Hello. Is it I, Craig Mod, your camera-in-hand bike-under-butt humidity-specialist-in-residence, here to report how gloriously low the humidity is on the east cost of America. I mean, just spectacularly crisp. I’ve been getting up and walking the coast at seven a.m. and it’s like, I dunno, alighting from the wings of an angel into a field of coolness and life? Which is to say, compared to Swamp Season Japan: It’s good.
This is your monthly newsletter, Roden, and it’s September, 2022.
TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO
The TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO pop-up newsletter went (I think) really well. Thank you to the many many of you who subscribed, and the 1,000+ (!!) pieces of thanks and correspondence that were sent in. It was an arduous little adventure (the humidity was decidedly NOT LOW), my August morning Tokyo walking, but in the end it proved to be generative and fun and unlocked a whole bunch of thinking about the city I had hoped to unlock, and can now look into formalizing. And we met some great folks, like Iino-san, the mortician / artist up above.
Also a big thanks to everyone who joined SPECIAL PROJECTS in support of the project, and to the many of you who bought Kissa by Kissa, the third edition of which has now sold out. That wasn’t supposed to happen until the end of the year. We’re looking into doing a forth edition if there’s enough interest (I produce these entirely on my own, so the upfront cost of going into another edition is not insignificant). If you’d like to pick up a forth edition, please sign up here to be notified (just one email, ever) on release. This is a helpful signal for me to do a new edition or not. Thank you!
Oh, also, there is a members-only archive of TTT available. Why members only? As I explained in the last TTT missive:
The biggest “benefit” of the pop-up is the “improv jazz” component. On these pop-ups, I don’t know what I’m going to write. I don’t know if I’m going to find anything worth writing about. Each day is a bit of a high wire act, and as such, I don’t feel totally comfortable with those archives living out in the “open,” as it were. I consider these emails as drafts, at best, and were I to “publish” them, would want to spend weeks or months filling them out properly. BUT — It’s precisely this raw material that becomes grist for future books. (And I’m now certainly thinking about a future book based off of TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO.)
So, if you missed it and want to read it, it’s in the SP members’ “Goodie Bucket.” (And, remember, as always: Students get free membership; just reply to this email and say hello.)
I started working on a little essay about how much I adore my electric bikes — how that adoration is irrational, and — despite putting thousands of kilometers on them — doesn’t seem to be abating in the slightest.
And as these things go, I thought, Oh, I’ll pitch it to a few publications and they were all like, No thanks, Craig, this doesn’t work for us. So I though, oh, OK, I’ll just publish it (here) in Roden, and then it grew and grew and demanded its own page on my site. So here it is, Electric Bike, Stupid Love of My Life.
I talk about my general lifelong love of bikes:
And on and on — bikes. Why? Because as any bike lover will tell you, to be ensorcelled by the bike is to crave one and only one thing: More bike. Each new bike is like riding once again for the first time. Exploring a city on a mamachari is different than a BD-1 is different than a Moulton. All thrilling. The bikes change, and so, too does your relationship to the pavement, the surrounding world. My love for bikes has no categorical allegiances; if it has two wheels, and pedals, I’m interested. I want to ride them all.
And how electric bikes feel so freggin’ additive in ways our iPhones and other “draining” / “life-sucking” contemporary tech doesn’t:
In the past eighteen months I’ve put several thousand kilometers on my electric bikes. It feels like cheating in every best possible way. I live in a seaside town south of Tokyo and traffic can get ridiculous, its ancient roads sized for horses, not cars. The electric bike swoops between and alongside these stale processions of heat and burning fuel. Drifting behind a gas-powered scooter or moped feels like observing some Victorian contraption — inefficient and loud and clunky and burdensome and pollutant. And not much faster (often much slower) or more useful than an electric bike.
I go on to talk about the two electric bikes I own (a Vanmoof X3 and BESV PSA-1) — and despite how flawed they are (and they are flawed), how I can’t stop myself from riding them.
I’ve long since posited world peace could be achieved if you bought everyone in the world a bike, but now I want those bikes to be electric. I want everyone to feel this silliness, this punch-drunk stupidity of pure love, this sense of cheating the rules, the norms, this sense of ever-present delight. At our worst, humans mindlessly consume, sear the earth and each other, fill our bodies with poisons. At our best we invent electric bikes.
Anyway, I’ve been meaning to write something up about these bikes for ages. I suppose there’s a version of this essay where I dig more into the mechanics of the motors, the power output, battery efficiency — all that technical stuff that has ramped up in recent years. (And has made the greatness of contemporary electric bikes so palpable.) But there are plenty of places to read about that. I was more concerned with the phenomenological joy of the tiny motors that hum their songs and whisk you around in near silence, truly, like magic. Good, ol’ fashioned 2022 magic.
