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Cameras used to make rectangle photos all the time, but now I see as a trend square photos. Is that because of mobile phone screens, or is it something else?

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    This is subjective but also, I think, fascinating and the trend is undeniable. I'd love to see this remain open and see what researched and referenced answers we can get. – mattdm Dec 2 '15 at 11:47
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    @KirillZotov why do you believe this is any more a photography question than a general art question? What difference is there between a photograph and a painting? – Philip Kendall Dec 2 '15 at 11:57
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    @mattdm Oh, I agree it's on topic - but I disagree with Kirill's assertion that this question can only be answered by photographers so I was trying to find out why he thought that. – Philip Kendall Dec 2 '15 at 12:03
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    People like them?!? I thought it was just an annoying constraint imposed by mobile app designers because of issues with display orientation and presentation in their sites/feeds. – R.. Dec 3 '15 at 16:39
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Square photos are not new, but given our mobile world, they have a unique benefit: they look the same whether viewed in landscape or portrait. Given that smartphones are normally used in portrait orientation, its no surprise that most photos are taken this way as well. However, this leads to odd viewing on landscape-first devices, like TV and PCs.

By taking square photos, they look natural no matter the device being used to view. It could almost be considered the universal photo ratio.

Whether most people contemplate this, or find that 'square just looks better' is hard to say. I suspect most like it because its what the cool folks do: Instagram, Hipstamatic etc.

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    I think this is absolutely the most important factor influencing photo aspect ratio today. It's annoying to turn a mobile device sideways momentarily to view a landscape photo that shrinks to tiny size when viewed on a vertical screen, and some apps don't even support rotating the screen orientation. Likewise, as you said, photos shot vertically in the 16:9 ratio of an HD phone won't fit comfortably onto a horizontal home computer screen. The square crop "ensures shareability", so to speak. – recognizer Dec 2 '15 at 15:43
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    @recognizer sounds like a software issue. Why would we discard raw data at source when the client could just zoom in... – Gusdor Dec 3 '15 at 9:55
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    Correct. The square ratio ensures that, no matter the users' screen orientations, everyone is equally dissatisfied with the photo. – Richiban Dec 3 '15 at 13:33
  • @Gusdor I'm not sure why you consider the physical shape of a screen and the resulting user decisions to be a software issue. Mobile devices have vertical screens because it's comfortable to hold in the hand. Users choose to crop their photos to squares, whether influenced by screen size or aesthetics. Any "discarding of data" is being done when the user decides on a square composition. There is no "software issue" in this process. – recognizer Dec 3 '15 at 16:42
  • @recognizer if the software preempted user viewing habits, square photos would be soon issue – Gusdor Dec 3 '15 at 17:36
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The square photo format is as old as photography, not something new. (Even if TO and probably people in general have the impression that it is new). It has been a major tool in professional photography since its earliest days.

Think of wet plate (without predefined format) and large format photography (typically almost square, 4"x5" or twice that size). Think also of 120 medium format film photography as the typical 6x6 cm photos. There were (and are) also 6x7 cm cameras. These can give the impression of being even more square than an actual square format, due to the perception of the human field of view (personal observation, quote needed).

Ken Rockwell (don't really like him or hate him, whatever you prefer) has a very short but informative comparison of photography formats:
http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/format.htm

There is also a thread about painting in square format here (link), which has some interesting opinions about leading lines, ductus and perspective:

I think this in particular shows that the symmetry of the square format is much higher than for a rectangle (the diagonal being a symmetry line for example), which underlines such compositions. Also the central perspective works best in the square format because of this symmetry. The central perspective is often used by inexperienced photographers, who are, for example, not yet orienting on the rule of thirds. This explains the photo format choice of smartphone apps, working hand in hand with photo technique of first-time shooters.

Further discussion of the square format can be found in this exhaustive article about the framing and formats of painted pictures.
https://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/math5.geometry/unit12/unit12.html

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It could be something to do with Instagram which opened up perhaps the best and most natural platform for sharing quick snaps. However, being only a square format until recently, with the continued arrival of newer filters, everyday snappers have naturally evolved from being mere snappers to something a little more prominent and as a result, given rise to a very large influx of square images dotted all across the Internet. Images that just did not exist prior 2010.

