The quest for tactility

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No, the header image isn’t meant to be some abstract representation of touch; it can’t be, since physiological visual and tactile pathways aren’t the same. However, it is a demonstration of why we prefer object or image A over B when they are both conceptually similar (for example: one person over another; one car over another; one meal over another), and I suspect also why some things trigger certain responses in certain people – and moreover, why we are driven to seek out certain qualities of things over others. Today’s post is the distillation of some self-examination over the last year or so – I think I understand my own personal motivations better; hopefully you might take away something, too.

The first question we need to ask is of course “what is tactility?” Personally, I like to think of it as the physical sensation of presence: be it weight, texture, flexibility, form or something else. Paired with feedback from other (usually visual or thermal) sensations, it allows us to make a guess as to what an object might be made of. In turn, this guess (and the actual material) elicits certain expectations and biases in our minds about the rest of the object; we feel satisfied when they are positive associations and our expectations are confirmed. Negative feelings come about when we feel deceived and an object is not what we think it is but instead something simpler or ‘lower’ in value (e.g. looks like metal, but is actually plastic); but confusingly, we can also be pleasantly surprised at unexpected differences (e.g. metal that is much heavier than it appears, or carbon fibre which is the opposite). Though it sounds like a minefield, I suspect all of us have a rather comprehensive set of expectations already built in; we are drawn to seek things that fit our preferences and biases.

We can probably also consider tactility to be a sense (perhaps an extension of touch incorporating mass, temperature, pliancy etc) in the same way situational awareness unifies vision, hearing and other senses (e.g. wind on your skin). Some objects are pleasing, others are not. Most of us tend to like things that are neat and solid; but we also like organic fractal layouts. The former has a sort of post-human surrealism to it, being the complete opposite of natural. The latter trigger something deep within our lizard brain from the times when we didn’t live in apartments and communicate via the internet. Both reward us in different ways: the former, with a sort of reassurance in solidity and the physical feedback of handling; the latter, with the pleasure of discovering individual elements or details on further viewing, but that are yet still coherent with the whole.

You’ll notice I slipped into talking about the non-physical there for a moment: I’m firmly in the camp that there’s such a thing as visual texture and thus visual tactility, too; clearly I’m not alone as we frequently see the adjectives ‘smooth’ or ‘harsh’ being applied to image tonality just as say, coffee, or sandpaper. What’s really being described is a gradient, or the rate of change: if something is smooth, then the rate of change of [color, surface displacement, luminosity] is gradual relative to the size of the object; the absolute amount of change doesn’t matter so much. If something is rough or harsh, then the rate of change is abrupt – a small spatial displacement might result in a large change in the other variable. (Taste is a little bit different; I suspect this is flavour against time, rather than physical displacement. A ‘sharp’ sweet or cheese has a high absolute magnitude and rapid initial intensity from the first bite; it doesn’t mean the outside is sour changing to extremely salty two millimetres in).

I’m sure similar analogs can be drawn in sound, reproduction of sound and the like; except here we have tone, frequency, amplitude and spatial placement, plus extraneous unintended noise to boot. It’s probably why some people watch ASMR videos, or we prefer objects that have a certain sound during operation; think of camera shutters. Once again, we have the same gamut of descriptors: ‘silent’, ‘smooth’, ‘heavy’, ‘fast’, ‘crisp’, ‘hollow’, ‘rough’, etc. – which are descriptors of both sound and physical feedback. (You can have a shutter that’s silent but has a lot of recoil, which would probably feel nice but be terrible for stability; you can also have a shutter that’s silent but hollow and tinny sounding and would make you feel a little embarrassed every time it fires. Why?)

This quest for tactility is probably the underlying driver behind a lot of our irrational purchasing decisions. Yes, car A will do a better job than car B as it has more seats, cargo capacity and higher fuel economy, and car B is louder, harsher in ride quality, has some strange foibles and isn’t ‘get in and drive’; but we prefer car B because it rewards us emotionally with feedback in other ways: the feel of the gearchange; the feedback of the steering allowing us to read the road; the noise of the engine. If we were free to choose, I doubt many would pick an economy minivan over a Porsche even though it would almost certainly be the better choice for the intended function. Similarly, your phone or a cheap $5 digital watch is almost certainly a more accurate and functional timekeeper than some of the most expensive mechanical options, yet I know which I’d pick every time (and go so far as to create my own, since I couldn’t find what I wanted).

Here’s where it gets sticky: what is the intended function? I suspect the lines are blurrier than we admit or are even aware of ourselves. Yes, the car is transportation from point A to point B; yes, it has to fulfil certain minimum criteria. But it’s also an object of pleasure in use, an object of status, and something nice to look at that elicits other feelings associated with acknowledging ownership. Similarly, given a certain minimum skill level, something extremely basic like a Nikon D3500 and kit lens (I recently bought a set at about $350, which is an absolute steal considering the image quality and other capabilities) is actually enough in almost all situations. Yet we would still prefer to use the Z7 or D850 or Leica or Hasselblad – even if the scene/subject and output medium doesn’t really justify the extended capabilities. Why?

