Leica M5 Thoughts

Discussion in 'Leica and Rangefinders' started by rgh, Apr 27, 2003.

  1. rgh


    Leica M5 Thoughts... The 'Best' Leica ever?

    I was sitting here checking some email with one of my Leica on the table on front of
    me. As usually happens - you know how it is - I picked it up in between pushing
    keys and just checked this and that, looked at some light in the room and checked
    the meter reading against my guess, fired off a few 'shots' just to hear and feel the
    shutter advance/release (no film having just finished a roll) - 'playing' - but got me
    to thinking about the recent MP threads, my camera/photographic desires and needs,
    comments I know and have heard, and my thought about this particular Leica - its an

    Now for those of you that know the Leica M5, its usually an either love it or dismiss it
    as "not really an M-series Leica", and I understand the thinking. But this essay is more
    for those that don't know the M5, or just getting started with the idea of owning one
    and have written me for more information. For them I thought I'd write a bit and let
    them know more about this much-misunderstood Leica camera. Obviously from that
    statement, you may derive that I like the camera.

    Many people talk about the M5 as the camera that went off the 'true path' and the
    "Leica that almost bankrupted Leitz", both of those thoughts are only part reality. The
    greater truth is, the M5 was a well thought out camera on the 'evolutionary'
    experimental design table for many years, and the Leitz Company's camera division
    was already looking at deep financial trouble before the M5. The concept of the
    rangefinder camera was not by the early 1970s a highly profitable market, SLRs were
    the only big show in town, and for the Leitz Company even their high priced Leicaflex
    SL/SL2 was not the 'pro' camera people were using. Rumor had it that the SL2 by
    1975 cost more to make than the selling price, not a good way for a company to
    make money.

    The Leica M5 came on the market as a new concept of Leica rangefinder camera that
    looked, felt, acted and performed differently than anything before, but still the basic
    functions of the traditional M-series camera. The question for Leitz was; 'could they
    revive sales' and 'was there a place for the rangefinder in an SLR world?' Which
    interestingly over 30 year later are still questions being asked. The Leitz Company felt
    they had to go all out with a fully new design, but also one they had been thinking
    and developing on. For the Leica user that complained about the change of
    beautifully machined all metal levers missing when the 'plastic' M4 came out in 1967
    (but still basically the same M-camera since 1954), the much more radical changes
    incorporated in the M5 were just far too much to take. This was the first through-
    the-lens meter in a rangefinder camera put into production, an amazing feat of
    engineering conceding the technology of the time. Others had thought of it, and even
    Leitz had the 1967 M4 in mind as a camera with an internal meter (some prototype
    M3/M4 bodies had a M5 style 'arm' meter, and there are prototype M4s that are
    styled like M5s), but Leitz was the first to actually pull it off in a full production
    model. With the M6 we take for granted that it is easy to make a metered M-series,
    but it was a much different issue in 1971. Even after more than 30 years the M5
    meter with its limited 'spot' metering field and sensitivity can be called one of the
    best meters in a fully mechanical camera.

    Advantages and Innovations:

    Mechanics and Finish

    Workmanship: This is the over-all 'fit and finish' of the camera. The Leica M5 is an
    amazingly beautifully piece of metal and glass, with a 'German' fit that no camera in
    'modern' times has duplicated (well... the ALPA 12 is pretty good!). It's a solid and
    strong all metal body that can be used as a professional's camera.

    Real 'Vulcanite': This was the body covering Leitz used till the M6 (the M6 had a
    cheaper to manufacture glue-on ease). The vulcanite cover actually changed over the
    years of Leica camera production. Still a 'baked on' process, in its new or well-
    maintained state it has a nice complex feel and grip. If the camera has actually been
    used to make photographs over time it develops a 'patina' to it, much 'in feel' like the
    black paint camera that people so adore. Also, I've found that when the camera is
    used regularly with hand contact, the vulcanite doesn't dry out, the oils of the hands
    can help keep them in good condition.

