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 M5. 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 working! 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 blessing. 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.