Go, read, and please share you own electric bike experiences in a reply here.
Do you ride one regularly? Which one? Does it drive you insane? (Be specific!) Why do you love it so?
Leica M11 — A Quick Seven-Day Fieldtest
Despite declaring I had no interest in one a few months ago (“nice but no thanks”), I ended up — yeah yeah yeah — purchasing an M11 body in July. I was lucky enough to get a sizable discount, plus the M10 resale value being so high (shockingly high actually; I suppose this is worth noting: Leicas hold value, even digital ones), plus the Japanese Yen being 24-year-low kinda weak (and me paying in USA USA Bucks) … “how could I say no?” (Can you feel the blue collar hemming and hawing? I will never be able to buy something this expensive and not feel insane / cursed.) Anywhoo, I shot all of TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO with the M11 and it was pretty fabulous. Here is a very brief collection of thoughts. (I might write these up more “properly” and give them a page someday, but for now, bullet points in Roden.)
The resolution and dynamic range bump are amazing to witness in Lightroom — I mean, these files feel “medium format” in quality, at least compared to M10 raw files. This is a great sensor. Now, is this a big deal? Maybe. It certainly opens up cropping options, and also large-format printing options. But for the most part, this isn’t that much of an advantage over the M10. And on the dynamic range front, I’ve never had issues recovering highlight or shadow detail on the M10. (And I’ve abused that sensor mightily.)
The physical weight reduction is nicer than expected — with a 1980s Summicron on the front, this is an ever-more miraculous package, light and capable of capturing oodles of information. Feels less suited as a weapon, though, which is unfortunate. (An M10 + Summilux could take out a bear in the woods in a pinch.)
The USB-C port is honestly maybe the best thing about the M11 (is that horrible to say?) — not having to travel with a charger, and being able to both pull photos off and charge with the same cable is fabulous in an annoyingly stupid, simple, shouldn’t-we-have-gotten-this-years-ago kinda way.
The internal storage is a nice bonus, too. I’m using it! Capturing to internal storage and SD simultaneously, as an in-body backup. Redundancy is good.
The image stabilization when focusing in Live View is really great. Another simple but useful quality of life improvement. (But, also feels like this is something they could add to the M10 through a software update? This is just a little math applied to the image, nothing on the hardware side.)
I never ever ever had issues with battery life on the M10, so the supposedly longer batter of the M11 doesn’t feel all that special, but … I’m glad it’s there? (Ironically, now that this thing can run off USB-C, any battery issues feel nullified.)
I unapologetically do not miss the bottom plate. (I no longer have to remove / put back on my Peak Capture clip to charge / get photos off the thing — THIS IS A BIG DEAL.)
Updating firmware via the Fotos app is great!
Stuff I’d like to see improved:
Startup time is still pretty slow. (As slow as an M10? Slower?) In fact, I’d say startup time is the biggest negative (outside of cost, of course) of the camera. Out of habit, I turn the camera off between shots and don’t like having to feather the shutter release to get it to wake up. I want my tools to be clearly in one state or another — on or off, not in some netherland of maybe asleep, maybe awake. (“Have I not touched it long enough for it to fall asleep?”) Wake from sleep might be slightly quicker than “cold boot,” but the nebulousness of it makes it feel less reliable. Startup time, IMO, should be instantaneous, and achieving it should be a rallying call for Leica engineers working on Ms.
I’m less annoyed by the “always open” shutter than I thought I’d be. That said, I wish there was an option to simply go back to “M10” mode. I don’t use the new “fancy” metering modes (highlight-weighted, multi-field) — again, I like my tools to be predictable and precise, to know what they’re doing, and therefore I meter like a boring, dying, old person, “manually”-ish (usually using center-weighted or spot) based on the tones and light falling on the world in front of me. (With so much dynamic range on this sensor, achieving “perfect” metering is almost irrelevant since so much can be corrected in post anyway?) These more complex, computer-driven, directly-on-the-sensor metering modes make more sense on an “action” oriented camera like the SL. I also rarely use Live View, so having that mode more rapidly accessible (because of the always-open shutter) isn’t much of a bonus to me, either. I recognize I may be an outlier. But I also feel like there should be a way to “revert” to M10-style closed shutter shooting. Perhaps this could be added in firmware? (Although, I suspect not since the shutter-curtain meter is probably gone.)
One good thing about the always open shutter is that when the camera turns on — because turning on takes several seconds — the sound of the shutter ker-thunking open lets me know the camera is ready.
