Shooting Martha’s Vineyard with the Leica R5 and Kodak Ultramax

Shooting Martha’s Vineyard with the Leica R5 and Kodak Ultramax

2400 1350 James Tocchio

In five years of shooting film cameras, I’d never shot the Leica R5. When one rolled through the shop an hour before I was set to board a boat to Martha’s Vineyard, it seemed like fate. I stuffed a couple of rolls of film into my pockets and stuck my head through the camera’s neck strap. First impression? What a brick. If this boat sinks I’m a goner. 

I knew the camera’s history and the reputation that dogs it on the internet. Debuting in 1986, it iterated on 1980’s Leica R4, which itself was a joint design and manufacturing effort from Leitz (Leica is a mashup of the words Leitz and Camera, fun fact) and the Japanese camera makers at Minolta. This lineage should be cause for optimism. Leitz is Leitz, and Minolta was one of the best camera makers in the world, often inventing and introducing technological advancements years (and sometimes decades) before other brands. If you listen to the winds blow across certain plains of the modern day internet, however, you’ll hear a different story.

For many years, people have been saying that the cameras designed and built during the period in which Leitz and Minolta were working jointly are inferior products. They’re electronic (and that’s a bad thing). They’re reliant on batteries (also bad). The solder that was used is not German. The flexible circuit boards are too flexible or, according to other sources, not flexible enough. I even once read that Leitz rejected 70% of all Minolta M Rokkor lenses during post-manufacture inspection.

I talked about why I think these kinds of myths are nonsense in a recent article, so I won’t repeat myself here. Briefly, and for what it’s worth, I think the Myth of the Superior Mechanical Camera was born as a reaction to economic forces rather than real-world factors. If you want my advice, don’t be afraid of batteries and don’t buy any camera (electronic or mechanical) that looks like it’s been roughly handled.

An hour’s drive later, my wife and I and our two small daughters boarded the ferry that would carry us to an island paradise of over-priced stuffed animals and even pricier fudge. In between constant retrievals of irritatingly tossed binkies and never-ending requests for snacks, I examined the camera in my hands.

The Leica R5 is an advanced enthusiast machine, even by 2018’s standards. It’s an electronic 35mm film SLR camera with all four modern shooting modes (PASM), two metering modes (spot and center-weighted), through-the-lens flash control, a versatile shutter capable of speeds from fifteen seconds to as fast as 1/2000th of a second (plus bulb mode and 1/100th of a second mechanical backup), exposure compensation in 1/3rd-stop increments, depth-of-field preview lever, viewfinder blind, self-timer, and a tripod socket.

It also feels incredibly well made; beautifully proportioned and finished to a high standard. It’s small, surprisingly so, for those of us who are familiar with earlier Leica SLRs, which trended to the large and utilitarian. The R5 is refreshingly elegant. That red dot doesn’t hurt, either.

It all combines into a camera that’s easily comparable to the highest reaches of cameras that anyone was making in the 1980s and ’90s. And it further differentiates itself (as do many of the best camera systems) through its suite of lenses. The R5 is equipped with Leica’s R lens mount, enabling use of any of Leitz’ exceptional R glass.

I love Leitz R lenses. They’re not necessarily “better” than those from Canon, Nikon’s Nikkors, or the Zuikos of the world, but they are wonderfully built, unique in their rendering, and worth every penny. They’re also less expensive than Leica’s more renowned M mount lenses, yet often no less capable in performance.

As I contemplated the machine in my hands and wondered if my wife would wrangle our escaping one-year-old daughter before she tottered off the boat’s swaying deck, things were looking good for the day’s photographic tool. I’d only known the R5 for three hours, but it had already begun to impress. I pulled my gaze away from the camera, squinted off to the horizon, ignored the wailing klaxon and shouts of “baby overboard!” and remembered all the nasty things I’d read about the R-series cameras.

It’s inevitable, really. Anytime the Leica R3, R4, R5, R6, or R7 get mentioned on Instagram, Facebook, or anywhere else that encourages everyone to comment, some smart person will clear their throat and inform the teeming masses that we shouldn’t be liking these cameras, that these Leicas are nothing more than dolled-up Minolta cameras (with a strong subtext that being a Minolta is a bad thing).

