Leica M5: Fabulous or Failure?

My 1972 Leica M5 chrome matte black with a 50mm f2 Summicron

My 1972 Leica M5 chrome matte black with a 50mm f2 Summicron V

In 1971 Ernest Leitz GmbH released their ground-breaking M5, the world’s first rangefinder camera to incorporate state-of-the-art TTL (through-the-lens) metering; little did Leitz know that it would almost break the company.

That the M5 was not a sales success (23,000 produced between 1971-1975, with apocryphal stories of M5s remaining on dealer’s shelves for years), owes much to the changing fashion of the time away from rangefinders to SLRs, especially by professionals, to the Nikon F system, and many Leicaphiles snubbing the M5 for the heresy of it not being the same size and shape as previous Ms such as the iconic M3. Even today one can find numerous negative comments about the M5 being “bloated”, “Leica’s bastard child”, “too big” etc. The fact that the M5 is a superb photographer’s tool matters not one jot to the M5 naysayers!

From the above you will have gathered that this brief review is going to be er… partisan. I declare an interest; I have loved the M5 from the day I first held one in the ‘70s, but at the time could not afford to buy one. Owning one now I derive enormous pleasure using this camera; quite simply because it is a wonderful picture taking tool. It holds its own even compared to modern Leica Ms.

So, why do I love the Leica M5 camera so much? Well:

Ergonomics The body fits my hands perfectly. Controls fall to hand naturally.

Speed Dial The M5’s unique (for a M) large, over-hanging speed dial, which allows speeds to be altered with the index finger without taking the camera from one’s eye, making for very quick manipulation. Centred on the shutter release, the dial is easier to use than the separate shutter speed dials of the other Ms.

Shutter Speeds Timed speeds are 1/2 to 1/1000, with speeds for 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30 seconds indicated, however, although these operate with the meter needle the actual speed has to be timed manually with the speed dial set B. A timed 1 second is possible by releasing the shutter (set to B) with the self-timer. Intermediate speeds can be set through the range but not below the electronic flash synch of 1/50; the electronic flash synch is 1/50 (denoted by a white dot).

The Viewfinder Beautifully clear with unusually accurate, even by Leica’s high standard, 35, 50, 90 and 135mm framelines, with the far outer reaches of the viewfinder roughly equivalent to 28mm. Shutter speeds and metering visible.

The M5's viewfinder metering display showing the chosen shutter speed, and the horizontal metering bar - L to R: a half circle denoting smaller apertures; the meter needles; the battery check indent; a half-circle denoting larger apertures.

The M5’s viewfinder metering display showing the chosen shutter speed, and the horizontal metering bar – L to R: a half-circle denoting smaller apertures; the metering needles; the battery check indent; a half-circle denoting larger apertures.

The Metering The match-needle meter operation is a doddle. Set the ASA on the top of the camera (from 6 to 3200). In the finder, you will see the shutter speed visible at the bottom left next to a horizontal bar with two meter needles. Wind on to switch on the meter and raise the CdS cell to its correct position; one needle is controlled by the speed dial and the other one moves with the amount the light striking the cell. Adjust shutter speed or f/stop so that the two bars intersect. Exposure nailed. Simple.

The 8mm CdS cell is equal to a third of the 24mm vertical negative height; in essence it is a spot meter. Attach a 50mm lens and four convenient circular arcs show around the rangefinder patch to indicate the metering area – uniquely M5 (the curved outer edge of the rangefinder patch denotes the metering area for 135mm lenses). The meter cell is held in front of the shutter curtain on a swinging carrier arm, which raises from the base of the body cavity when the shutter is cocked.

The M5's CdS metering cell on its arm in position in front of the shutter curtain after the shutter has tensioned.

The M5’s CdS metering cell on its swing arm in position in front of the shutter curtain after the shutter has been tensioned.

On tripping the shutter the cell arm lowers just before an exposure is made. The meter switches off once the shutter is fired. The cell arm will only rise when a lens or lens adapter is attached to the body and the shutter is cocked (this fact is often overlooked by new owners, who believe their newly acquired M5 is broken). Finally, when metering avoid finger pressure on the shutter button, as this will cause the cell arm to move from its correct central position, giving possibly incorrect light readings.

The Build Quality Throughout its production the M5 was the last M Leica to be made at Wetzlar using ‘adjust and fit’ rather than the cost-saving ‘correct or replace’ of Leicas since the M4-2. The M5 is refined and silky-smooth.