    Self-Timer! I love my self-timers. For travel and family self-timers are not just a
    convenience, they are really needed. Those external things are just another piece to
    carry around and never seem to work for me - or at least I'm not sure they are

    Strap Lugs 'any-which-way' you choose: After a brief time with the vertical only 2
    lugs, Leitz made the M5 a 3-lug camera body. Everyone gets bent out of shape when
    these strap lugs are talked about, hay! they got it right after a brief time and they did
    retro fit the 3rd lug, as I said "any which way you choose". I personally like BOTH
    ways. If I'm out with just the M5 its nice to have the vertical hanging camera with the
    strap across my shoulders/chest - shoulder strap on the opposite side the camera is
    hanging. Its more secure and distributes the weight nicely, also with the 2 lugs on
    one side of the camera the strap is out of the way of the advance and shutter release
    hand, and doesn't hang across the camera when I bring it up to my face. If you don't
    like a camera bouncing on your chest as you walk and move, the strap across the
    chest and a vertical camera position is very comfortable. Also, in this vertical position
    the camera sits protected and not so obvious under my arm area and doesn't fall
    forward to bang against something when I bend over. If I'm in the 2 cameras (or 3)
    mode, the horizontal position works fine too. And finally, the strap lugs themselves
    with the softer strap and no metal rings, don't ware out!, and need replacing down
    the road of heavy use. If you have ever had a brass lug previous to the M5, well worn
    and used on a M2/M3 crack and fail, you know how the very tough M5 lug can be a

    Shutter Speed Dial: The first few M5s had a shutter speed dial that was too easy to
    change without intent - the 'learning curve' in a new model. Later it was made stiffer
    and then was a fantastic advance for the M-series. With one finger, the slightly over
    hanging dial was easy to work with while the camera was at the eye. Still the 'best'
    shutter dial on any M.

    Hot Shoe: The first Leica to have one, maybe not TTL flash, but still convenient and
    the only full-feature M with it.

    Big Rewind Lever: Everyone (well, almost!) likes the M4 style rewind lever compared to
    the earlier knob. But even the M4 lever has that 'small-slip' problem. Half way
    through rewinding the film your fingers slip off and the dial spins back and you need
    not only start to rewind again, but have to take up the slack too. The M5's rewind is
    bigger, still beautifully machined in the Weltzlar style, and geared not to spin
    backwards! Its also tucked under the camera which makes for a more 'elegant' top
    and out of harms way, one of the 'cosmetic complaints' of the M4/M6, and avoids the
    damage that my M4 has had under heavy use. Again, the best so far in an M camera.

    Redesigned Quick-Load Take-up Spool: If you are like me - and maybe you are not,
    and your angels have been looking after you - at some time after finishing a roll of
    film in your favorite Leica you started to rewind the film, only to feel the tension go
    off after a couple short turns, and you know, it never was properly threaded and was
    not advancing - that sinking feeling as you recall the photographs you thought you
    had captured. Sorry to say, its happened to me with a M3 style loading system (I was
    17 and I'll never forget that roll), and a M4/M6, and for a fully rounded 'picture' of
    the problem, also with the preproduction M4 quick-load system on a M2 KS-15 US
    Army Vietnam War camera. In other words, yes, I've sinned... But the M5 take-up
    spool has a film grip built in to the quick-load, and I've never 'screwed-up'! It also
    can be removed, and although its never happened to me, I do know one person in
    very cold conditions that had a film tear and jam in the take-up spool, with an M5 it
    wouldn't be half the problem as a M4-M7.

    Shutter: Redesigned Shutter. Again only a few examples in the first series of M5 had
    'teething problems'. Not unusual in a completely new production camera of this
    complexity. Only a few very early well-publicized examples developed a crack in their
    shutter drum. This was taken care of very quickly, but again M5 'bashers' love to
    bring this up. The redesigned shutter has over time proven very durable. I personally
    have never had a problem with my M5 Shutter, and have never known anyone with the
    later production camera to have any either. Its 'Leica built' and then some.