Because the camera is an object beyond pure function. What’s missing most of the time is the operator’s acknowledgement of this; photography for most is a hobbyist pursuit that in turn means not necessary. It has to deliver positive return beyond the simple function of recording a scene; whether this comes in the form of viewing the resultant images, the compositional process or collecting hardware – we are really seeking an emotional return that goes beyond the purely functional. If photography were utilitarian (e.g. literally just recording for documentation) such as transport, and with zero emotional return – we would want to find the cheapest, simplest, most reliable tool possible. The disconnect between understanding one’s own needs/intentions and picking the right tool is what gives internet forums so much heartache; those with limited imagination can’t imagine why one might need X lens or X format or why one might change to something else later and say it’s equally useful. Situations change, intent changes, output changes: therefore tools must change. Don’t get me wrong: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making choices based on your preferences; this is the only really right way to do things. But it’s the hypocrisy and self-denial that gets me; it’s fine if you just like to buy cameras and play with them. Your intent is therefore camera collecting. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s deployment and results that bestows the right to call yourself a photographer, not mere ownership.

In fact, I’d argue one would be much happier in being very aware and honest about their preferences and making selections accordingly; it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks so long as it works for you: both functionally and preferentially/ tactile-y. No point in spilling all of those electrons online since cameras are not a religion and choice is free. Composition does not fundamentally change with format or hardware (beyond aspect ratio) and the impact of a strong subject will always remain regardless.

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That brings us neatly back to photography, and a chance to explain my two rather strange image choices for this article: they are the same subject, with different light (albeit self-generated). They have markedly different emotional associations (calm, tranquil vs intense, dynamic) caused purely by shift in dominant color and global contrast – in other words, a change in visual texture. One is clearly ‘richer’ than the other – there’s more to look at and thus more sensor input. Changing this visual texture definitely creates different impact and implications for the viewer; what works best must also be subject-related and intent-related. But importantly, preference between one presentation and the other is highly subjective: there’s no wrong or right, just whichever one happens to catch your attention more. This is a choice made first by the photographer to translate their idea, and then later by the viewer in whether the idea and its translation has the necessary impact. All of us respond to what we like, but knowing it, admitting it and embracing it are very different things. MT


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  1. You chose monochromatic images for texture. Do we all feel more texture in Black and White and monochromatic photos? I know luminance and color are perceived separately by our visual systems but I wonder how universal this is…

    • Not always. Sometimes high frequency color changes can result in stronger contrast – especially when you have colours that are on the opposite sides of the color wheel…

  2. One of the few people I would call a Photographer-Philosopher. 😊

    • Thanks – I try, but shouldn’t really be the only one in this box seeing as any photographer worth their salt is trying to say something with an image – which I’m pretty sure makes them a philosopher of sorts too, no?

  3. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I am always fascinated to read your views, Ming – you are an extraordinary deep thinker, and extraordinarily well informed, as well.

  4. MT, I have been really enjoying your story series. Thank you.

  5. Unfortunately, we can’t move this to the level one can with a custom tailored suit; where the fabric is chosen for its feel and appearance, the design and fit tailored precisely to ones taste. With cameras, cars etc. we start with a basic boilerplate design and have limited ability for customization so it’s important to choose the right “chassis” at the outset. If only we could then choose which OS went on the device then we could minimize both haptic and cognitive dissonance with our camera gear. It will be interesting to see how the new Sigma platform evolves with regard to haptic accessories. It has the potential to be a modular, very customizable platform which I hope succeeds in the marketplace. Thanks for this thought provoking piece.

    • There is theoretically a possibility to make all runs of personalised accessories with modern 3D printing techniques etc., but the effort required to do so is still quite high as the measurements and 3D work form the majority of the cost in this case. I’m not sure how many people are willing to invest in this kind of thing – though I suspect the number will increase as the life cycle of cameras gets longer again…

      • That’s where the Sigma platform might excel. Especially if they keep the “box” the same size. Once you create a custom shell, you could be set for life. I haven’t handled one yet or seen any bolt-on accessories for it yet but will be interested to see how it evolves.

        • Agreed – the only problem is the box has no stabilisation or finder, and by time you add those things in lens or add-on, it becomes big again – and not as streamlined as something integrated from the beginning. Despite the bulk of the pro DSLR bodies, there is a reason why they still sell…for a working pro who’s holding one of those things 10+ hours a day, even the small things matter. And they’re extremely comfortable in that regard.

  6. Wachholder says:

    Hello Ming, would “emotional ergonomics” qualify as a synonym for “tactility”? best Pierre

    • Not really, because physical tactility has a very specific requirement – emotional tactility is probably more about ow you feel about the gear while using it…

  7. Can’t agree more. Thanks for the words on this. You made things I’ve been feeling for several years much clearer to me.

  8. Interesting entry – I have never thought about tactility before.

    Thanks for sharing.

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