I have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument it is,

part Stradivarius, part scalpel.

 – Irving Penn

There are some mornings that are simply worth getting up before the sun breaks over the horizon.


Many of you know that I am fond of giving myself challenges. It’s a great way for me to shift my thinking in general and my perspectives in shooting. As I thought about something I hadn’t done before, I considered the square. My mind travelled in many different directions relating to the concept and perceptions of the simple geometric shape made up of four equal sides – no side more dominant or directional than the other. The square might get a bad rap on several levels. It’s a box and not the normal one we work with in photography. At first glance, the first question one might ask is, “how do I fit or cram everything into “a box” with such limitations. What I know is that this is the wrong question. So, exploring the square became my focus.

Summer 1964 – The car was a red Comet, and my mother made all our “play dresses.” Note the bandaid on my sister’s skinned knee. We really did play in those dressses.

Summer 1964 – The car was a red Comet, and my mother made all our “play dresses.” Note the bandaid on my sister’s skinned knee. We really did play in those dressses.

This assignment made me look at some of my favorite subjects in a different way. It made me think – creatively, metaphorically and technically. To keep me on task, I simply changed the image area aspect ratio in my camera to 1:1 and then composed and shot the box. I forced myself to stay with it about 98% of the time. I didn’t want to fall into the “I’ll crop it later” mentality, which for me is often associated with laziness and a bit of sloppy thinking and shooting. It’s not that I don’t crop because I do. It’s more about staying tight and thinking about what I want in the image, not what I can fix later with a crop. It’s an exercise in discipline – the kind I used during the years when I was shooting slide film. For those who remember, especially when shooting slides, you either got it “right” in the field or you tossed the slide(s), your time and money in the trash.

One of the advantages of digital photography is that we have the freedom to experiment and do things we might not have tried with film because it would cost money and we had to wait for the results, good or bad. One of the disadvantages of digital is that our attitude, behavior, discipline and focus can shift into the messy zone because “pixels are free.” It’s a multi-faceted proposition that requires a balance of freedom and discipline that encourages creativity, risk, play and exploration. It allows us to win the battle of the judges and fear of failure or not conforming without sacrificing quality in the process. I’m okay with things not working out; it happens. I’m not okay with not trying.

However, I know when I’ve been playing loose and messy, and it shows. I can see it, and want to kick myself in the butt. That recognition brings me back to paying attention to my “intention” and to a place where I can play with both openness and purpose.

Every Christmas Grandpa Friis would disappear for a while. That’s when Santa Claus would show up. He always “just missed him.”

Swishy dresses and a big, box television that had about three channels, four if you were lucky. We all had the same hairdresser, too. No wonder we were happy to go outside and play.


I entered the photography world in my early 30s, and my first “real” camera was a 35mm SLR. I have only shot a few rolls of black/white film and have been in the darkroom twice in over two decades. I don’t have a long history with photography as it relates to working in monochrome or the darkroom, and I have never shot portraits or people except on a casual basis. My focus when I started shooting was to learn how to make the camera work for me, learn the basics of photography and become a better photographer. Becoming steeped in photographic history was not at the top of my list, the exposure triangle was. I loved working with film, but it was always about the viewfinder and the print.

I began wondering about the roots of the square photo after having had a ton of old family photos scanned. I noticed lots of squares. Most of the photos were taken by my grandmother, and others were passed down from her. She wasn’t the best technician, but she loved taking pictures, our family pictures; and because of her, we have many memories preserved in black and white and color that help us remember what we were like growing up and what the times were like. Even the photos of people I don’t know (not a clue) tell the story of life through my grandmother’s eyes and mind. For that I’m thankful and wish I had appreciated those “stand here and smile” moments just a little more. And this is part of the reason for this blog on the square. I also needed a challenge, something to get me shooting and thinking and creating.

Sometimes, the rectangle works as a square …


Some of you may know this, especially those with a long history in film photography (not saying you’re old, but you’ve seen many things). The origin of the square photo has its roots with the original Rollei, a 6×6 camera released in January 1929. It was made for 117 (B1) film, gave the photographer six (yes, six) frames and a choice of two lenses. It was followed by the Rolleiflex Standard (TLR). I looked it up – TLR stands for twin lens reflex. The camera had two lenses of equal focal length – one for viewing and focusing and one for taking the photo.

In 1948, after WWII ended, Victor Hasselblad from Gothenburg, Sweden rolled out the square format Hasselblad 1600F, a single-lens mirror reflex, 6×6 camera with interchangeable Kodak lenses, film magazines and viewfinders. It was the first consumer camera and was unveiled in October 1948 in New York City. If you were a professional photographer (or even if not), you likely owned a square-format film camera. The Hasselblad 500C was launched in 1957 and was one of the most iconic cameras in photographic history. It was used by legends such as Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Diane Arbus.

