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166+ Series #15: Tipsteroids 166+, Part 3

The square format requires a completely different approach in terms of composition. In particular the classical rules of composition cannot really be applied, like the “rule of thirds” or similar. Let’s see why this is true and how to improve the composition of square format pictures.

Photo by tall_bastard

Why did so many important photographers use medium format? Irving Penn and Diane Arbus are only two examples. It cannot be (as we saw in the previous “episodes” of the series) only for a technical property of higher quantify of film used, so that images have more quality. There must be a composition reason. Actually, there are several, that we are going to face.

General Composition of a Square Image
Square frames have a certain equilibrium by their own. There’s an implicit design of the image that looks good in square pictures and that is totally missing in rectangular frames.
The rule of thirds is not valid any more. As you can read in one of my older articles (outside of this series), that rule is based on the golden proportion, which relies on a rectangular frame.

With a square format I have the feeling that sometimes putting the subject in the middle is just the right choice, without any other possibility. This is because a square image is easier to “read”: in a rectangular image you can read a “story” from left to right, from right to left or from up to down, while in a square there’s only a way to view it. The scientific reason of that is because the eye moves in a circle while looking at a square image, without distracting the viewer from the center of composition. It’s something more implicit, than conscious.

Portrait Opportunities
Just imagine. On 35mm you take a portrait picture and then you realize that you’d like to change the composition; the problem is that you don’t have enough quality to crop the image and the final result would have a too low quality (due to a low surface of film).

So that, in square medium format, you can easily take a portrait picture, put the subject in the middle, and then decide what to do in post-production, in the moment of cropping. You can decide to crop also a rectangular picture from a square frame: this is due to an high surface of film, which gives you the freedom to cut part of the frame, as you like.
The space of film around the subject could be cut as you prefer.

Personally I don’t like this hypothesis, but it is one of the possibilities.
I believe in composition BEFORE the post-production.

Photo by tall_bastard

Disclaimer: We spoke about philosophy, history (ancestors and birth of the project of the Lubitel 166+),tech specs. Inside all the previous article I left some little, but very important, details that will let you easily interpret the next ones. These articles are meant to be read in series, so don’t lose the opportunity to go and check the previous episodes.

Alessandro Panelli (aka yo.panic or .panic) is a Medicine and Surgery student, a photographer and a writer from Padova (Italy, near Venice). Read more about Alessandro’s work and life in his website or add him on Facebook or Google+.

written by yopanic


  1. yopanic


    Thanks to @tall_bastard for letting me publish the article with his pictures... :p Great collaboration, again... :p

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  2. tall_bastard


    again ;)

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  3. anthropus


    Thanks for a really good article! Now I have to take my Lubitel 2 out :) Thanks for the inspiring words, and these portraits are truly beautiful!

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  4. biblicalshower


    The rule of thirds can still apply to square format. Using it on squares it results in imagining a tic-tac-toe grid of 9 squares on the image.
    I can particularly see it in the first portrait at the top of the article. If you look at it and picture the thirds grid on top, her face is centered with her body mostly in the center of the bottom row. The background areas to either side and above are roughly a third in width. The same can be seen in the image of the girl among trees.

    I agree that composing a square image needs different thinking and practices, but disagree that the rule of thirds 'isnt valid'

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  5. freelancer


    @biblicalshower you are absolutely right! Go and check out my mediumformats 6x6 and you will see that I framed "rule of 1/3rds" or "golden rule" almost everytime.... And it fits perfectly

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  6. yopanic



    Respecting your opinions, I think that simply you cannot call this "rule of thirds" or "golden rule", as you can read in the other article about that.
    In these 2 rules (the first is an aproximation of the second) the points of interests are the part of the subject which ar put in the lines (of the thirds) and in the points of intersection of the lines. In the examples you cannot say that the points of interests have been put in that points.

    It's a very different thing to divide the space in 9 squares. But this is not "rule of thirds", this is organizations of the square image in portrait photography. In particular this rule establish how much space has to be "filled" with the subject and how much space has to be left "empty". It's reasoning about areas, not about lines and intersections.
    In this second type of logic, as you can see in the examples, the subject is put in a way that 1/3 left and 1/3 right are "empty", while the center 1/3 is "full". And in the vertical point of view you can see that the lower 2/3 are "full" and the upper 1/3 is "empty".

    I was only saying that the rule of thirds is valid as it is originally only in square format (and not all aspect ratios). Then rules can be modified and applied in other contests, but they lose their scientific meaning: http://www.lomograph(…)most-thirds

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  7. freelancer


    Respecting your opinion, I will stay to mine and I call it the Golden Rule respectively the rule of 1/3rd. Nevermind! Many people - different opinions... ;-)

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  8. cbra


    Nice serie of articles, I have just bought a used Lubitel U and will run the first roll with it today (b&w) I love the feeling of the camera and the shuttersound of 1/30 sec!!! looooooovely!! I´m just starting to take 6x6 pics and see myself as a sort of "slave" under the rules of thirds when it comes to 35 mm photography, with square format I notice that it is easier to "get away with" a centered motive but even that the corners get more important. Do you use a lightmeter or do you just go with the "sunny 16 rule"?
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  9. yopanic



    The indications on the back of the Lubitel 166+ should be fine, but you should also take care of the Aperture Priority or Shutter Speed Priority (wait for the next episodes of the series)... :p

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  10. samleighton87


    I quite like Fibonacci for medium format. Excuse the name of the site but good article. See http://www.digital-p(…)on-steroids

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  11. sarah-addison-dobard


    @yopanic Thanks for the tip! And @tall_bastard I've seen you're pic on Rachel's I Still Shoot Film website. Lovely portraits.

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This is the original article written in: English. It is also available in: Spanish & Français.