For some reason I kept calling him Sun Yet Sun

Uptime report

After not going on vacation or any breaks all year in 2019 (poor me, I know), I’m now coming off about three weeks of leave that began around Christmas. We spent some time in Taiwan, my first visit, and then I’ve been mostly chilling out on the couch absorbing a good measure of reading material, films both good and terrible, and games from the infinite backlog. I often dream of living out this life for an extended period — half a year at the very least, going past the point of crushing boredom and beyond, hoping to transcend such ideas and just tip over into blissfully inert hikkikomorish life — but now I think it’s unlikely to ever happen.

The closest I ever came was a period of freelancing over a decade ago, when I’d sometimes feel quite content with my modest bank account and calculate how it could be stretched for months if I just cut down on everything and went into a sort of social and nutritional hibernation. It was pre-Netflix, but I was living that life anyway, drowning in film and anime day and night. I think I did a much better job of being an employment refusenik then; I would probably freak out today if I was staring at a life of baked beans across the balance sheet. Deliveroo makes you soft.

So although I’ve not yet had enough of the leisurely, solitary life this time around, I think the inactivity has been getting to me. I’ve not done nothing, but this capitalist world has some part of me convinced otherwise because it’s creeping up in the unusual form of mini anxiety attacks: a sort of waking nightmare state in which I’m certain I’ve forgotten how to do things I took for granted when the momentum of routine life was behind them, “simple” things like leaving the house, speaking to other people, and remembering how to do my job.

I suppose I have a low-grade case of cabin fever. Or maybe just real fever. In the last couple of days I’ve found myself breaking out into a sweat apropos of nothing. Let’s see if I make it to the weekend.

Taiwan

I was told by several people to expect a Chinese version of Tokyo, which I disagree with although I can understand where they were coming from. Taipei’s restaurants, cocktail bars, convenience stores, etc. do take cues from their Japanese cousins, and there’s a non-coincidental reverence for the Japanese way there if I’m not mistaken. But it’s ultimately its own thing, and if Taiwan had a Merlion-like symbol, only more tangible and actually useful, it would be their night markets, frequented by both tourists and locals from what I saw. They’re not really for me — every 10 meters, I’d be hit by the smell of stinky tofu and it just ruined my appetite — but hey I get the appeal of the whole thing.

What did work for me was the hot pots. I’ve always been of the opinion that shabu-shabu is the one true hot pot, and couldn’t see the appeal of Hai Di Lao and its ilk in Singapore… but now after having been to Wulao in Taipei, I think I’m ready to accept that a Chinese incarnation of hot pot can be amazing.

I also took a bunch of photos with my neglected Fujifilm X100T, easily more than four years old now. It’s still a champ, and the lovely JPEG film simulations meant I could decide to spend very little time on edits and just let them do the work. Apart from the very slow autofocus, there’s a case to be made that no one really needs the new X100V iteration rumored to be launched next month. So I tell myself. The nice thing about being a naturally nervous freak having newer cameras and then bringing an older one out is how casual and carefree it lets me be. Bumps and scrapes don’t have to be big deals.

I only reached for the iPhone 11 Pro when it was dead dark (an f2 lens and APS-C sensor are still no match for Night Mode), raining (iPhones are better weather-sealed than almost any camera), or there wasn’t time to fumble the Fuji out of my bag (pocket beats shoulder strap). When you put it that way, the iPhone seems insanely hard to beat, but the Proper Camera was still noticeably better in many ways. In hard sunlight, my phones have always struggled with overexposure, with blown highlights and grittiness in the details even when you manually stop down. This year’s crop aren’t much of an improvement there, even with Smart HDR. So… here are some photos, most of them from the Fuji.

Leica D-Lux 7 “Review”

Where does this fit for a compact buyer in 2019?

On paper, the camera I wanted was the Leica CL. For maximum versatility on the go, I imagined the first lens I would get would be the Vario-Elmar-TL 18–56mm (equivalent to 28–85mm in 35mm terms). There are several omissions on that camera, stabilization being a big one, but it was an intriguing and attractive product.

I’d always been curious about Leica cameras from afar, but never really considered buying one. Functionally speaking, I know that Fujifilm and Sony and the rest all make cameras so good that I could never use them to their fullest potential. And then here’s a company that makes idiosyncratic, deliberately limited gear easily costing three, four, five times as much. I suppose they are like Apple, but even more removed from the mainstream.

Crane in a storm drain, Leica D-Lux 7, 75mm equivalent

But the Leica curiosity is one that grows with age and disposable income. Every time it crossed my mind, I would wonder if it was time yet. Still, buying a fully manual chrome M felt like a 40th or 50th birthday move. The idea was to dip a toe into Leica’s shimmering pool, but not to fully jump in on the first try.

So, most irrationally, and that is the keyword I see in many sentences written by many people on the subject of Leica cameras, I decided I wanted to get one before I even knew if they made a model that I needed.

Basheer’s bookstore, Leica D-Lux 7, 35mm, Monochrome HC+

I looked into my compact camera drawer, pared down in recent years, and started describing what I needed. Essentially I wanted a good Swiss Army knife travel camera, a position filled by the LX10 I bought on sale early last year. It was good but lacking in a few areas. What I really wanted to get back then was the LX100, which I passed on because it was four years old by that point (I should have known an update would be out by the end of the year).

My wishlist:

  • Small and reasonably light. One-handable if necessary.
  • Physical, dedicated control dials for aperture, shutter speed, ISO, whatever possible.
  • The ability to zoom or change primes, if/when needed.
  • Physically attractive design. The LX10 performed well, but boy, it inspires no feelings at all.
  • An optical or electronic viewfinder.
  • Large enough sensor, probably APS-C or 35mm FF.
ArtScience Museum stroll, Leica D-Lux 7, 53mm

I think these are very sensible things to want in a travel camera, but it’s extremely hard to find them all in a fixed compact body. The recommended solution seems to be a small interchangeable lens mirrorless camera, like Fujifilm’s X-E3 or X-Pro 2, or Panasonic’s GX9. As far as compacts go, I could only think of the new Panasonic LX100 II. I knew that Leica had a rebranded version of it in their D-Lux 7, but somehow it didn’t even enter my mind for this particular shopping mission. If I was going to dip a toe in, it was going to in be the real pool and not the kiddy pool!

Prudential Marina Bay Carnival, Leica D-Lux 7, 24mm

Walking into the Leica store, I made a beeline for the CL display, believing it to be the best fit for the above. It was sleek, well-built, and less than half the price of an M10, with access to a wide selection of M and L-mount lenses. The sound and feel of its shutter release was very satisfying, but after using it for a few minutes, I didn’t love the way it controlled. You don’t dial in the aperture on a lens ring, but on an unmarked soft dial on the top plate that displays your settings on a tiny LCD. Also, with that Vario lens, it’s kinda heavy, with a bulkiness that approaches the Leica Q. I considered the Q, but didn’t want a fixed 28mm.

I did the math on owning a CL and an eventual three-lens setup. It came up to like half a year’s rent. On the other hand, buying an M10 and a couple of Summilux and Noctilux lenses will bring you into territory normally reserved for car purchases (and mind you that’s in Singapore where we have some of the most expensive car ownership taxes in the world).

Dead tree chronicles, Leica D-Lux 7, 70mm, Monochrome HC+

If you do a little internet research, you’ll find a lot of reasons why the first-generation isn’t close to being a finished or fully evolved product. The soft controls aren’t as traditional as they seem in practice, switching up functions between modes; the touchscreen UI and gestures drive some photographers crazy; and it doesn’t have any in-body stabilization. On those same sites, you’ll find people talking about what the Q’s successor might bring: a new 40+ megapixel sensor (like the one in Sony’s RX1Rmk2) which would allow the same 28mm lens to do in-camera crops equivalent to 70mm. Hmm, that would be something.*

Unwavering lotus, Leica D-Lux 7, 75mm, 1/8s exposure

My conclusion was this: Putting aside craftsmanship and engineering, and focusing purely on photographic needs, Leica’s non-M lineup today simply doesn’t have the right product to push me into the pool. Others with more money to spend or greater passion for the brand might have little problem doing it, but not me, not now. If I was going to enter an ecosystem on a journey that would end with me spending the price of a car on a fistful of glass and magnesium alloy, I would have to be sure.

Now, Fujifilm does a great job with their ergonomics. Aperture rings on the lens, shutter speed and ISO on top, with “A” automatic notches on each one. You just dial in the combination of those that suits your needs, and it’s so much more natural than a PASM mode dial. They just don’t make a fixed compact with a zoom lens anymore. Panasonic is the only other company I know that values the same control scheme, so I looked all the way back to the beginning… to that LX100 II, a thoroughly modern Japanese (okay, supposedly with a little help from Wetzlar) camera with stabilization and super-quick autofocus.

Yes, its menus are overcomplicated, and it tries to do too many things that no one will ever ask for, like multi-exposure photos and horrendous tilt-shift filters and that effect where one color is isolated and the rest of the photo is in black & white. Seriously. But as a camera, it ticks all the boxes in my original wishlist above. All but one. It’s kinda ugly. Where its cousin the LX10 was plain and kinda like a white label design, the LX100 has the same leather-like texture and unsightly handgrip bumps of a retro-leaning Olympus or Fujifilm product. After looking at nothing but Leica bodies for a couple of weeks, it was hurting my eyes.

Which is how I ended up with the D-Lux 7. It’s the less ugly, Leica-blessed version of the Panasonic Lumix LX100 II. I wish Leica had the time to write real custom firmware for it, instead of just reskinning Panasonic’s menus to be in white and red instead of white and yellow. I’d love to see them simplify it down to be just a simple stills camera, taking away the multiple color modes and filters, leaving just two options: color and B&W. In other words, more like other Leicas.

+ and –” kinetic sand art by Mona Hatoum, Leica D-Lux 7, 35mm

*Addendum: I wrote the above a few months ago and never hit Publish. Since then, two things have happened: Leica released the rumored Q2 months earlier than I would have expected. I pity everyone who bought their then-new Q-P over Christmas 2018; this Q2 is a ruthlessly quick follow-up that is refined in every way, except perhaps the files are a little too big.

Secondly, I came into ownership of a Leica CL after all, completely out of the blue. I’ll write a follow-up at some point, but my first impressions above still hold. It’s expensive, it’s not light, and the soft wheels take some getting used to. But I got used to dialing in the aperture on them after all, and the photos are exquisite. The D-Lux 7 actually complements it quite well, for when you need something a little more compact but don’t want to give up too much quality.

Thoughts on form, Leica D-Lux 7, 75mm
“Haumea” by Tawatchai Puntusawasdi, Leica D-Lux 7, 24mm
Naptime at the museum, Leica D-Lux 7, 75mm
Three birds, Leica D-Lux 7, 75mm (cropped)
Christmas decorations, Leica D-Lux 7, 50mm

Notes and photos from Tokyo, 2018

It’s a rare treat for me to be able to visit Japan two years in a row, but that happened last month after we realized my airline miles bank could handle it. Our time was largely planned around meals, exhibitions, and not a great deal else. Looking back, I should have spent a little more time making a good to-do list. As soon as we arrived home, I started hearing and reading about all sorts of other things we could have done. Maybe next year.

It became a bit of a tradition for me to make these konbini snack haul videos every night at the hotel, showing a camera all the native junk food and drinks I bought to eat while lazing around. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any this time around. Why? Leading up to the trip, I started eating less and being healthier so that I could pig out on holiday. Ironically, that had two effects: a smaller appetite, and a habit of reading nutritional info labels.

Once there, I was looking at the calorie counts on everything, and having more than a 400kcal sandwich and 150kcal milk coffee for breakfast seemed irresponsible. In the past, I was probably eating 1000kcals just at breakfast alone. Those colorful, convenient packages are more energy-dense than they look… like how a microwavable spaghetti ready meal from 7-Eleven will easily run you over 900kcals.

This trip will be remembered for having spent (too?) much of it in queues. Nearly straight off the plane, we stood three hours in line at Nakiryu waiting for their Michelin-starred take on Szechuan dan dan noodles. It was amazing but three hours is a little much. I’d do it again at twice the price and half the wait.

Another epic wait was at the fairly new “Borderless” exhibition by teamLab in Odaiba, where the line stretched as far as one could see, before extending around the corner for another equal length. You approach it from the head of the line, and then walk down the entire way to find the end, and it’s painfully demoralizing. We honestly considered skipping it and going home, but it moved quickly and only took an hour. Once in line, you will be kept entertained by the disbelieving faces of newbs going through the same rite of passage.

As an experience, I have to recommend it. teamLab pull off some amazing stuff both in terms of technical achievement and sheer conceptual audacity. I don’t know how many members they have, but I’ll bet they’re all overworked. This permanent exhibition is presented in conjunction with Epson, and when you look at the number of high resolution projectors employed to carve these interactive fantasy worlds out of the dark, it makes sense.

Continue reading “Notes and photos from Tokyo, 2018”

Tasmania, April 2018

I visited Tasmania for the first time, walked around outside, and took some photos.

I knew nothing about Tasmania before setting off; not even that it’s a whole separate island from mainland Australia. My schedule leading up to the trip was too busy for me to even think about it, let alone look it up on a map. Because everything had been planned by my in-laws, I just had to show up. All I knew was that I’d probably get a few good landscape photos out of it, and be horrified by the lack of fast internet access.

On the first point, it turned out to be quite a beautiful place indeed, if not very convenient to get around. You’re in for hours of driving between small towns if you want to visit the main attractions, and some of the windy roads literally border on death traps—you can slip down the side of a mountain with a swerve.

Continue reading “Tasmania, April 2018”