    The Viewfinder: I think the M5's viewfinder to be the best ever produced. Starting with
    the M4, the slight blue tint of the M3/M2 is gone, making a more contrasty and truer
    color view. The M5 is just as good as the M4 with the most modern coatings of the
    time to make a very clear, bright, flare free image. One 'problem' of the later M4P/
    M6/M7 is that to accommodate the 28mm lens frame, Leitz shrunk the 50mm and
    35mm frames to give that 28mm frame some breathing space and so they all didn't
    look so close together in the field of view. Looks fine in the finder, but what you end
    up with is much more on your negative/slide film with a 35/50mm lens than you
    thought when you made the exposure. The M5 (and M4) gives you a much more
    realistic image size-wise. As for the 'rangefinder flare problem' so much talked
    about, I find the M5 to be basically flare-free, the clearest rangefinder patch on an M.
    It has the 'old style' complex M finder with all the fine adjustments and also maybe its
    due to the very slightly smaller mask opening, or coatings, but it works. Also in the
    M5 finder you find shutter speeds! On the older M-series it didn't matter much to me
    because of how I used a meter-less camera, but with a built in meter and that new
    shutter dial I found I actually change the speeds while I have the camera up and ready
    to shoot. Also compared to the M7 the shutter speeds don't make you feel out-on-
    the-town with neon lights flashing in your eyes. And now comes the good part...

    A Real Meter: It was a Big Deal back then, and is still a really great meter. Sitting just
    behind the last lens element, is a metering photocell on a swinging retractable arm.
    Although it seems in our 'modern, sense a strange set-up, it works. And I've never
    heard of a problem - unless you happen to collapse an older Leitz lens! The meter
    with ASA (ISO) at 100, works down to a reading of 1 sec. at f1.4, which for my needs
    is good enough. I've found a well-maintained M5 meter to be accurate and sensitive.
    What this meter has that no other Leica does, is a True Spot Meter area of sensitivity.
    A well-defined small area of sensitivity that lets you pick what you meter with great
    accuracy. This can take some practice using, but once you understand the principles
    it can be an advantage over any Leica, including the M7. Back to the viewfinder, it has
    the ability to tell you the exact metered area: the 50mm has a special bright round
    meter frame, the 35mm uses the 'circle' around the outside of the 135mm frame that
    comes up within it, the 90mm uses the outer outline of the rangefinder patch (its
    specially rounded on the sides/corners) and the 135mm uses an imagined circle that
    fits inside of the rangefinder patch. Another nice thing about the M5 meter is its
    'analog'. That is unlike the digital meters, you see the meters sensitivity as the needle
    continuously moves with the light. If you have ever tried to get those color diodes to
    light up to see where you are, this is the opposite feeling, you continually 'see' the
    light levels, then line up the shutter bar and needle so they cross and the exposure is
    set. Its very easy and fast to use. Tip: put the '69' 50mm Summicron on the camera
    and you can even see the aperture setting from the finder! (sorry, with some
    eyeglasses this may not work), so along with the shutter speeds in the viewfinder and
    you have full exposure control/information at eye level. On the meter scale there is
    also an aperture approximation scale, and if you familiarize yourself with the lens you
    are working with and its 'range', gives you an idea of how far open/closed you are