First, Minolta cameras are excellent. Second, holding the R5 in my hands I was sure of one thing – people who proffer this tired opinion may have used one of the mentioned cameras, but they’ve surely not used both. I’ve shot plenty of Minolta XD11s (a great camera by any measure), but after five minutes with the Leica R5 it’s clear that there’s no real comparison.

To start, Leica’s R5 is a far sturdier camera. Where parts of the Minolta’s top and bottom plates can ring hollow, the Leica feels dense and solid, and each of the R5’s controls actuate with greater mechanical certitude. The shutter speed dial, ISO dial, and exposure compensation selector are all better-implemented and inspire greater confidence than those found on Minolta’s camera. The body’s leatherette covering is resilient and as well-fitted today as it was on the day it was installed, something I’ve never found on a Minolta XD, cameras that nearly always require leatherette replacement when they come through the shop. The R5 also sports an ergonomically helpful grip on the film door, and one of the most beautiful meter and mirror assemblies I’ve ever seen.

And the improvements don’t stop at these tactile and ergonomic flourishes. When it comes to the act of making photos, the Leica R5 is again a more highly-specced machine. Over what’s offered on the XD, the R5 adds Program mode, plus two Leitz-developed metering modes (selective spot-metering with exposure lock, and center-weighted metering).

Of course, none of this really matters. The comparison shouldn’t even be made. The Minolta XD was the basis not for the R5, but for the Leica R4 of 1980, and even when comparing these contemporary machines there’s more than enough to differentiate them from one another (this isn’t as true when we discuss the earlier Minolta XE and its R3 equivalent). By the time of the R5’s debut, Minolta had shifted their attentions to an entirely new camera system, lens mount, and design ethos. Leitz was essentially iterating and improving their camera on their own (now, if only they’d given it a nicer film advance lever and depth-of-field preview lever).

The ferry sounded its fog horn and ripped me from my rambling and useless ruminations. For once during one of these trips, there was reason for it to do so. A heavy fog had settled around us, and visibility was poor. The ocean, frothy and green in our wake, faded quickly to an inky blue, beyond which all was grey. Our progress was slow, we were shadowed by the local municipality’s police boat, and as I watched the bow of the trailing craft surge over our wake I wondered if the fog would sabotage my day’s photos.

Halfway across Vineyard Sound, the sun burned through and the fog was left behind to smother the mainland and its unfortunate landlubbers. Ahead, the sandy shores of our island destination gleamed bright in the summer sun. Things were looking good, and the day didn’t disappoint.

Rides on the Flying Horses, treats from Back Door Donuts enjoyed in Ocean Park, lunch at the Black Dog Tavern, collecting shells by the ocean, and chatty bus drivers happy to talk about the island as it was in the 1980s were all set to the tune of the R5’s Copal-designed focal plane shutter. Even the incessant bickering of two over-tired kids did little to dampen my enthusiasm. The camera in my hands helped.

SLRs feel natural to me, and controlling depth-of-field and letting the camera do the heavy lifting of rough calculation of shutter speed allows me to focus on important things like composition, subject isolation, and (though you might assume otherwise) fine light control. In my preferred shooting mode, aperture-priority, the camera performed beautifully in both average and spot-metering modes.

I frame and focus and study the light, and I end up using exposure compensation to fine-tune nearly every shot. Backlit subjects get a boost, white hot sand can fool a meter, and sometimes I compensate to create motion blur. For any camera to have a chance at being my ideal camera it must have a fluid and easy way to adjust exposure compensation, and few cameras do (the best control of exposure comp. I’ve ever used was found on Minolta’s XK, but only when using the AE prism). Offending cameras have exposure compensation dial locks, or we have to hold a switch while spinning a wheel. Or we need a third hand. Leica’s R5 is one of the rare cameras that implements a perfect system for exposure comp. Simply flick a spring-loaded, metal switch and compensate your exposure via a perfectly positioned dial with an attached finger tab.

In manual mode the Leica R5 treats the shooter to an in-VF light-meter display (something not all classic cameras offered). We set aperture and shutter speed to whatever settings we want, all while an illuminated LED display inside the viewfinder informs of the recommended shutter speed based on available light and the currently set aperture. Simple, effective.

