Why square format pictures are cool, even with an iPhone or iPad

Sections: iDevice Accessories, iDevice Apps, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, Originals

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Mary Gordon over at Macworld has posted a nifty tutorial article on taking square pictures on the iPhone’s decidedly un-square composition screen.

Ms. Gordon notes that square format pictures are currently in vogue on social media and elsewhere, and presumably in recognition of that trend, iOS 7 added a dedicated Square mode. To enter the square world, swipe once to the left from the main Camera screen to bring up the cropped shooting screen. On the iPad, just select “Square” from the three mode options below the shutter button. On either device, but most pertinent to the iPad, it rescues you from having to hold the devices at a more awkward angle to optimize rectangular composition.

Ms.Gordon goes on to suggest some tips and techniques for composing great-looking square shots.

rolleicord3I’m a longtime fan of square photo compositions, having cut my serious photographic teeth on medium format 2-1/4″ x 2-1/4″ twin lens reflex (TLR) cameras using 120 or 220 rollfilm back in the 1970s. TLRs were well under way to being displaced by single lens reflex cameras by then, but the three dominant professional grade brands—Rollei, Mamiya, and Yashica—all still offered several models with excellent quality optics that made superb photographic quality possible in the 2-1/4″-square format at prices serious amateurs or struggling professionals (I was both at the time) could afford. Indeed, some pros who could afford pricey Hasselblad, Bronica, or Rolleiflex 2-1/4″-square SLRs still stuck with the light, quiet, TLRs by preference.

However, the moderate amount of developed skill required to cope with a reversed focusing image, plus parallax errors in close-up work caused by the viewing and taking lenses being on separate planes, and the fact that most TLRs did not offer interchangeable lenses (and the one that did (Mamiya) resulted in heavy, expensive, double-barrelled optics and a heavy camera body to mount them on) combined caused the TLR to lose ground to heavier, noisier, more expensive, much more mechanically complex, single lens reflexes.

The square image format was pretty much obligatory with TLRs, which didn’t lend themselves to taking exposures with the camera turned on its side. One composes shots looking down into a full negative size 2-1/4″ x 2-1/4″ (6cm x 6cm) groundglass focusing screen that provide a two-dimensional preview of the captured image that (unlike with SLRs) doesn’t go black at the moment of exposure. To operate the camera on its side would require holding it at eye-level and peering at the groundglass horizontally and at a 90-degree angle from the direction of the shot. If you think shooting with an iPad looks dorky…

Under the circumstances, square image compositions made logical sense, even though most photographers would crop to rectangular 4″ x 5 “, 5″ x 7″, 8″ x 10″ or 11″ x 14″, or 16″ x 20″ prints, which resulted in the wastage of some negative area, although the partial effect of that was mitigated somewhat by the 2-1/4″ square negative’s relatively generous size.


Personally, I was inclined to go with square compositions as much as possible, both for efficiency and because I like the proportions, although nobody made square format photographic paper, so some wastage was incurred there.

In the snapshot sector, classic Kodak and other amateur cameras mostly used rollfilm with square formatted pictures through the first half of the 20th Century. In the 1950s to early ’60s, 127 rollfilm (4 cm x 4 cm) ruled, and was followed in 1963 by the drop-in cartridge-loading 126 film, which was actually 35 mm (135) film stock without the sprocket holes, rendering a compact 26 mm x 26 mm negative format. However, 126 was largely superceded in 1972 by Kodak’s miniature 110 Pocket Instamatic cartridge (16 mm movie film with no sproket holes) in a 13 mm x 17 mm negative size which, combined with the ascendency of point and shoot 35mm cameras, ended the square format snapshot camera era until its recent renaissance.

Speaking of the iPad, taking photos with it reminds me a bit of TLR days. You can convert your iPad version 2, 3, or 4, or an iPhone 4 or 4S into a mini twin lens reflex camera with an accessory called MirrorCase, that turns the iDevice’s camera into a reflex focuser that lets you compose shots with it held in a horizontal rather than vertical orientation.


MirrorCase also facilitates recording lectures or interviews, leaving hands free for notetaking, for instance. Thanks to the magic of microprocessing and a free support app, your on-screen preview image is rendered right-side-upp and corrected for left to right.



Since the iPad 2 got the front and rear-facing cameras that were missing in the original iPad, something of a meme has developed that nobody who values their cool would actually use the iPad’s rear-facing camera for fear of looking hopelessly dorky. Users who refrained from using the iPad 2’s two megapixel camera weren’t actually missing out on a whole lot, photographically speaking, but sometimes the best camera is the one you have in hand, and the 5 megapixel camera that has been used in all iPads since the third generation, inclusive, is a decent quality shooter. An 8 MP unit like the one in the iPhone 5 and 5s is rumored for the next tranche of iPad upgrades, which may arguably be worth waiting for.

However, I’ve even found the camera in my iPad 2 more useful than I had expected it to be, and it’s been used to capture moments and memories that otherwise would’ve gone unrecorded. If I looked like a dork while using it to take those shots, too bad. Who decides this stuff anyway?

ReflexFor more of a vintage photography experience, an app called Reflex allows iOS devices to take vintage-looking photos. Reflex can give you the instant effects with Rolleiflex TLR look and feel, and take your digital photography old school.

Key Reflex Features:

  • 15 vintage textures in TtV Pack
  • 3 Border Packs with 39 different boarders
  • Develop Rolleiflex photo from Camera Roll
  • Save your work to camera roll in high resolution
  • Switch between Front Camera and Rear Camera
  • Switch Flashlight to ON/OFF/Auto/Torch mode
  • Real-time preview for effects and borders changing
  • Edit the photo again after shooting
  • Real-time Video Recording for Instagram





8 value packs are available for in-app purchases:

  • Film – Transports your digital photo back to an authentic, old school film look with unique colors.
  • InstaFX – Add some really eye-catching instagram effects to your photos with this beautiful pack.
  • LOMO – Set your photos apart ordinary with unique coloring, high contrast, and dark vignettes.
  • B&W – Bring out the soul of colored photo with monochrome of visual arts.
  • Tones – Turn your life’s moments into different color tones with these effects.
  • Splash – Create dramatic photos by converting photos into B&W and leaving the interesting color.
  • Vintage – Instantly give your photos a timeless vintage feel inspired by popular film treatments.
  • X-Pro – Render your photos with cross-processing style by unnatural colors and high contrast.


  • Max saving photo resolution: 2048×2048 pixels
  • Max sharing photo resolution: 612×612 pixels
  • Instagram Video resolution: 640×640 pixels

Note: the iPhone 4 may have a low frame rate when recording and taking photos due to the limitation of hardware (about 10fps).


  • Requires iOS 5.0 or later
  • Compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch
  • This app is optimized for iPhone 5.
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