Zenfolio | Karl Shreeves | When All You Have Is a Hammer, You Treat Everything Like a Nail

When All You Have Is a Hammer, You Treat Everything Like a Nail

October 17, 2015  •  Leave a Comment


"When all you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a nail." You don't have to be an auto technician to know that it's easier to fix an engine if you've got more tools than just a steel mallet. This is why good mechanics always want a large tool assortment. They don't expect to use them all on one repair, but  until they get under the hood, they don't know which they'll use. After figuring out the problem, they fix it with the right tools.


This is as  true in photography as in the garage, though for some reason, it's not as obvious to laypeople. Or even a lot of photographers.


Sometimes people remark about all the gear I bring on many of my shoots. Like the auto mechanic, I don't expect to use everything, but I want to have the right tools. Most relate to lighting because lighting makes-or-breaks the shot, yet varies more than anything else. I always plan about what I think I'll need, but sometimes clients ask for images that weren't planned ahead. Sometimes there's a cool moment I don't want to pass up. Sometimes – often – the light isn't what I expected, or it changes. Or, more commonly, all of these happen. But, no problem, because I have what I need to get the desired shots.


Often, like when I travel, I can't take my whole "toolbox." But, with good planning, what I can take covers me 99% of the time. When the remaining 1% hits, I don't waste time fussing that my Lastolite 8-in-1, or whatever, that I left in California would be perfect. I focus on what I have, apply some creativity and solve the problem without resorting to the nail treatment. As noted photographer Joe McNally said, "The most important piece of equipment in your bag is your attitude." (But, even Joe packs the lighting tools – he even helps invent them.)


This is why it amazes me when some photographers practically boast about how little equipment they have, the most common claim being that "I'm a 'natural light' photographer." Really? Would you get your car fixed by someone who says, "I'm a 10mm wrench mechanic."?  Or, "I'm a hammer mechanic."? Let's be fair – some types of photography like nature, landscape and sports – appropriately don't use much lighting equipment. But, in my experience, many of the shooters who claim to be "natural light photographers" actually don't know how to light and use lighting tools. As a result, sometimes they use "natural light" when it's not what the shot calls for.  All they have is a hammer, so ironically, they don't nail it but do screw it up (aren't metaphors fun?).


To be clear, I'm not dissing natural light. It's not always appropriate to have a ton of gear on a shoot, and even when I do, sometimes the only tools I need are the camera and the lens, and the lighting stuff stays boxed. And also to be clear, it's not about using gear. It's about getting the shot you want.


Look at the shot above. Depending upon the situation, I could have set it up using natural light, strobes, reflectors or a mix for the main light. Ditto for the fill and hair. Falloff to the left could come from open space or negative fill. Considering I have all of these tools at my disposal, which, you may ask, did I use?


It doesn't matter. I got the shot I wanted.






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