In Program mode, just point and shoot. The camera works its magic, and in my testing (admittedly limited to just fifteen-or-so exposures shot in Program mode) all images were without exposure flaws.

Shutter-priority mode works as expected. I never use this mode, but I did take one shot using it and it did what I wanted (slow speed to show motion).

The viewfinder is massive and informative, with deep relief that should help users who wear glasses. The mentioned LED display occupies the space on the right side of the frame, and shows in an ascending scale the range of shutter speeds, illuminating the meter-suggested shutter speed. On the bottom of the frame are optical windows that display both the selected shutter speed and the selected aperture (though in Program and shutter-priority modes the aperture will always display as the minimum aperture, as lenses must be set to this setting for the body to control the aperture correctly). LEDs on the bottom left of the frame show the selected shooting mode and exposure compensation display. All of this surrounds a split-prism focusing patch surrounded by a micro-prism band, and focusing screens are swappable by the user.

I left my 50mm Summicron R home and instead opted to shoot a cheap Tamron 28mm Adapt-All lens. It did an exceptional job, surprising the snob in me. Though Leica’s R lenses really are amazing and worthy of praise, this setup is proof that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to shoot a Leica camera.

Buying the Leica R5 isn’t necessarily a no-brainer. The decision to do so or not relies heavily upon the answers to more precise questions.

Do you want a single lens reflex Leica camera? Are you happy to own an electronic camera that requires batteries? Do you want semi-automated and fully-automated shooting modes? You like small cameras (the Leica R5 is remarkably pretty damn close to the Olympus OM1 in compactness)? Do you use flash? If the answers to these questions are thoughtful head nods, get a Leica R5. It’s a fantastic Leica for people like you.

For people who want an all-mechanical camera not reliant on batteries, or for those who don’t care about auto- or semi-auto shooting, or for those for whom price is no object, there are better choices in the Leica SLR game.

The R6 is an all-mechanical camera that’s very similar to the R5 in all other ways, though we lose access to any automatic modes and the maximum shutter speed is limited to 1/1000th of a second (a later R6.2 improves this to match the R5’s 1/2000th top speed). The R7 is a very slightly improved R5 at a slightly higher cost. The R8 is a higher spec machine at an even higher cost. Earlier Leicaflexes certainly have more charm.

If my weekend with the Leica R5 demonstrated anything, it’s that every camera should be sampled and judged on its own merits. Even fitted with a cheap lens and loaded with cheap Kodak Ultramax, it made really great photos with a total absence of difficulty. Those photos and the ease of making them tells me everything I need to know. The R5 is a fantastic camera, not in spite of its lineage, but because of it.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
24 comments
  • The R5 just goes. It’s my go to camera with a 50 Summicron if I need a camera when there’s less thinking involved. It is also almost as small in the hand as my Olympus OM1’s – now that’s my biggest plus. The size. It’s compact, just point, focus and shoot. Great! One only little thing to remember and get used to; the shutter lag, there is a tiny bit of shutter lag. No problem! Just be more firm and wait a fraction of a second longer after a shot. Easy.

  • Fast becoming my favorite photo blog. Love the analog focus and writing style.

  • Great article with great photos. Thanks.

  • Thanks for never failing to call BS on our community when BS is being perpetrated. And you do it so respectfully. I love it.

  • Nice!
    What’s the shutter delay like? The R7 I used drove me nuts – I’d push the shutter button and it seemed like there was a really long delay (relatively speaking) between that and the shutter firing. The R8 and R9 are totally fine, as are pretty much any Japanese SLR that I have used.

  • The Tamron 28mm Adaptall 2 lens is a first class performer. I picked up a Leica R4 for £25 that was being offered for spares as the electronics had given up the ghost. It has a mechanical speed of 100 and this also trips the flash too with a hotshoes and PC connection. I teamed it up with a 28mm f2.5 AD2 lens and Leica R adapter that I had used previously with a Leicaflex SL. I use the R4 for street photography as it has such a low cost, but I’ve had no problems so far. I use Ilford FP4 rated at 100 iso and simply estimate exposure with emphasis on slight overexposure .