As of September 2015, the statistics according to news reports, showed as follows;

  • 400,000,000 Instagram users
  • 80,000,000+ Daily images (99.9% Square) being shared 365 days p/year
  • 29,200,000,000 New images in 12 months

Certain fashion photographers have also been using this format as it now resonates with a huge population of certain demographics as being trendy and hip. An example is - https://www.instagram.com/chantal_li/

However, it is not to say that the square format is the most popular, it has its place as do the Landscape, portraits and panorama formats which in all honesty, are perhaps still more prominent than the square format in their own respected areas and perhaps still considered as a more professional look when displaying the respected image.

To summarize, the increase in square images and its popularity, has not come about as a way of choice, but more as a way of the restrictive format and popularity of Instagram.

  • Reading this, I'm surprised that I didn't think of "ease of use" immediately. Rotating the image means you can still display it in the same width with no scaling required. – Wayne Werner Dec 2 '15 at 13:53
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    Abdul, IMHO this have nothing to do with contemporary technologies. Just remember roll films and cameras which can take (on the same format film) 4.5x6, 6x6, 9x6 – Romeo Ninov Dec 2 '15 at 14:05
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    Another factor with sites like Instagram is, with a square photo, there's always space for the caption, comments, likes, interaction buttons etc without shrinking the actual photo. Sidebar when landscape, space below when portrait. Instagram's not just about the photos - it's a communications channel. Square photos are easier to design around in responsive sites and apps - hence they became more common as responsive design becomes more common – user56reinstatemonica8 Dec 2 '15 at 14:40
  • +1. I believe Instagram is the thing causing the increasing trend of square photos. – justhalf Dec 4 '15 at 1:34
  • It should be noted that the square aspect ratio Instagram uses likely originated as an attempt to evoke the similar shape of a photo from an old Polaroid instant camera, a discontinued but still well-liked product whose photos evoke a pleasant "retro" feeling for many. – Doug Warren Dec 4 '15 at 19:16
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The major driver behind the trend of square photos was the explosive popularity of the Instagram app. Instagram from inception and for nearly five years only allowed for square images.

The reason behind the decision for Instagram to initially use square images can be heard directly from the CEO and co-founder Kevin Systrom in this Quora answer:

From day one. We realized that if we were going to do photos, that we'd have to be different and stand out. Square photos displayed really well in a feed format and frankly we just liked the aspect ratio better. It wasn't much more complex than that.

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I posted this in my comment, but here's a surprisingly simple reason:

If you rotate a square image you don't have to rescale the image to display it in the same size.

For a company like Instagram it makes perfect sense that they originally limited images this way, because you'll never have squashed or pinched images. Worst case you have to crop your image down - but they'll always be presented the same way for everyone.

In a web-world that's really handy because it means when you're creating a template to show off your images you only have to worry about one layout. Not portrait or landscape mode. That simplification can be very attractive for designers and developers.

  • But note there are also many ways around this. For instance, Flickr has a very nice grid for displaying images of all aspect ratios. – DA01 Dec 6 '15 at 16:26
  • @DA01 sure, but you have to put forth the coding/design effort. 1:1 aspect ratios make things more simple – Wayne Werner Dec 6 '15 at 16:52
  • I agree, though don't agree that was the deciding factor in Instagram and Hipstamatic (which didn't even have a web aspect to it). Instead, these were decisions made based on the user experience of the photo taking process. – DA01 Dec 6 '15 at 16:54
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The square image format became popular when used to photograph a specific subject which has an aspect ratio close to 1:1, the human face from close distance. I've analyzed data from social networking posts as part of a recent job and the overwhelming subjects of 1:1 aspect ratio photographs are 'selfies', taken from mobile devices. The portrait aspect ratio is second for selfies, and landscape is a distant third. The popularity of portrait may be attributed to the orientation which is most comfrtable for holding a phone and pointing it at one's self.

Unfortunately we did not have any way of determining which photos were taken with a "selfie stick" though we may be able to compute that based on estimated distance to the subject, and see how selfie stick orientations are distributed.

Note that if we exclude mobile phones and look only at devices manufactured by Nikon and Canon, landscape again becomes the dominant format, even for selfies.

