Leica M5 – 35mm Film Camera Review

Leica M5 – 35mm Film Camera Review

2400 1350 James Tocchio

The Leica M5 is the most radical Leica M film camera ever made. Debuting in 1971, it deviated from the earlier M formula by introducing a totally new design aesthetic. It also brought functional and ergonomic changes, and incorporated for the first time in an M series camera a through-the-lens light meter. In its own time, this bordered on heresy, and today, the Leica M5 is still a polarizing machine.

Detractors say it’s too big and heavy compared with earlier M series cameras like the M3, M2, and M4, (though in reality, it only weighs 3.5 ounces more than the M4). They bemoan the anecdotally unreliable swingarm-mounted metering cell, and incompatibility with four of Leitz’ wide-angle lenses and some of their early collapsible lenses. But mostly, they complain that it’s agriculturally ugly.

Fans say that it’s a functionally superior camera to the other M series cameras. They cite the shutter-speed dial and metering system, and the obviously excellent match-needle viewfinder metering display. They tell that the traditional Ms are slippery and hard to hold, where the M5 is an ergonomic delight. But mostly, they swoon that it’s industrially beautiful.

The truth, as in all things, lies somewhere in between.

The Leica M5 is a camera capable of making incredible images with truly world-class optics, and capable of irritating with every shot. Dependent on the shooter using it, it can be either singularly elegant or uniquely cumbersome. It’s quirky and obvious, simpler and more convoluted than other Leica cameras. It’s ugly, and beautiful, and there’s no other M like it.

Brass Tacks – What’s an M5

The Leica M5 is an interchangeable lens 35mm film rangefinder camera. It’s a manual-exposure camera with a mechanical shutter capable of continually variable speeds from 1/1000th of a second to a half-second (plus Bulb mode) with light meter assistance provided by a battery-powered through-the-lens CdS spot-metering cell. It is a manual-focus camera with a built-in rangefinder. There’s a big, bright viewfinder with parallax correction and numerous frame lines. And it’s fitted to receive Leica’s M mount lenses.

The top plate boasts everything we’d expect of a Leica camera, plus some things we don’t. First among these new twists, and most obvious at first glance, is the over-sized shutter speed dial. Similar in many ways to the one found on the Leicaflex (Leica’s under-appreciated SLR), this dial overhangs the front of the camera body and sits perfectly positioned for easy adjustment. Compared to earlier Leicas (and even Leica’s newest film camera, the M-A) the M5’s dial is a big improvement. It even pairs to a selected shutter speed readout in the viewfinder, making the M5 the easiest M camera on which to adjust speeds.

In the center of the top plate we find another unusual feature; an ISO adjuster to set the sensitivity of the camera’s built-in light meter. There’s a hot shoe, a shutter-release button with threaded cable-release for long exposures, a film frame counter under a lovely glass viewport, and an illumination window for the viewfinder meter readout. The film advance lever is a metal and plastic-tipped affair that utilizes a short-stroke advance.

The front of the camera shows the normal rangefinder frame line illumination, rangefinder, and viewfinder windows. There’s a frame line selector or preview lever, a self-timer in five or ten second intervals, a film rewind switch, and the lens release button. The back of the camera features a film type and speed reminder dial that also acts as an EV calculator once it’s been manually set based off of the camera’s light meter reading and coupled settings of shutter speed and aperture.

The bottom of the camera is a detachable base plate, similar to other M cameras, and film is loaded through the bottom of the machine. Here we also find the film rewind crank, a clever item that sits flush and rewinds film in a 1:1 rotation. When the rewind crank handle is pulled out, the mechanism will not rotate in any direction other than to rewind the film, but when the handle has been tucked away it will rotate freely to allow the user to visually check that film has been loaded and is advancing properly.

The viewfinder is similar in many ways to the earlier M4, with similar magnification of .72x and displaying frame lines to represent 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm focal lengths (the 35mm and 135mm frame lines display simultaneously). The rangefinder patch is bright, and the edges are curved (this was done intentionally to represent an imaginary circle to show the spot-meter’s reading area with a 90mm lens attached). There are additional small hashmarks encircling the rangefinder patch, these denote the area of the frame from which the spot-meter is gathering its reading when fitted with a 50mm lens.