    The last of the 'Wetzlar Cameras': There is a nostalgia for the older Leitz Company
    cameras that runs deep in long time users of Leica - the old saying about the 'Leica
    Feel' and all. The more recent M-series cameras are really great photographic tools,
    no doubt, but in my use of them, there was always something different and I guess I
    could say 'missing'. After a few decades of many M cameras I CAN feel the
    differences. I must have 'safe-cracker' fingers, but there was a change with the M4-2
    and the precession feel and satisfaction of the older Wetzlar cameras was gone.
    Although its not widely acknowledged, the M5 still has that 'feel'. Its part 'fit and
    finish' as I've mentioned, but a bit more too. The all over construction and attention
    to detail is just amazing: crinkle paint on the inside of the bottom plate, beautiful
    Wetzlar bright chrome (or the first black chrome finish), the nicely done 'Leitz -
    Wetzlar - Germany' top plate engravings. This camera along with it elegant
    appearance, has a solid weight and confidence to it. For its quality and many features
    the Leica M5 could be said to be the 'Best M-Series' camera ever built.

    Things I Would Change and Thoughts

    There are individual preferences that everyone has about a camera they get to know
    over a long period of use. Some of those things we learn to live with and others we
    still think 'it would have been better to do it this way or that'. What would I change in
    the M5?

    Size: The one area of change universally acknowledged is the body size although with
    the built in meter of the time this is more wish then actually practical. There is always
    the person with 'large hands' that I hear would like the bigger size difference. I've
    never met them. For me the 'classic M' body size is optimal, it cannot get any better
    than the 'the classic M'. Saying that, the M5 isn't 'bad', its just not... 'optimal'. For its
    advantages, the camera is still the better picture maker, and honestly the size is not
    that much of a 'problem'. I do have smaller hands for me its 'hold position'. The
    'square' 70s style body of the M5 puts that lower corner into the palm of my right
    hand, it doesn't sit comfortably. What can help is a little thing called the Tom
    Abrahammson's 'Soft Release'. With its addition on the shutter release my hand
    position shifts up, the middle phalanx on my index finger releases the shutter instead
    of the fingertip, and my palm is more on the back. It feels much better and the
    release is very smooth, the camera works better with a $10 add on. This still doesn't
    solve the M5 and other M-series mix - different handling - that comes up when on a
    multiple camera shoot, but then I know quite a few Leica/Nikon users that never said
    they had a problem and they are even turning their focus rings different ways! Weight
    was never a problem - unless I'm walking/climbing at 6,000m! For the 100gms more
    over a M4 I could just think of it as steadier camera to handhold in lower light. I once
    met someone that complained about the M5 weight, but used only the new brass/
    chromed lenses, which add at least 100gms to his M6 camera/lens combination.

    Tripod mount: Mount the camera on a tripod OR change film, you can't do both. Not
    that changing film before with an M camera mounted was easy, so I guess the M5
    setup with the bottom rewind was a 'compromise'.

    No lens release guard, a small thing, but matters.

    Battery: old PX625, a problem in some places, a fix and adjustment available, but the
    old batteries were better (longer life and worked accurately till the end), so I visit
    Thailand and buy them there, stored in a cool place they will last for many years.

    Parts and Fixes: The M5 could be thought of as a 'limited production' camera, only
    30,000 were made, the least of any 'regular' production M-series camera. They are
    also harder to work on being more complicated with it's mechanical meter
    movements and electronics. Like any M-series, who repairs and adjusts your camera
    could literally 'make or brake' it, and at the least give you a camera that feels like a
    handmade precision instrument that it is. One person that knows the M5 very well
    and loves it is Sherry Krauter at Golden Touch. Anyone with an M5 that has sent it to
    her knows she thinks the M5 the best M-series camera Leica/Leitz made (well... she
    thinks 'as good as' the renowned M3). Having an M5 tuned by someone that loves
    and knows them makes all the difference.

    The Leica M5 was not just another Leica. It was the 'flag-ship', 'top of the line', 'hold
    nothing back', accumulation of everything the Leitz Company had up their sleeves to
    make the ultimate professional rangefinder camera. I really enjoy my M4 cameras, but
    for pure ease of use and functions the M5 is the camera I just pick up to use. Is it the
    'Best Leica' ever? When I am using it, maybe it is. It's got everything I want, just in a
    different package.
  2. You need to get this thing published on Puts' site...
  3. Robert,

    your little essay would be nice on the LHSA website... Also, it makes me regret (once again) that I sold my M5 a couple of years ago. Well, maybe I´ll get another one at some point in time.


  4. Robert, thanks for your considered opinion on this 'forgotten' M. I bought a used 3-lug silver chrome M5 about 5 years ago never get to shoot with it. That's a shame because it was initially intended to be a user. But when used M5 prices start creeping upwards (due to their scarcity?) it spends more time sitting in the showcase than on the streets. I have always liked the M5 for its shape and integral metering feature, something that was alien in the earlier years of the M2-M4 series. That was a definite bold step taken in the Leitz tradition of their golden years during the 60's and 70's. For a variety of reasons the M5 never sell well and it was replaced by the M6. It was a milestone in the M series and befits a more deserving recognition. It needs not earn the 'Best Leica' honour to be a great user. Whichever way you look it IS indeed one fine camera to grace the 35mm scene.
  5. I thought about buying an M5 a couple of times but collectors had driven up the prices by the time I 'discovered' them. BTW, the best feature of the M5 - the ergonomic shutter speed dial - is duplicated on the M6TTL fairly well. You can easily change shutter speeds without moving your eye from the finder.
  6. The nicest thing about the M5 is that the shutter speeds are displayed in the finder. But I only use a Leica because it's compact and relatively lightweight. For the size and weight of an M5 I'd just use an SLR, that's why I never bought one.

    As to your point about the "real Vulcanite" this was IMO one of Leica's worst choices. Unlike leather, which if moisturized occasionally with leather balm, will last forever, and if not can be easily replaced, Vulcanite is hard rubber and becomes brittle as it ages. Even "mint" M's with Vulcanite, if knocked, the Vulcanite will crack and flake off, and it can't be repaired (yes, Sherry patches it with black tarry gunk, but it picks right off and doesn't blend in except very tiny areas)and there is nobody I know of who can replace it. So a "mint" M with chipped Vulcanite requires recovering with a non-OEM material thus deflating its collector value.
  7. I have no experience with the M5 so I cannot comment on it one way or the other.
    However I have talked to people who had problems with the metering arm. The
    camera shop I use has a couple oldtime employees and they remember several M5s
    coming back under warranty with the metering cell dangling by their wires. A problem
    with the glue used to secure the cell to arm in the first production models I suppose.
    Also Tom A. had the rather embarassing task of asking a client for a reshoot when his
    M5's meter arm failed to retract during exposure.

    None of this is said to damn the M5. I could make a list of failures with regular M
    cameras too.
  8. Do you know of any reason a 50 Dual Range Summicron cannot be used on an M5? Do the windows in the lens attachment line up with the VF and RF of the M5?5
  9. Robert

    Very useful analysis of the M5, thanks.

  10. xav


    I pondered a long time whether or not to get an M5 instead of an M6. The excessive price of the M5 finally drove me away from it...

    What's a bit sad is that the M5 was probably the last time Leica tried to be innovative. Their 2 latest models: The M7 intoduces new technology from the seventies (OK, late seventies, to be fair) and the MP. I'm sure it's a very nicely built mechanical camera and it makes good business sense to propose it, but nevertheless, here we have a technological regression.

