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”

Should I really have bought a new camera?

You never use the cameras you have as much as you do when there’s a new one ordered and on the way. I’ve just bought a Panasonic LX10 online to take the place of my 6(!) year old Sony RX100mk1—a compact travel camera with a big-enough 1″ sensor and useful 3x-ish zoom range.

Below: a recent shot from my RX100.

Raindrops shot with a Sony RX100

That the LX10 has been on the market for 2 years says something about my changing habits. Buying last year’s model used to be unthinkable, and I’d pay a premium for buying that way. But the industry has changed and now hardware updates come every few years instead of annually, and the average price has gone over the $1000 mark to compensate for the drop in sales. Buying late nets you a nice discount back to pre-smartphone prices.

Anyway, while waiting for that camera to come and prove wrong my fears that I’ve given my money to a scammy HK website, I’ve been using my iPhone X and RX100 a bit around the neighborhood and workplace.

I can’t stress enough how much the Halide camera app + Adobe’s new and improved Lightroom Mobile have changed the way I shoot and edit RAW images on iPhone. (I still love and use Darkroom too, it just doesn’t do RAW as well as Lightroom anymore.)

Shooting koi in a rippling pool with an iPhone requires you to go full manual, and while the thought of fiddling with shutter speeds and ISO and manual focus on a touchscreen used to make me shudder, it’s actually doable with Halide’s well-considered control layout and gestures. I just wish you could lock focus peaking to always-on.

Honestly, I had no idea you could get this kind of sharpness and microcontrast out of an iPhone. I’ll be saving JPEGs and Live Photos for quick grab shots and moving scenes from now on. Given that I’ve taken a few holidays with just my iPhone, this is all making me wonder if I should have bought a new dedicated camera at all.

Okay okay, while shooting in RAW preserves highlights and deals with tricky lighting such as the above shot in the late afternoon, I’ll admit to enhancing that flare with Lens Distortions. It’s all about creating the scene you saw with your eyes, right??

Assuming the camera comes on time, I’ll probably bring it with me to Tasmania when I go in a few weeks. Seems like a landscape kinda place, so I have doubts about bringing my other cameras: a Ricoh GR (28mm) and Fujifilm X100T (35mm). 🤔

31 Days of Black & White

I spent the month of January shooting photos only in black and white. Not just the ones I posted on Instagram, but everything in my camera roll got converted and saved in black and white. When I scroll through my timeline in the future, this block of 60 or so shots is going to stand out.

I got the idea from @espresso on Twitter who shot monochrome photos for the entire year of 2015. That’s dedication. It only came to my attention in December when he started mentioning how much he looked forward to color again in the new year. You can see his Storehouse collection of photos here.

It was absolutely worth it. You can always learn a lot in any creative endeavor by putting restrictions in place; I think because it’s too easy to try to grow in many ways at once, especially when taking photos, you can go from landscapes to close ups to street scenes in a single day, and play with a dozen photo processes and apps at a time. Taking away some options can make you focus long enough in one direction to notice something new. Taking color away immediately makes you think about lines and composition and texture. All the habits you’ve formed around what looks interesting and when to raise your camera are rendered unreliable, and you’re made to look at everything through new criteria that you’re forming through practice.

It reminds you that the absence of color is actually a powerful tool that has gotten too closely associated with making statements or establishing mood. It’s a legitimate way of directing attention, and a different set of skills when doing post-processing. And it frees you up from taking photos of every meal, because it’s quickly apparent that most won’t turn out very appetizing.

If anything, a month might be too little time, especially with the demands of work and other hobbies. Now that it’s over, I intend to keep doing it, maybe at a 1:3 ratio with color photos.

Everyone should try it out some time (with the #bwchallenge hashtag). I highly recommend the Darkroom app, as always, because it gives you a ton of control over how tones are converted and shifted, going beyond the emulation of simple color lens filters.

Also check out my friend Cong’s feed, who did the challenge with me and stuck with it even through a trip to Osaka, which took some guts.

Edit: Forgot to add an observation. A lot of these photos were taken with my iPhone, and I found that turning a photo black and white negates the weaknesses of small smartphone sensors. Noise and muddy colors in dark scenes are no big deal, and the quality of available light (in gradations) seems to increase when you combine the color channels.

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

First Photos From a Fujifilm X100T

I was in the market for a Sony RX1R because I’d heard that the price had come down to as low as $2,400 SGD at third-party retailers, whereas Sony’s own retail stores still sells them for about $3,800. I know that’s a lot of money for a fixed-lens camera, but it was intriguing. I bought a Ricoh GR earlier this year as a birthday present to myself, and have only used it sparingly. The guilt! How could I justify a camera for Christmas too?

This particular fit of consumer madness began when a friend started looking at the new model, confusingly named the Sony RX1RII, or RX1Rm2, and which costs $5,000, for his own needs (isn’t that how it always starts?). He eventually decided to go even further upmarket with a Leica, but that’s a different story.

In the end, I hesitated too long because of the asking price and the unbearable judgment of my already adequate camera shelf, and discovered earlier this week that the older RX1R was no longer available at every third-party camera store I called and visited. My guess is Sony wanted better control of the price, and to remove competition for the new $5,000 model. It’s better, but it’s not $2,600 better.

So after a bit more research and the use of a friend’s Fujifilm X100S for a few days, I got the beautiful X100T you see above. It’s nearly a thousand dollars cheaper than the Sony would have been. It’s not a fair comparison because the sensor is APS-C sized instead of full frame, but its 35mm prime lens barrel is a lot shorter and less conspicuous as a result. Fuji’s color reproduction and JPEG quality is also quite lovely, and I’m happy with the way things look straight out of the camera. I often find the Ricoh GR series’ 28mm field of view too wide for most purposes, and with many other compacts now starting at 24mm (like Sony’s RX100), it feels great to finally shoot with The Standard.

A quick recap of the specs, if you have the time:

  • Fixed 35mm f2 Fujinon lens
  • 16mp CMOS sensor with phase detection autofocus
  • An integrated hybrid viewfinder that switches from optical to electronic with the flick of a switch (only the new RX1R has an EVF)
  • Built-in WiFI for transferring photos to a smartphone via Fuji’s barely functional app
  • Software emulation of Fujifilm’s classic film stocks (perhaps more in name than reality): Provia, Velvia, and Astia
  • A little bigger than the RX1R, although more compact on the whole thanks to a smaller lens
  • An ND filter and electronic shutter mode for really fast captures in bright light

Here are some shots from a photo walk I took yesterday, which happened to coincide with the Hello Kitty Fun Run. I never knew it was such a big deal. Two observations: Having a camera around your neck makes you more liable to be asked to take someone’s photo, and if people notice you pointing one in their direction, they’re more likely to flash you a peace sign.

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