On the bottom edge of the viewfinder is the meter display. Arranged in a long, horizontal bar, the display shows a diagonal index line based on the selected ISO as set on the top plate of the camera and influenced by the camera’s selected shutter speed. The available light is indicated by a deflection needle that floats along the same horizontal track. Adjusting the lens aperture moves this needle, and when the needle floats above the index needle, settings are correct for a proper exposure. Alternately, it’s possible to set the desired lens aperture and then adjust the shutter dial until the index needle aligns with the meter needle (in a sense, this allows the Leica M5 to meter in a sort of shutter-priority and aperture-priority modality when desired).

What Went Wrong

The Leica M5 was meant to revolutionize the M series and enable the rangefinder camera to compete more effectively against a surging wave of high-performance single lens reflex cameras. These mass-produced, Japanese SLRs cost far less than any of Leica’s rangefinders, while offering more features and greater usability for both pros and amateurs. These new cameras (and the companies that made them) quickly came to dominate both the professional and amateur photographer markets. This stiff competition, along with the M5’s high manufacturing cost (it was the last built using Leica’s traditional hand-made adjust and fit method in Wetzlar, Germany) and its failure to  appeal to fans of traditional Leica cameras, nearly capsized the company.

Sales of the Leica M5 were stunningly anemic, and after just four years, production was halted. Leica quickly reverted to unofficially selling the earlier M4 while simultaneously implementing plans to build new and cheaper-to-manufacture M4 iterations in Canada.

Later, Leica released the M6, a camera that incorporated many of the progressive technologies first displayed in the M5 into a more traditionally-styled Leica body. This camera went on to enjoy long success.

Practical Use

The nice thing about using a forty-year-old camera today is that most of us don’t really give a damn how it was received back then, or if sales were impressive, or if it works in a professional shooting environment. We’re shooting old cameras to enjoy their mechanisms and to make unique imagery on film. There is no other metric that matters, and by this metric the M5 is a success. It’s an interesting camera that feels great to use, and though it can be annoying at times, the overall shooting experience is a pleasant one that effectively produces great photos.

As its inventors intended, the Leica M5 really does modernize the old M formula in some important ways. The most obvious of which is the inclusion of that light meter.

Anyone familiar with a match-needle system will immediately feel comfortable metering and shooting with an M5. And anyone not familiar with a match-needle system will fairly quickly understand what’s happening when she or he sees the needles react in real time to the physical inputs that make them swing. In shooting situations in which light is tricky, say, a blisteringly hot day by the pool, the metering system effectively allows us to get shots that would likely be otherwise missed with a non-metered M. There are even two indicators on each side of the viewfinder display that show whether to stop-down or open-up the aperture.

Additionally interesting is the way the camera and its meter work for long exposures. There’s a marking on the shutter dial beyond the slow speed settings, showing B (for bulb mode) and a subsequent number. These aren’t actually linked to the shutter’s speed, but rather they’re input parameters for calculating long exposures with the camera’s light meter.

When a low sensitivity film is loaded, we can place the shutter speed dial within this range and the meter will give a reading through the viewfinder. It’s then possible to align the meter needles (as we normally would at more regular speeds), look at the dial, and see for how long we should hold the shutter open in bulb mode. This method of metering does not calculate for reciprocity failure, so that needs to be taken into account, and practically speaking, I’m not sure how useful this particular tool will be for most shooters. But it’s certainly interesting that Leica engineers created a solution to this particular problem using only manual mechanisms and a metering system.

More immediately obvious in its benefit is the general physicality of the oversized shutter dial. As mentioned, it’s similar to the Leicaflex dial and works perfectly for quick and accurate adjustment of shutter speed. The only other Leica Ms that come close to rivaling this dial are the M6 TTL and M7. All other Leica M dials are terrible.

The camera’s viewfinder is large, and focusing is easy. The frame lines are effective and in most cases the viewfinder is uncluttered. For those of us who wear glasses, it can be a challenge to see the 35mm frame lines, but this is a pretty common fault in rangefinders. The M5 mitigates this by allowing for screw-in eyepieces that correct the user’s vision.

Beyond these very specific points of difference, shooting the M5 is very similar to shooting any other M rangefinder. It’s a heavy and solid machine that, with practice, becomes an extension of the user. Manual focus is fast and intuitive, shutter release is smooth and silent (in fact, the M5 is purported to have the quietest shutter of any M), and film advance is precise and mechanical. The camera can be used just as well without batteries (though the meter will naturally not react in this case), and so it effectively offers everything, on a technical level, that any non-metered M offers, plus some bonuses.

Is the Leica M5 the Leica for you?

Because the M5 improves on some aspects of its predecessors’ designs doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for everyone who wants a Leica in 2018. There are earlier Leica cameras that offer less, and later cameras that offer more. For certain individuals, any of these machines may be a better choice.

