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.