Why Kids Look Great in a Square Frame

Kids, or children, as I prefer to call them (only goats have kids) usually look great in a square format. But why?

I suppose it’s the usual story: if you’re shorter than the average adult you need the width to height ratio of the frame to be more evenly balanced. The standard 35mm portrait format seems much too high when you put a child into it.

I discovered this effect when I was going through some miscellaneous shots of children whom I’ve photographed (with the parents’ permission) over the past year or two. They’re “impromptu shots,” not ones that have been arranged or specially lit. When I cut them down to size they all looked a lot better.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that children are so photogenic they seem to hypnotise the camera into making them the sole point of interest at the expense of everything else. As a consequence, they’re far from perfect for street photography, which is probably fortunate because people tend to be very sensitive about men with cameras who snap children in the street.

Three Square Examples
My featured image (above) actually works well in both square and portrait format, partly because there’s a pair of tall coloured lights in the background. However, making it square certainly gives the photo more punch. The boy’s Dad is teaching him to “wai” (put hands together in greeting) and the little chap seems happy to oblige. The photo is from my series on Thai religious and social customs.

Less serious, but no less charming, is the portrait (below) of a small boy with his big brother immediately behind him. They’re playing in a precarious position high above a canal (but watched anxiously, out of frame, by their parents). The little boy is well aware of the peril of venturing too far forward but he’s spotted something that clearly interests him. Can’t crawl towards it, though!

small boy with baby brother

Another shot that works really well in square format is this one in primary colours (below), of a little girl with a yellow toy. I was slightly “off the beaten track” when I took the photo, up in the hilly area of Khao Yai, north of Bangkok. (The Thais call it “mountainous,” but it’s certainly not the High Sierra). The girl’s father was showing our friends some building land and I could scarcely pass up the opportunity of photographing such a perfect model.

little girl in blue dress, with yellow toy, in front of red car

When Square Isn’t Right
Are there times when the square format is not appropriate? You bet! When I find some accompanying “props” which are strong enough to compete with the megawatt charm of small children I can shrink the kid (there, I’ve lapsed into kidspeak) and include a bit more of the world.

Here’s a good example. I think it’s one of the best of my more conventional travel photos: an entirely candid shot of a girl striking the bells at the famous Buddhist temple Wat Phra Phutthabat (“temple of Buddha’s footprint”). The girl is dwarfed by the gigantic bells and looks up at them, concentrating intently on her task. The bells remain perfectly vertical despite being struck sharply by the wand.

But Are They Really “Street”?
You could object to all the above images, saying they’re not really street photos — and in a sense you’d be right. They’re shots I take when I venture out of the city, in between my normal sessions of urban photography. When I’m in regular shooting mode I rarely photograph children, for the reasons I’ve stated.

To every rule there’s always an exception. The photo below is not square, neither is there very much context — other than a yellow railing and a column supporting some pedestrian crossing lights. I don’t think you need additional information to appreciate the image, but I can add that the girl was looking pensively across the street at Bangkok’s most famous Chinese temple. I include it here for contrast to the earlier pictures because it is a true street photograph.

pensive girl

Country and Urban
As well as their ages, there’s a world of difference between the images of the country girl with the toy and the city girl who is leaning on the railings. In the country, children have to create their own world of play and make believe. In the city, they are entertained with an onslaught of sights and sounds and are obliged to make sense of it all, piece by piece. The city accelerates their growing up, socialises them more quickly, and creates a craving for ever more excitement which seems unnecessary in the country.

I don’t write as an expert on childhood development — my comments are simply based on the personal experience of growing up in an isolated part of England then helping to bring up my son in the centre of London. If you’re still not convinced of the difference, you could read Alan Paton’s 1948 novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” which evokes the Reverend Stephen Kumalo’s first experience of the city when he visits from Ndotsheni, his remote South African village in Natal. Although an adult, he becomes childlike with wonder and incomprehension on seeing Johannesburg for the first time.

The Eyes of a Child
I doubt if it’s possible, as an adult, to see the city with the eyes of a child if you’ve already become accustomed to it. But sometimes a photograph of a child looking at the world can make us aware of the power of reality to astonish, mystify and delight — all at the same time.

The lesson is: never become too accustomed to city life, because then you’ll stop seeing it with the clarity you need as a street photographer. Yes, children look great in a square frame, but don’t cut them down to size in your estimation. To them, everything is still extraordinary.

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