For photo geeks who don’t care if their Leica has an in-built light meter, the M5 is a hard sell. It’s major selling point is, after all, its light meter. Those who can meter by eye or by using the guide of Sunny-16, or those who don’t mind using an external meter will be happier with a classic M3, M2, M4, M4-2, and the list goes on.

For those who love the earlier aesthetic of the inarguably sleeker and more elegant M series cameras, the M5 irreconcilably falls short. The Leica M5 has a unique look, and if that look offends, well, no amount of modernizing gizmos will change that. And for shooters who do want modernizing gizmos, there are other options within the range. The M6, M6 TTL, and M7 (and cousins like the CL and CLE) offer light meters and even auto-exposure in a variety of traditional and equally radical packages.

It seems, then, that the only buyers to which the M5 is suited are those buyers who love the M5. Which makes sense, in a vague way. Photo geeks who like the unusual styling, the ergonomic improvements, the light meter and viewfinder, and who can ignore the camera’s glimmering (I almost said glaring) faults will fall in love with the M5.

The Leica M5 is not the Leica I’d choose to own if I could only own one. But it is a great camera.

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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
22 comments
  • leicalibrararian August 6, 2018 at 7:25 am

    A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: “Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!”

    The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming.

    She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me!”

    The man says: “You go up there and tell him off. Go on, I’ll hold your M5 for you.” (Monkey in the original Tommy Cooper version)

  • No mention of the weird side strap lugs? I’ve always kinda wanted an M5, mostly because it’s different than the other Ms. Maybe one day…

    • You know, I had a whole paragraph there in the middle of the article talking about the strap lugs, but a final pass had me thinking it really added nothing to the post. But I’m glad you mentioned it here in the comments. The original version of the M5 had two strap lugs on one side, as you hinted at, but later versions were revised to also include a strap lug on the other side so that users could decide which pair of lugs to use.

    • Funny thing , I took my M5 on a hike today. The side straps had me wondering why other cameras don’t have it that way. I am now loving this feature

  • I had an M5, and I really, really wanted to like it. For the most part, there is a lot to like (as detailed in the review here): the build quality was impeccable, the viewfinder was great, and it metered perfectly. However, it wasn’t so much heavy as it was just awkward. There’s the lug issue (I had an early model with the two lugs on one site). The meter takes some getting used to–it turns on when the rewind lever is advanced and shuts off when the shutter is released. Although Leica, in the M5 manual, states that battery drain is minimal when the shutter is cocked, I got into the habit of not advancing to the next frame when storing the camera. It also didn’t accurately meter if you happened to touch the shutter release, or turned the camera to portrait mode (as opposed to landscape orientation). And forget about using any collapsible lenses (Elmar 50, etc.), since collapsing them would clobber the meter arm behind the lens. Still: I did take some of my favorite recent photos with an M5 before selling it for an M2.

  • I’ve had an M5 for about two months now -I’m a sucker for oddballs, counterfactuals, and evolutionary dead ends. So try as I might, the m5 was always going to be a nagging fascinaton and let’s be honest, they’re not certainly not cheap anymore but prices are definitely on the come-up (I know I certainly missed the boat on a Contax t2 before a certain god of thunder made prices jump 500bucks). So I figured now was the time to buy, and to some degree I’ve been let down …but in a good way. In use, I feel it’s just another great Leica camera; surprising in so far, that it’s not particularly surprising. The only thing I see as a true problem is the collapsible lens issue – which makes me wonder, James -how did you go about using it with the collapsible ‘cron? carefully? or does it in fact not go deep enough to hurt the meter (seems like it does collapse the least of the collapsible lenses)? Anyhow great, review

    • Literature from the time says to cement collapsible lenses so that their barrels cannot collapse. That seems pretty extreme. I think a better solution (and less permanent) would be to use gaffer tape on the barrel. To answer your question directly, some people say you can collapse them without worry as long as the shutter isn’t cocked, since the metering arm sits in a recess in the body of the camera until the shutter is tensioned, but I was too scared and never collapsed the lens. That would also be my advice. Never collapse a collapsible lens on a Leica M5. There; liability avoided and I’m not to blame! *wink

  • I always liked it, and thought criticisms were unsupportable.

    • The M5 is really not such a terrible camera. Having said that, it is almost always a mistake for a company to change a product that has achieved iconic status. The “new Coke” was another example of a change that was disaster for the company involved.

