viewing a street scene through a detached lens at maximum aperture

“To the man who only has a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” While no one is really sure who first made this observation — whether Twain, Maslow, Kaplan, Baruch, Buddha or an unknown philosopher — we can see this truism play out every day in many ways. People apply whatever tool they possess as a means of solving any and every problem that may arise. Regardless of its origin, the principle that underlies this statement has become known as Maslow’s Hammer, or the Law of Instrument. The implication is that people are inclined to prefer to use known tools over unknown tools. Even if a job could be done better with a tool that the person does not possess, he or she typically opts to do the job poorly with the wrong tool — or to not do the job at all. This calls to light the biases that hamper our effectiveness in problem-solving. These limit one’s ability to do a broad range of jobs and causes people to be self-defeating when it comes to expanding their expertise.

Imagine a mechanic at an automotive repair shop who literally had only one wrench in his toolbox. It might be an adjustable crescent wrench that would allow him to tighten or loosen nuts and bolts within a small range of sizes. But this fellow could not get very much real work done with his one little tool. Any serious mechanic would find this one-wrench mechanic laughable. Why? Because cars are complex and doing serious repair work requires a wide variety of specialized tools. Mechanics need wrenches in various sizes and lengths, open-end and box-end, ratchets and sockets, extensions and adapters, in standard and metric sizes. Sometimes they need air-powered impact wrenches to break old rusty bolts loose. 

Until recently, videographers had little reason to learn about the nuances of lens choice; we had no choices available.

For years, videographers have produced video using fixed-lens camcorders, making us very much like that one-wrench mechanic. The limited zoom range of permanently attached lenses caused videographers to function in the realm of the Law of Instrument, shooting only the limited variety of shots that their camcorder’s meager lens was capable of capturing. Until recently, videographers had little reason to learn about the nuances of lens choice; we had no choices available.

In the same way that serious mechanics employ a wide range of wrenches, serious shooters work with a wide array of interchangeable lenses that allow a far greater degree of artistic control. Today’s DSLR, mirrorless and cinema cameras are more common than ever in video work, even to those working on a budget. Shooters actually have the option to choose their lenses independent of their cameras and to select different lenses for different shot compositions and focal settings. Whether shooting with an ultra-wide-angle lens to create a fisheye shot, or a long telephoto lens to compress the visual distance between two far-apart objects, videographers now need to learn more about lens options so they can make informed decisions that allow them to create better videos. 

As creative makers of media, we need more flexibility than an attached lens can offer. It’s time to hang up our proverbial hammers and instead expand the contents of our optical toolboxes. We must increase our knowledge of lenses, optics and focal distances, so we can begin looking at the world through a wider array of lenses. After all, the lenses you look through make a world of difference.


  1. How very true in all respects. Maybe that has led to the phemomenon of those who collect lenses from the comparatively recent past, such as my kits of mid-1980s ‘Tamrons’ and Canon FDs. This has had an added advantage in my view, of helping to keep alive the traditional skills, such as manually maintaining sharp focus, which, looking back over 60 years involvement with photography, I still regard as essential.
    Sure, there is a ‘learning-curve’ and some aspect of each new lens added to your kit, will require some re-appraisal of where that lens fits in the overall scheme of things. In fact, each lens added, in my case, calls for rigorous field testing and familiarisation, but each such session adds to my knowledge of that particular lens, its suitability in different situations and its limitations. Recently that has extended to tracking birds in-flight, with a measure of success I would not have dared dream about some years ago. As for the advantages of such an approach, they include thorough familiarity with the gear I use; near guaranteed results each time I go out, and cost savings, without which many others besides myself, retired, on superannuation and with time on my hands, would simply not be able to function in the way(s) we do.


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