I’d like to take some time in this post to reflect on some practical benefits of shaking things up. In this instance I want to talk a bit about my experience shooting square format images and some of the primary benefits that I have personally seen from the shift to shooting exclusively square format images for a short period of time. It is also my hope that perhaps similar practices might work for shaking up your own photographic processes and lead to growth as they have for me.
As some brief background: I have always had something of a love-hate relationship with square format. On the one hand, I have always had an immense respect for well done square images. There is a certain balance and elegance to a well composed image in a square frame. In addition to this there is, to me, a certain kind of contemplativeness to the medium. Well done square images almost call to be considered, as a work of art should be. For example, I have always admired the work of Michael Kenna for these features (among others), not to mention a number of other primarily square format shooters who do beautiful work with the format that I have enjoyed following over the years. So this fondness for the medium has always informed the “love” side of the relationship.
But on the other hand the square frame has always felt like my Achilles’ heel when it comes to the various image formats. It seemed that no matter how many times I tried to head out with the explicit goal of making square images the resulting work always felt like some of my weakest. Every time I tried to make a photograph and fit it inside a square frame the result just felt weak, awkward, etc.. As a result I would usually end up switching back to shooting rectangles after what felt like a few failed frames and that would be the end of that, my frustration (or hate depending on the day) with the medium freshened.
And so there has always been this tension between my love of well executed work in the format and my frustration with my own (many!) failed attempts to work within it. I think it was ultimately this tension that motivated me to spend the month of August 2018 forcing myself to shoot only square images. I figured that the only way I was going to learn how to work with the format would be by limiting myself exclusively to it. This way I could no longer fail a few times, become frustrated, and fall back into what was comfortable by shooting more rectangles.
To my own surprise I did find that after several outings forcing myself to work exclusively with the format I slowly began to start assembling some square format work that I no longer felt were total failures. I actually began to feel that my square work was some of the strongest work I had been able to produce in a while, another surprise!
After some recent reflection on this I think that the largest reason for this change in the strength of my images had to do with the fact that switching from a rectangular format to square format forced me to rethink many of my decisions/habits/etc as I went about assembling images. Shooting square, I had to think much more carefully about my compositional choices for the first time in a while (I am a bit ashamed to admit this). But this more careful or thoughtful approach that I had to focus on as a way to try and hone my aptitude with the medium was what led to growth in my skills and ultimately to stronger images.
After a month or so of square shooting I did ultimately go back to shooting my usual format(s), but the more thoughtful approach to composition was something that I found I had kept with me. Granted, I ultimately shot square format because it was a medium that I felt I was weak in and wanted to work to hone my skills in a medium that I respected. But nevertheless this shift in my standard process had the effect of shaking things up and leading to some positive benefits.
And this is the real importance that I want to point to in “shaking things up.” The practice of changing up our approach to making images, in this case by forcing ourselves into a practice that is markedly different from our usual approach, is a good way of shocking the system, so to speak. These “shocks to the system” are beneficial. They force us to rethink our approaches in ways that can lead us to growth. For me it was shooting squares and being forced to confront challenges of composition, building skills that I was able to then take into the rest of my work.
Whatever way you may decide to shake up your own workflow, I think it is certainly a valuable exercise that should be considered if you are looking to grow as a photographer.