  • I never really ‘got’ collapsible lenses. I have two – a modern 90mm Elmar Asph 6 bit, and an original Summicron 50. But I never collapse them because frankly it does not save that much space, but it does really slow you down and cause you to miss a shot while you extend and lock it.

    As for the M5 – M Fivabulous more like! The one key key thing is this is the only M camera that actually handles well with big lenses. I love using mine with a Voigtander Nokton 50 1.1 or 35 1.2. These lenses (as well as stuff like the Noctilux) completely unbalance the little Ms, but handle perfectly on the 5. Plus they look great on it too!

    Want to fully appreciate an M5? Slap on a Nokton 50 1.1, grab some Tmax or Delta 3200 film and shoot your city wide open at night.

  • Per Kristoffersson August 8, 2018 at 4:06 am

    “totally new design aesthetic”

    *looks at camera*

    They are the Porsche 911 of the camera world, aren’t they?

  • I popped into a dealers shop in Cambridge (UK) around ten years ago lo look at a chrome M5 he had in the window. Being the owner of a pair of M3 (DS&SS) I simply did not like it. A good anti-dote to GAS?
    He wanted £695 for it. I passed on that and later bought a pair of MDa bodies (actually M4) and a 3.5cm f3.5 Summaron lens and SBLOO 35mm viewfinder for less than the M5. Together with the Billingham Combination bag M for Leica (only available from Leica dealers) this is my travel outfit. The 35mm has long been my favourite focal length. In use, when the film runs out, I simply swap lens and finder with the body cap of the second body in the bottom of the bag. Reloading when I pop into a cafe or pub. I’ve found a super little meter to use with this gear, it’s a Gossen Sixtomat Digital. It runs on a single AA battery, readily available in most countries but it’s no bother to carry a pair of spares. The bag also carries four spare rolls and with both bodies loaded that’s 6 rolls. The front pocket carries a Filofax and pens etc for notes.

  • As an available light theatre photographer back in the late 70’s I was always looking for a lens/camera combination that would provide excellence in optics, meter sensitivity, and discretion in operation. Spotmeters in combination with rangefinders were preferred over SLR’s as the sound of a mirror slapping during exposure was too much an imposition on audience AND performers. The M5 was the solution! So much so that I often used a pair to facilitate perspective changes swiftly (alas, no zoom lenses, but thats another story). Handling the 5 over the 2,3, or 4 was demonstrably superior. Meter sensitivity and selectivity as well as that oversized shutter speed wheel were decisive advantages. Its 2018 and these cameras have been relegated to the shelves of posterity, but still provoke discussion as can be seen on these pages.

  • Love my M5. Bought it boxed with papers and a recent full overhaul from Sherry Krauter at Golden Touch. I’ll never sell it! I’ve walked into independent enthusiast camera stores here in London – one specializing in Leica – and spent 20 minutes looking at an M6. I was reassured by the proprietor that the M5 is the pinnacle of the obsessive Wetzlar manufactured M’s

  • The ‘Leica M’ is such a nice and cute camera. Every (film-)model.

    Except of the M5!

  • I use to own an M5 and loved it for many reasons except for 2 big issues, mercury cells were discontinued (replacement air or silver oxide batteries that were far less than satisfactory) and the meter’s spectral sensitivity shifted towards the red end of the spectrum as the CdS sensor aged causing blue lit subjects to overexpose and red lit subjects underexposed by about 1 stop when shooting with narrow latiltitude slide film. I confirmed this on more than one M5 body. M6 and later meters were immune from either issue. However, build quality and rangefinder adjustability in the field were also better on the M5 and previous Ms compared to post M5 bodies. Glad I’m in digital now.

  • I’ve been an M5 owner for the last five years, gradually moving from a beater to a slightly nicer beater and finally to my current M5, a chrome 3 lug in pristine condition (boxed) that I bought directly from Sherry Krauter. She described the camera as “Fully Serviced” and “Pretty”, and she was right on.

    I also shoot with digital Ms, but if I had to pick one favorite camera of all time, it would be the Leica M5.

  • liked my M5 – very good and accurate meter – do no miss it ! I would guide every photographer to try to own a Leica. They are a wonderful photographic joy. Buy use sell and move on! As always a brilliant article many thanks – Ian

  • I’ve had my M5, bought used in pristine condition, for about 4 months. I was always curious about them, and finally decided to give it a go. Well, the thing is huge and hideously ugly, not to mention heavy as a brick. It’s also become my favorite Leica to use, if not to look at. Go figure!

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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