Many photographers embraced the square in uniquely different ways from fashion to portraits and nudes to still life and flowers and in the cultural and celebrity world. The 500C was the first camera to “properly document space” in 1962 by astronaut Walter Shirra on the Mercury rocket. Suffice to say that the square format photo has a long and storied history. The final model, 503CWD, was released in 2006 in commemoration of Victor Hasselblad’s 100th birthday and had a digital back.

And while Rollei and Hasselblad were pioneers, we cannot forget that there were and are other square options – Yashica-Mat, Mamiya, Bronica, Holga, Lomo and even Polaroid. These days, while we do crop and print to square, our “standard” box is the rectangle. That is the box we most often work to fill.

Yes, I know … this is not a square-format camera (and not a square image), but it is one of my grandmother’s. Isn’t it beautiful? Cameras used to be works of art and craftsmanship.


Remember when Instagram started in 2010? Much to the chagrin of many, it allowed only square-format images. There were arguments against the limitation of the square, and people found ways around it. For five years, Instagram held its ground. Good for them. In many ways there was value in requiring that users “conform” to the forced aspect ratio of the square. Equal time and space for every image in the box and the scroll, as well as lessons in following rules or guidelines. What a concept. This meant that everyone got an opportunity to flex their creative muscles in what might have been an uncomfortable and different way.

I will admit that I wasn’t a fan at first. I mean, for starters, I had never really considered the square and still have issues with the “standard” 8×10 mentality. I don’t always crop to a standard aspect ratio, especially if it won’t “work” for the image I have in mind. The way I see it, I work hard to include only what matters to me in the image. I refuse to compose or crop to fit a frame that doesn’t work for my vision. In 2015, Instagram yielded. We are no longer confined to square format. To be fair, I repeat, I think the square gets a bad rap. We should give it a chance.

Unlock the box with different perspectives … and a Lensbaby Velvet 28.

Reflections of a Harkers Island fishing vessel.


So, how did this assignment play out? I must say that I learned a few things about the square that I otherwise would not have. Some lessons were obvious, others took more time and effort. Going back to geometry lessons – All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. That means that trying to make a rectangle image work as a square one isn’t always possible. It’s about what “fits.” Let’s explore.

For starters, the square, like any other format offered in camera, is a forced ratio. This is true when using a square-format camera, but also when you set your camera to record images only as square – which I did, even when there were scenes that would work (or work better) in the “normal” 35mm rectangle. It is also true when you give yourself an assignment that means considering the square in general.

Then, how you “read” a square image is different from reading the rectangle. With the rectangular format, our eye typically reads side to side or up and down. With the square, our eye generally moves in a circular direction. We may start in the center of the image and move outward in a circular motion or start at a point and move around mostly in a clockwise direction. Knowing this changes how you might compose for impact. Where you place your subject may not follow the usual “rules.” Our eyes see in a more panoramic manner, although not everything within our field of vision is in clear focus. Consider our peripheral vision and how little on those edges we see clearly. The square makes use of the space and stuff that is directly in front of us and our camera.

Does this mean that the “rule of thirds” doesn’t work or that it has no place in the square? No, but it does release you from the obligation to try to make it work when it won’t. The square format gives you an opportunity to forget about that “rule.” Go ahead, dismiss it, kick it to the curb, if you like; but pay attention to how you choose to arrange within the space.

A square format in this scene allowed for removal of distractions and focus on textures and light.

A portion of one of my painted barns, never done in square.

Going in for detail and abstract on the painted barn section.

And, what about the “bullseye” – the centered subject?  In the rectangle, a centered subject has a tendency to be boring and static. You’ve heard this before. When you center your subject, the viewer is stopped visually and doesn’t feel the need to explore the rest of the frame. The centered subject in a rectangle says, “Look here, no need to go anywhere else.” So, we don’t or shouldn’t do the bullseye without intention. Guess what? The square image is more forgiving of the “bullseye” composition. In fact, it can invite the centered subject, especially when your intention is to emphasize symmetry or some other quality relating to the subject (even stagnation or stuckness).

One thing I experienced in working with the square bullseye is that it’s not as easy as one would think to line everything up and achieve balance in the frame in camera. (See the headstone image. I had to work very hard to get that and was surprised by the challenge. Seems like It should have been a cakewalk. It wasn’t. As I was working several compositions, I felt and heard myself say, “it would be so much easier to crop this on the computer …” Shame on me.

And, then there’s this: the square format celebrates shapes, lines, texture and graphic design elements. Yes, it does. It embraces the use of negative space just as much as the rectangle. What you leave out of an image is still as important as what you leave in the box. Horizon placement, subject placement and frame division all play a part in establishing the mood and feel of the image – even with the square. The square can tend toward creating a sense of balance, stability and serenity, but there is plenty of room to create dynamic movement and tension.

Not as easy to find the center of a circle on an old carved headstone.