  • Thank you very much for this well written review of the Leica R5. I already own a beautiful Leicaflex SL and Tamron 28, 24-48, 80-210 lenses and the fabulous Summicron 50/2. The R5 could be a meaningful complement for situtations, where I need an small body or more automatic functions. I guess I need another Tamron Adapter for the R5 as the SL has a different one.

    • Dr Ricardo Davidson August 31, 2018 at 11:06 am

      Nice review, and great pictures. I use an R5 also, and I use a couple of Tamron Adaptall-2 lenses occasionally, the 90/2.5 and the 28 mm. Both give great results, the trouble is the cost of the Leica R adaptall mount (I own 2), and even worse the cost of the SL/SL2 mount (I only have the one). My R5 has let me down twice with an electrical fault, but the local Leica repair agent told me how to fix it so it’s not really an issue. My only serious complaints on the R5 are that the averaging meter is not really centre-weighed, and that the program mode cannot be run with the spot meter.
      When I’m feeling more muscular I take out an SL2, now that’s a camera that puts hairs on your chest!

  • Michael J Ricciuti September 9, 2018 at 6:34 pm

    Great story. I just ordered a new, old stock, R5, still in its shrink wrap. I can’t wait to try it out.

  • Dr Davidson makes an interesting remark about the Leicaflexes. I have a pair of SL bodies and have now acquired 8 lenses for them. The second body is really a spare as they are so heavy I can only take one body and two lenses out at a time. The 250mm f4 Telyt (1st version – fixed tripod mount) is brilliant for cricket matches, I can capture the ball mid-flight! That’s if some curmudgeonly fielder does not carefully position himself in the way to spoil my shot.

  • Dr Ricardo Davidson September 12, 2018 at 4:52 pm

    David Murray is also benefiting from the extraordinarily well balanced (and instant!) mirror release on the SL or SL2, as well as the weight of the camera. I used to do target shooting in my youth and a proper target rifle starts at 5Kg or therabouts, anything less is prone to twitch. It may just be coincidence, but I get sporadic camera shake with the R5, seldom with the R3 and almost never with the SL/SL2. You pay your money and you take your choice.

  • Definitely looking for one now, but I noticed someone mentioning shutter lag? Is this a thing with the R5? That will drive me crazy!!!! What was your experience after shooting it for this review? Great job BTW I really enjoy your thoughts

    • There is distinct shutter lag, just like with the Minolta XD. It’s intentional, actually. The camera takes a split second meter reading just before the shutter releases. It takes some getting used to. After a day, it didn’t bother me anymore.

  • Replying to myself cuz I’m weird like that… I picked up and R-E (stripped down R5) and R7. Both have a really long/deep shutter button action which makes them feel unresponsive. I put a soft release on both, and this transforms the shutter release action. It’s because the release is now much higher in the stroke, so you can load the shutter button precisely to where it releases. And all is well in the world.

    As for those who claim these are somehow rebadged Minoltas – I own a bunch of Minoltas and these feel nothing like them. They are built to higher standard (at least feel that way!) and their feature set and how these features are accessed are unmatched. Crazy thing is one can by an R-E for about $200 +_ right now. It performs just like my R7 but does not have Program or Shutter priority. Two things that I never use anyway – and aren’t available in such heralded cameras like the Nikon FM3a or F3.

    • Want to +1 your comment about the soft release. I also noticed that the R5 has a deep/long shutter action and simply adding that soft release vastly improves the shooting experience.

  • can someone explain to me how it is possible to mount a tamron lens on leica r? thank you so much.

  • Hey James, first off fantastic review. As an owner of an R5 and 50mm Summicron-R lens, myself, I’ve found few other camera systems that can accomplish what this one can. Funny enough I currently have my model loaded up with Ultramax (my new go-to color film as Portra is too expensive and doesn’t give me significantly better results). I’ve had a few canon SLRs and even own a “proper” Leica M camera, but I much much prefer shooting with the R5; snobs be damned.

    • Thanks Dan. Glad you’re enjoying the camera. Currently shooting an R6.2 here; review coming soon.

  • Really great detailed review – thank you 🙂
    I’m wanting to purchase an R5 but wondering which lens I could get instead of a Leica, which is compatible with the R mould but still great and easier on the wallet?

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio