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

Unboxing: Moment Case for iPhone 6S Plus

Today I received my new Moment Case (Dark Walnut Kickstarter edition) for iPhone 6 Plus after a long wait following the Kickstarter campaign. They hit a snag with manufacturing, and the release of the slightly thicker 6S series of phones necessitated holding back to make sure the original designs fit.

It works as advertised and is very easy to hold; slips into my jeans pocket comfortably enough too. Here’s a quick unboxing and look at the startup photo taking workflow. Note that you must use the Moment Camera app if you want to use the shutter button. It does NOT function as a regular Bluetooth remote shutter like the kind you use with a selfie stick.

Eating Healthy at Grain Traders, Singapore

A little over a year ago, I was eating a KFC rice bucket (it’s popcorn chicken and a cream sauce over greasy Singaporean chicken rice for $4) when some friends on holiday sent photos of themselves by the pool looking trim and fit. Major mirror shame. That same day I started on a diet and ultimately lost about 10 kilos over the following months.

Not knowing anything, I did the most logical thing and went with calorie counting. Over a few weeks and several conversations, I worked out that it was far better to eat protein-rich salads, embrace fats, cut down on carbs, and eliminate unnecessary sugars. Only lately did I learn that eating like this continuously is the most important thing; if you’re only doing it every other day and not letting your body get into a rhythm of ignoring carbs and burning fat, it’s useless.

So lately I’ve been trying to get back into eating healthily because I’ve spent the last 4 months of this year being careless and having too many nasi lemak breakfasts near work. There’s a lot of salad in the CBD area, but it’s awfully generic, especially if you’re looking at the ones in hawker centers. Gotta break it up once in awhile. Which is why I’m really glad to have found Grain Traders at the new Capital Green building diagonally across from Lau Pa Sat.

  

I’m not sure how they describe their concept, but since I’m a copywriter I’m gonna go with “fancy ass salads made with freaking tasty shit”.

I dropped in in the morning for a cup of coffee and a takeaway bowl of roast pork brown rice porridge ($8) which was more pork than porridge. I tried to spoon some rice up for a photo but couldn’t get enough of it because of all the baby corn and avocado and egg in the way. That’s a really good problem to have. The boiled egg, by the way, was perfect: soft and runny in the center.

In our corner of the CBD, breakfast ranges from $2 for some plain fried beehoon to $15 for an expat-friendly wrap. As I ate the porridge, I couldn’t help but imagine how much some of the places around would charge for something like that. Not $8. Maybe $12? A bowl of tomato soup goes for $10 at one place!

   
 

People say I can get a bit obsessive, but if those jerks are too undisciplined to eat the same thing for 6 months straight, I don’t care what they think. So naturally I went back again a few hours later to check out the $16 bowls. You can get them on white sushi rice, brown rice, quinoa, salad leaves, soba, or bulgur wheat.

    

I’m impressed by the amount of care that seems to go into the individual components, like this “crunchy medley of greens” they put in some of the recipes; it’s conceptually one whole unit, but some vegetables in it just pop, like they were cooked and flavored in a separate process, and it elevates the whole thing with complexity. And that’s just one of the 6 or 7 things that was in my “Rooster’s Crow” quinoa bowl today, alongside chicken, roasted peppers, nuts, a mixed bean Pico de Gallo, basil dressing, and… leek?

Every ingredient has its own thing going on, which should justify the cost easily when compared to one of the popular salad chains nearby, which ungenerously spoons in pre-processed chopped olives and cold cherry tomatoes for nearly the same price. I read one comment on Facebook that said $16 was prohibitive and they’d maybe eat there once a month! Sadly, if you’re trying to eat low-carb, there’s no way around spending more since all the cheap stuff is rice and noodles with half a handful of deep-fried protein thrown in.

Anyway, I’ll be going back tomorrow to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, but damn I liked what I saw.

    

Update: Oatmeal with banana, apple, and cinnamon for breakfast the next day. Pretty good along with this bottled white cold brew.

   

 

Pebble Time Steel: First Impressions

As a user of the first-generation Pebble since last December, I eagerly ordered the new Time Steel model when it hit Kickstarter earlier this year. And then the Apple Watch went on sale in Singapore earlier than I’d expected it to, and that’s a whole other story about my irrational spending.

Fast forward to the present, and my new Pebble has arrived! But I’m probably selling it!

  
Let’s open this shipping box up.

  
There’s the Pebble Time Steel (which ships on a genuine Italian leather band, this one’s a gunmetal gray body, so the band is a matching gray/black), and a separate box containing the steel link bracelet in gunmetal. As a Kickstarter edition, it comes with both. With the retail model, the steel bracelet will be sold separately for US$50.

  
Previous Pebble watches have had pretty lackluster packaging, so this is quite a step up. Look at that display box; it’s good enough to be sold on the accessory shelves of an Apple Store, except they won’t be.

  
Here’s the back of the box with a list of standout features. Of course, the main improvement to the hardware is a new color e-ink/e-paper display. It’s always on, unlike the Apple Watch’s, so you can glance at it any time over the 10 DAYS that its battery will last, and know the time or your latest notification, without having to raise your wrist or press any buttons. It’s got a microphone now, which is useful for Android users who can dictate responses to messages and emails. It’s slightly less useful for iPhone users. And of course, it’s still waterproof to 30M. I don’t think anything else is.

 

Here it is next to my Apple Watch on the right. The watch case is very slightly smaller than the Apple one, and is also gently curved on the underside to sit neatly on your wrist. In that regard, it’s very nice and possibly more comfortable and natural looking on the wrist.

 

Here it is all set up and charging via a magnetic cable attached to the back. Nothing as sexy as Apple’s inductive charger; this one only uses magnets to draw two magnetic points to their respective spots. It works.

As you can see, the e-paper display shows colors even when not lit, although they’re not as vibrant as you’d see on a printed page. The sun icon has a mild yellow to it, and blue shows up very well. In direct sunlight, it looks crisp and strong, and is easy to read. Indoors, it can be a little muddy and dark, perhaps a touch dimmer looking than even the original Pebble. A backlight comes on when you press a button or flick your wrist. This also looks dimmer than I remember the original Pebble being, but perhaps I’ve just been spoilt by the Apple Watch’s super bright and colorful OLED display (which wantonly consumes more power in a day than the Pebble Time Steel does in 2 weeks).

  

Here’s what it looks like on the wrist (thanks to my dumb use of a wide-angle lens, the watch looks larger here than it is). I wear a 42mm Apple Watch and it looks smaller than this, and as shown above, the Pebble is even smaller than Apple’s. So if you normally wear a 38mm Apple Watch, this is probably what the Pebble Time Steel will look like on you.

  
Here’s a more accurate shot, this time with an imitation Casio watchface complete with Timex Indiglo color scheme. That statement alone tells you who the Pebble is aimed at; you have so much opportunity to customise the face of this. Many of the color faces I saw let you specify the color of every element and make your own themes. It strikes me as the sort of thing some people jailbreak iPhones or choose Android smartphones to be able to do. I’ve decided I’m not that person these days, so I’m probably going to sell it. But the build quality is solid and the leather strap is really quite soft and lovely. It’s a real improvement from Pebble, and if they can get the cost down, it might work out.

Oh, the new software works as advertised, but without using it for a few days, it’s hard to say how useful seeing your apps and events laid out on a timeline is. On paper it sounds like a great idea and it was one of the main reasons I ordered this at the time. Apple’s watchOS 2 is also going to have something along the same lines with its Time Travel feature, so I guess it doesn’t matter what platform you eventually choose — we will all soon be consuming time-sensitive content on our timepieces using contextual timeline interfaces.*

*Did it strike anyone else as odd that after Pebble showed their hand with Timeline on Kickstarter, Jonny Ive or someone on his team dropped a casual interview comment that they had tried a similar concept in an earlier prototype of the Apple Watch, but it didn’t work out? And then a few months later we see Time Travel as one of the key new features of the next watchOS?