The Rewind Lever – there isn’t one! Sorry, I made that up; it’s on the removable base and is clutched or ratcheted, allowing accurate double-exposures… 1. Take a blank shot with the lens cap on. 2. Tension the film by turning the rewind crank; leave the crank lever out. 3. Turn the front release lever down, and hold it down as you cock the shutter. 4. Take your first shot. Repeat step three as necessary to take your multiple exposure shots. When finished fold the rewind crank and move the front rewind release back to vertical.

Loading The three-pronged film take-up spool is rapid and foolproof every time; the easiest of easy loading. The take-up spool is removable. If your M5’s film take-up spool gets out of position compared to the handy loading diagram, pull up on the spool’s knurled centre grip, remove the spool and replace it correctly.

What’s not to like?

Battery I guess first and foremost is finding a solution for the now defunct PX625 1.35V mercury-oxide battery, but being a ‘vintage’ camera the M5 is not alone in this. My M5 has had its circuitry adapted to take the PX625A 1.5V alkaline, and works fine. Another solution, and by far the most popular, it seems, is the C.R.I.S. MR-9 micro-circuit voltage reducer adapter, which replaces the PX625 mercury-oxide battery with the readily available 386 1.55V silver-oxide battery.

Collapsible Lenses With the metering cell raised in position in the body cavity just in front of the shutter curtain, some lenses, such as the 21mm f4 Super Angulon below 243721, 28mm f2.8 Elmarit below 2314921 and collapsing a collapsible 50 or 90mm Elmar lens will damage the metering arm. Caveat: do thoroughly check this, I don’t have direct experience of using the Super Angulon and Elmarit with the M5.

Body Beautiful? The M5 was the first Leica to be introduced with a black matte chrome finish. I remember at the time it was introduced by Leica reading that this new coating would be harder wearing and an improvement over conventional finishes such as silver chrome and black paint. Undoubtedly black chrome is hard wearing but when it does wear it takes on a grey, powdery appearance that many dislike. Time has not been kind to Leica’s black matte chrome. If this bothers you seek out a silver chrome version; 10,000 were produced. Regrettably Leica never produced a black paint M5 – now wouldn’t that be something?!

Repairs With the M5 Leica applied pretty much everything they knew about how to build a rugged, quality camera that could stand the rigors of professional life. They were built to be used and last. Nevertheless M5s are more complicated than the average Leica M, and when they go wrong they may require specialist knowledge and skill. Because of this and the scarcity of some parts, many repair shops refuse to touch them. However, don’t let this put you off purchasing a M5; for all their complexity and age they seem as reliable as any other Leica M.

Two companies that service M5s are Newton Ellis, Liverpool, UK, and the renowned M5 expert, Sherry Krauter, Golden Touch, Campbell Hall, NY, USA.

Finding a Good ‘un
Many M5s were used by professionals who made their living by putting them to hard use. The last ones to leave Wetzlar are now 41 years old. M5s were produced in two- and three-lug models; the later ones produced are the three-lug versions; the rarest the 1975 50 Jahr Anniversary model (1,750 made). Some Leica sages are of the opinion that serial numbers above 134XXXX are the better made ones.

Exercise the same caution you would with any other Leica of comparable age. Check out the viewfinder and rangefinder patch: are they clear and free of cement separation? Wind on: silky smooth? Does the metering needle move freely and responsively? Does the shutter fire smoothly, especially the slow speeds? Same with the self-timer. Check out the inside: is the pressure plate undamaged and smooth. Is the battery compartment corrosion-free, the cap not cross-threaded? Are the shutter curtains tight, light-proof and pin-hole free? If you can run a test film through and check for metering and rangefinder accuracy. Are the vertical negative alignment and spacings perfect on the film?

My M5 together with its younger M6 TTL black paint "Millennium" sister.

My M5 together with its younger M6 TTL black paint ‘Millennium’ sister with matching black paint 35mm Summicron Asph.

Conclusion
Despite not being well received when it was introduced back in 1971, nearly bringing the company to its knees due to poor sales (incidentally not helped at all by Leica’s decision to introduce in 1973 the cheaper CL model), Leica’s “failure” has, for me and many others, stood the test of time.

Yes, many dislike its size compared to other Ms, which is fine, but lovers of this fabulous camera consider it a strength, especially for those with larger hands. The crowning glory, though, is the meter; responsive, supremely accurate and a joy to use. Any Leica-lover should really check out and spend some time with the M5. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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2 responses to “Leica M5: Fabulous or Failure?

    • Thank you for your response, Frank. Great cameras, both! …And thanks to Leica’s long history of producing wonderful models we can all have our favourites.

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