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    How far back does this data go? I think square photos on social media has more to do with the app than the subject. – DA01 Dec 5 '15 at 2:45
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    @DA01: We started collecting data in late 2012, and started anew in mid-2013. In both datasets there was a very high correlation from the 1:1 aspect ratio to the human face subject. – dotancohen Dec 6 '15 at 10:22
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    But is that a direct correlation. I have a hunch that the 1:1 aspect ratio is more directly correlated to the apps being used. Indirectly, these are the apps people use the most...including taking selfies to post to social media. – DA01 Dec 6 '15 at 16:23
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    Without a doubt the aspect ratio is directly correlated to the apps being used. As with any good dataset, we can draw many, many conclusions and "prove" it with the data! The chain "take selfie with Instagram -> Instagram is set to 1:1 -> selfies are often 1:1" is very likely. No less likely is the chain "Instagram uses 1:1 aspect ratio -> I want a selfie -> Instagram selfies look best but I don't know why so I'll use Instagram for my selfie". – dotancohen Dec 6 '15 at 20:46
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I don't think the other answers hit upon this...so I'll give it a go:

It's not so much that 'square is popular' but *'we now have the ability to easily and instantly crop to any aspect ratio'*.

In other words, the 'rectangle' aspect ratio was popular for the past, oh, 5 decades mainly because the vast majority of all consumer film and cameras were set up to handle that particular aspect ratio (with some exceptions...such as the polaroid).

Along comes digital photography and...things stayed pretty much the same...mainly because early DSLRs were still pretty much based on the cameras of the past 5 decades.

Then came the smart phone. A camera with an entire computer and editing suite attached. That's when, suddenly, there was no physical restriction to the aspect ratio.

At that point, anything was game and a few key apps leveraged people's natural response to the 'digital' photography decade by using the power of the hand-held computer to make things 'very very analog looking'. The two big players were Instagram and Hipstamatic. Both leveraged the patina of old film...including the aspect ratio of original consumer cameras, which happened to be square.

It was different. It was a novelty. It caught on REALLY fast and those have remained two of the biggest photo apps on phones to this day.

(A bigger question that I have: why hasn't the consumer frame industry caught up to the square aspect ratio trend? So frustrating to find square frames in a lot of places...)

UPDATE:

Regarding many of the other answers regarding how 1:1 ratios are easier for the web developers, I don't think that's a valid theory as to the success of the 1:1 ratio on phones.

A few counter-points to that argument:

  1. It's true, a consistent aspect ratio makes it easier for developers. But that can be any aspect ratio, as long as it's consistent.
  2. Developers can easily get around this anyways (see Flickr)
  3. Instagram doesn't require 1:1 photos (so makes this argument somewhat moot)
  4. (And I think this is the big one...) the big app to make 1:1 hugely popular was Hipstamatic. When Hipstamatic started, they didn't even have a web site to share your photos on. Instagram leveraged what Hipstamatic started, and then added the social media web site angle.

Point being, that while it's certainly easier for developers (and on StackOverflow, we're a crowd that certainly skews towards developers...) that wasn't the reason 1:1 is popular with consumers.

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Why do people like pineapple on pizza ? Some of them just do ( strange, strange people :-) ).

Same thing with square photos. ( Maybe even the same strange people involved. ).

Also remember that for many years when you printed your photos ( developed from film ! ) you got a 6x4 ( or other rectangle ), and with people looking at images more online with a screen than they ever did in print I guess they're free to use whatever aspect ratio they ( or Instagram, Flickr or whoever ) likes. Cropping is easy now as well.

More artistic freedom, I suppose. No bad thing.

  • How about those of us who enjoy vanilla ice cream with corn kernels? – dotancohen Dec 6 '15 at 10:30
  • Unless you're pregnant I see no hope for you. :-) – StephenG Dec 6 '15 at 11:51
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Traditional filmmakers film landscape. But on a phone, people like to shoot it in portrait mode, which makes for a unusual composition.

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    How are phone connected to square photos ? – Olivier Dec 3 '15 at 17:16
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    You're saying that film-makers use something that isn't square and phone users shoot something different that isn't square. How does either of those things explain the current popularity of square images? – David Richerby Dec 6 '15 at 12:39

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