    It looks a little as if Leica is still traumatized by the commercial failure of the M5, a radically new machine at the time. The fact they are now a very small company which can afford only very limited risk probably must not help.
  11. Ah . . . the M5; mine's been my favourite working camera after I had it refitted with the M6's viewfinder (with the 28mm frameline), rubber-rimmed eyepiece and leatherite. The M5's 'large-spot' exposure meter is really something--it's the main reason why I bought the camera in the first place. Among the cameras I've used, the M5's meter proves to be the most accurate (as in less easily fooled by difficult lighting conditions); only the Nikon F3's meter is comparable (which, incidentally, is also a 'large-spot' meter). You see, I shoot slides almost all the time and I need a rangefinder camera with an accurate built-in meter (don't ask me why I can't use a SLR--that's another story). Yeah yeah, I know I can get more accurate results using a handheld meter, but I got fed up after missing too many shots with my M4-P and Sekonic/VC Meter combo. About the size of the classic M body being optimal--I can't agree more with that. The M5 is a brick of a camera among all the M-mount cameras past and present (but still more compact than an average SLR). My M4-P, although more cumbersome to use because of the lack of a built-in meter, is easier and more comfortable to hold and shoot. By the way, my M5 was originally a 2-lug model, but Leica threw in a third lug without me asking for it when they worked on my camera. It turned out not to be a good thing, as I find the third lug getting in the way of the trigger finger. The camera is actually more ergonomic without the third lug--if you don't mind carrying the camera vertically on a strap, that is.
  12. Robert
    As I have said in the MP vs M6 the M5 is a very good camera. Cameras take on a personality #1200006 first one and I thought what a mistake, until I used in low light and ran my finger to change speeds. Yes you can do that with others but you can tweek the exposure any way you want. I have a 2 and 3 lug the only thing about this is how it hangs on your shoulder. Tow lug around your neck...yuk. Ernest (I forgot his last name) super repair man at Rockleigh broke one down and checked out in less than I could drink a DrPepper at the 84 Olympics. Back to the personality of a camera, when you know be it (the camera) what ever brand you know what the camera will do. And you know the reswults before you see the processed film, especially Chromes. Now I just wish they were Chrome bodies.
  13. Yes you can use the DR on an M5, but you have to remove the small tab at the back
    of the eyes. On early eyes you have to file the tab off but on later (most common), you
    just need to remove its mounting screw.

    They did not fit an M6 finder into your M5, they just changed the mask set to the six
    frame type.
  14. Very very useful for me as I just want to buy either M4-P or M5... Personally I make my preference to M5 but there are many peoples talking about M5 is not good in weight, size, appearance... etc
  15. Thanks John for correcting what I have mistakenly assumed--never knew what Lecia did to include the 28mm frameline, but now I know!
  16. Robert

    I would prefer an M5 to an M6 myself because: no v/f flare, superb low light metering, bigger body (I have big hands), self timer, better construction. But the prices are too high and make the choice uneconomic, but I am keeping my eyes open....
  17. Robert

    Thank you for this well-written and useful essay that rehabilitates a poorly loved almost foster child. I bought 2 used M5 in the late eighties when they went for 500/600 USD. Used them all these years happily from Mauritania to Bangladesh. Needless to say I started to grin broadly when their price went up and up.
  18. Idea on prices, I paid 613.00 for one new and two years later 500.00 used (USD). They are user cameras.
  19. Hi Robert,

    Congratulations on your M5 essay. I loved it. Thank you for posting it.

    I cannot in anyway add to your essay about the M5 save to say that for someone with big hands like me I actually prefer the size to the classic M's. I find it awkward using a smaller M, which is one of he reasons I sold my M3 for another M5. I found using the M3 a little funny after using the M5. The camera sits well in my hands.

    The only other thing I wanted to add for potential purchasers of the M5 is that they ought seek one with a serial number above 134.... This is Sherry Krauter's recommendation. Cameras made below this number had faulty roller shutters, an exorbitant repair.

    Naturally I endorse your recommendation of Sherry for the repair of the M5. She is passionate about them as she is wih most things Leica. She is honest and a great person. I have her to thank for the acquistion of my M5's. She strongly recommended the camera. She CLA'd my first M5 and I am just about to send her the second. She also CLA'd and put new main prism in my SL's. They too are beautiful cameras.

    Thanks again for the essay. I too suggest that you send it to Bill Rosauer at the LHSA. He needs to put some better quality articles in VIEWFINDER. Yours should be among them.

    Best wishes,


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