavy, and in the case of Rollie, very expensive. If you wander through the Lefka Ori, Psiloritis, the rattrap sandzak of Novi Pazar, or the gates of Boukara fil Mismis, you can get ‘blad quality negatives for an outlay of $200 to $300 if you buy a top folder. And of course as a true photographer, you can crop them as needed
In your darkroom.
Absolutely, the folder can be a great – and affordable alternative – to the Rollei let alone Hasselblad. I bought a 6×9 clone of the Zeiss Ikon built in 1959, the Erkona, which dons the same Zeiss 3,5/105mm lens. Amazing results. No square image, but so much sharpness and tonality. Price €200,- !