I am glad we now have a hybrid shutter option (no more carrying around ND filters!), and I’m happy to see the electronic shutter on the M, but I wish it had some kind of subtle haptic feedback — it’s so totally silent, with so little indication that a photo has been taken (just a blink of the frame lines), that I often take multiple shots just to make sure it took one. A haptic “buzz” (like the iphone’s taptic engine) would be wonderful. One potential “solution:” Take the photo with the electronic shutter but trigger the mechanical shutter immediately afterwards, simply for feedback and “shooting UX continuity.” (This could easily be added in a software update / turned on or off depending on the need for totally silent shooting.)
The big issue is that when you’re shooting in sunlight, and the camera flip-flops between 1/4000s and higher shutter speeds and back, the experience goes from satisfying kerthunks to nothing, making it feel like the camera has turned off, or hasn’t yet woken up. (In some ways, this dovetails with the “doesn’t turn on fast enough” issue.) Activating the shutter release with the camera off and in electronic shutter mode are experientially indistinguishable from one another. It feels like this increases the potential to miss shots and should be addressed. (Of course, I can just turn off the electronic shutter and go back to using NDs.)
I wish you could completely disable the touch functionality of the back screen. I never want to touch it (smudgy, gross, why are we touching this thing?).
I believe the rear screen is now polarized in a way it previously wasn’t? When I’m wearing sunglasses, this has the decidedly un-useful effect of making the image on the screen completely disappear when held in portrait mode. Since so much of my work is outdoors, in daylight, and so much of it involves, you know, using the camera in “the wild,” I’m often wearing sunglasses. I have to pull my sunglasses up to check or take portrait shots in Live View. I never had this problem with the M10. And my Leica Q2 OLED EVF works in both orientations. At this price-point, it would be swell to get an OLED screen on the back of the M11, eliminating this issue and better showcasing the images themselves. (Also, I believe Apple figured out an LED polarization scheme (diagonal?) that works with glasses ages ago?)
The Leica Fotos app could use some usability / under-the-hood engineering polish. It feels brittle and underloved in a way an M doesn’t.
This is by far the most “complex” M ever, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.
I’d love to see Leica focus on fundamentals, not features, going forward — with startup time being the most critical.
This sensor may be the last sensor an M ever “needs” — it’s so good, with such great colors and dynamic range, and so much information, I really, truly do not need more than this for still photography
Some of the new features feel half-baked — like the electronic shutter without any haptic or audible feedback. And the rear screen now being incompatible with polarized lenses.
I love the colors, tones, and range I’m getting out of this tiny package.
All told, this M10 → M11 upgrade is costing me ~$2,000 out of pocket. Is it worth it for that? Definitely. Easily worth it for the file redundancy, weight savings, USB-C charging / image dumping, new warranty, and sensor quality bumps alone. When I’m on the road, on a big walk, and am doing daily photo dumps, built-in backups and dongle simplicity reduce stress considerably.
I’m critical above because I love that this company and these cameras exist. Despite the increased complexity, Leica Ms are still the simplest, smallest, most optically performant full-frame cameras on the market. That’s a crazy trio: Simplest, smallest, most optically performant. Of course that’s not going to be cheap. And to boot, they’re assembled by well-paid humans in Germany. Also rare. I am happy to pay to support that.
Can I recommend an M11 if you’re not trading in / selling / upgrading? If you’re just coming to the M system from scratch? Probably … not? I’d consider looking at a used M10 or a used M10-R (which will also be very expensive). In the end though, the tool is far less important than simply getting out into the world and doing the work. Use whatever you have on hand. I mainly pulled the trigger on this upgrade mainly because of this aberrational 24-year low on the Japanese Yen. (It’s basically an FX trade.) And I had simply beaten my M10 to death over the last five years; having a camera with a new warranty feels valuable, especially considering how I use mine, and how critical my cameras are to my work. (Random note: I buy all equipment using an AmEx Platinum card (referral link), which extends warranties one year; I’ve used this program to replace the shutter on my M10, saving me some $1200+ in the past. It works surprisingly well and is easy to claim.)
Well, that went longer than expected!
I wrote the intro a few days ago. Today it’s rainy today and chilly. Perfection. On the east coast for a couple more weeks — home visiting the parents for the first time in 3.5 years (Hi, mom!), another wedding (the year of weddings), and a gauntlet of NYC morning-to-night meetings. Then back to Japan. I’m leading a few walks around the Kii Peninsula in October. Almost all of October will be spent on trails researching and photographing.
Anyway, let me know about your electric bike experiences. I might collate responses and share next month.