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.
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.