The Kusama Yayoi pumpkin on Naoshima (image: author)

The 25mm problem

Phone photography and tourism

Nick Irving


When you’re travelling, cameras en masse are often annoying as hell to be around. Phone cameras prompt a particular kind of obliviousness in their users. I’ve seen people just walk around with their phone stuck out in front of them, filming everything they can see, dead eyes fixed on the screen and relying on others to step out of their way because their peripheral awareness is impaired by tunnel vision. I’ve seen thousands of people photograph every exhibit in an art gallery in preference to looking at the artworks, winding up with sub-standard versions of images they could have googled on the very same phone while taking a dump. I’ve seen people try to take photos of fireworks on their phone camera with a flash. At night they are a massive distraction, polluting the view for everyone behind them.

To a certain extent, photography of any kind turns the photographer into a self-absorbed idiot. James Popsys pointed out in one of his charming chats to camera that it can be hard to be around photographers because they just drift off mid-sentence and go into a sort of compositional trance. Photographers, especially those with expensive gear, take up a lot of room just by pointing their cameras at something. I am constantly shocked by how simply raising my mirrorless to my eye will make people crab walk or duck out of shot. Sometimes a long lens is more effective than a red light for stopping a stream of people in their tracks. I’m not immune to the poor social behaviours exhibited by camerapeople, not by a long shot.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto. As striking as this image is, it was unintentional. The phone cameraperson thrust their phone into my focus point just as I was depressing the shutter, and I went with it (image: author)

But the problem I want to talk about is a specific one, and it’s one borne of a technical limitation: the average phone camera’s wide-angle 25mm lens. Ken Rockwell explains it really well: ultrawide works best when you are right up in your subject’s face. The phone camera is optimised for selfies, which is arm’s length — if you can’t touch your subject without moving, you won’t get a great photo of it.

Good phone photographers know or intuit this, and get great photos as a result. But the problem is that a lot of fairly average phone photographers do too, so every single landmark or famous tourist object is now absolutely swamped with wide-angle photographers, forced by their equipment to get in close to the subject.

Most photography, and especially tourist photography, takes place in public places, where everyone deserves the same access to the shot as everyone else. But when everyone is crowding in to get that perfect wide-angle shot, there is so much less space for people to occupy. The result is massive crowds crammed close in around the subject, and long queues to see even the most elementary subject or view. I call this the 25mm problem.

This is compounded by another related issue, which is a desire to get the brochure-style money shot. The photo everyone wants is devoid of other people, because that’s what’s in the promotional shot – an impossibility when it’s surrounded by a swarm of phone photographers being dragged in close by the needs of their lenses.

As a side note, we should question the value of this kind of photography — does it matter if you can’t get your brochure photo without people in it? Probably not, especially given is is likely available online — and well should we ask why the ideal photo of anything is one devoid of humans.

To illustrate the 25mm problem, let me show you a sequence of shots I took of the instagram-famous pumpkin on Naoshima. I’m not putting image credits on any of the following because they’re all mine.

First, the iPhone close-up, taken at 25mm from about two meters away:

Second, the brochure money shot, taken with a 70–200 from about 15m:

Third, a minute earlier, part of the near-permanent queue of people cycling through to get a version of my first iPhone shot:

Eventually the crowd got too dense and I gave up, choosing instead on the advice of my friend David Byrne to make the crowd itself my subject, which is how I got the cover shot of the woman seemingly giving a lecture on the pumpkin to a crowd.

I waited on the shore for 10 minutes to get an oblique shot of the pumpkin on the jetty, but there was never a moment where the crowd was picturesque enough to make the photo worthwhile. One woman – with an iPhone – was yelling at people to get off the jetty out of some sort of misguided entitlement to the view. She shouted “I’m waiting!” over and over, as if that meant people should vacate the jetty for her. I don’t think she ever got it – I certainly gave up, with this being my best effort:

So this is the 25mm problem – the ubiquity of phone cameras leads tourists to cluster around popular spots in a way that exacerbates congestion and makes certain kinds of shot, often the most desired, impossible to take.

But what should we all do – as a collective of amateur photographers relying on public goods for our subjects – to manage the 25mm problem?

I have some simple rules, which I break all the time but nevertheless try to keep in mind:

  • Ask yourself – Do I really need to take this photo? Try not to take a photo if Google image search turns up a better version of the same photo.
  • David Byrne’s version of this first one is to take the “classic shot” and move on quickly, just so you’re not thinking about it. Either version works, really, because it prompts you to be mindful of yourself in relation to the subject.
  • Be particularly careful of what taking a photo in that cramped 25mm space does to other people around you, and what you might be doing to other people’s photos. I’ve seen people duck, pause while walking, skitter out of the way even when not in shot. I’ve also had plenty of photos ruined by other people setting up directly in front of me. Standing on a hill yelling “I’m waiting” is not an appropriate level of entitlement to public space, but asking someone if you’re in their shot or telling someone they aren’t in your shot is a nice way to share the space.
  • If you’re using a phone or wide angle lens, move out of the 25mm real estate quickly. I’ve frequently turned around after only a minute or so composing and snapping away to find a queue has sprung up behind me. Taking hundreds of photos because you haven’t planned your composition is really rude. Checking each shot before stepping away is worse. Because everyone wants the same shot, nobody should spend too long occupying the limited 25mm real estate.
If you stay too close to the subject, you might become the subject.

Lastly, something I try to remind myself of every time I have my camera out: sometimes, leave your phone in your pocket or your camera hanging on its strap. Stop taking photos. Just enjoy the view.



Nick Irving

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.