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March 13, 2014

Why square photography just came full circle

It’s Hip to Be Square, or so said Huey Lewis and the News back in 1986. And like with all fashion, we seem to have come full circle. Yes, you got it right: it’s hip to be square again in 2014!

A short history of being square

Nokia 120 film

Square format photography has existed for over a century. In relation to film photography it is widely known as medium format. (The ‘small’ format being known as 35mm, which has a negative that measures 24mm x 35mm. The ‘large’ format is typically any negative or plate over 10 – 12cm). Medium format was usually the preserve of professional photographers and serious amateurs. Unlike the compact 35mm film cameras, which got increasingly automatic to meet the demands of the consumer, most medium format cameras retained their manual controls.

Nokia medium format cameras

The most common type of medium format film was the 120. It was first introduced in 1901 by Kodak for their Brownie No.2 and it remains the film of choice for medium format enthusiasts today. This format film was widely used in Hasselblad and Mamiya cameras. The main benefit of medium format was the increased negative size allowing far more information and detail to be captured. There are still digital medium format cameras and these remain the tools of professionals in specific fields where detail is of paramount importance. They’re not for everyone, though, as these machines can cost upwards of $30,000!

nokia polaroid

Famously, the instant Polaroid cameras also used the square format; albeit with an unevenly weighted border. What’s in a square?

bulbs polaroid foot

The point of this little bit of history is that I think the square format has subtly infected our thinking about photography. When we see a 10cm x 15cm photographic print we think ‘holiday snap’ because for the past thirty years that’s what 35mm has been primarily used for.

And so when we see a square format photograph we think either ‘professional’ or ‘arty’ (especially if it’s also black and white) or ‘fun’ and ‘disposable’ (if we’re old enough to remember Polaroids). The square format, irrespective of the subject matter, already starts to influence the way we think about the image.

nokia square pics

Changing formats


Camera manufacturers and app creators have obviously long ago cottoned on to this notion. Many digital cameras feature adjustable format options, such as the Leica below. And then there’s …. Instagram

instagram river

In October 2010, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched Instagram, the online photo sharing site which allows users to overlay digital filters on their images. A key element of the site is that the photos remain in a square format – which Systrom and Krieger acknowledge is influenced by the old Polaroid cameras. (And it’s not just the 1:1 format;  filters such as ‘1977’ and ‘Toaster’ are another dead give away to their 1970s pedigree featuring the colours of faded prints and burned out uneven sections of old Polaroids).

Instagram is now here, square and everywhere. It rapidly hit its target audience; 10,000 downloads in the first few hours; 200,000 in the first week. By 2013, in less than two and a half  years, it had registered its 100 millionth user, and now an average of fifty-five million photographs are uploaded each day!

So, it seems, square is the shape of things to come. Do you agree? Whether you do or don’t, please share your thoughts in the comments below. Be there and be square!