Category Archives: Leica M5

The Leica CL: The Compact Film Camera That Killed the M5

Leica CL with 40mm Minolta M-Rokkor f/2 (Image Red Dot Cameras)

[Editor’s Note: This is an article co-writtenby William Fagan and Mike Evans and first published some months ago at Macfilos, an excellent photography website hosted by Mike Evans (That’s Mike to the right, with a red dot on his forehead).  William is a member of The International Leica Society and an avid Leica collector. Mike is a former journalist and communications professional who started the Macfilos blog in 2008. Mike has written for Leicaphilia before. While Macfilos started as a blog about Apple and the then-new iPhone,  it has since developed into a photography source, with lots of good Leica content among other things. A keen amateur photographer, Mike is “involved in the Leica world” and enjoys close relations with Leica UK. He’s also got a good sense of humor and is a nice guy who generously allowed me to steal his content.]


 

The recent introduction of a modern Leica CL has focused attention on the original CL from the 1970s. ‘CL’ stood for ‘compact Leica’, a compact rangefinder camera, which was manufactured in Japan by Minolta for Leica between 1973 and 1976. Minolta also sold a version of the camera called the Leitz Minolta CL and later Minolta developed a more advanced version called the Minolta CLE.

Whatever happened to the Leica CL? Many consider it was too good for its boots. It arrived at a time of great flux in Wetzlar, when the company was undergoing yet another identity crisis. The popular and successful M4 had been superseded by the advanced — very underrated but ultimately too ‘unconventional’ for mainstream success — Leica M5. The M5 model was produced in small numbers between 1971 and 1975. Despite its advanced features, including light metering, it wasn’t well received, not least because of its large size. In desperation, Leica brought the M4 back from the dead, shortly before the company’s Canadian phase when the unmetered Leica M4 re-appeared in two new guises, the M4-2 and the M4-P.

But in the background at this time was the Leica CL, a smaller camera which was designed in cooperation with Minolta and intended to be a more compact rangefinder alternative to the M5, but sharing some similar features such as metering. After its launch in 1973 it succeeded in that goal. Too well, unfortunately. Many adopted it because they wanted the light metering ability of the M5 but in a smaller package. The CL outsold the M5 (65,000 v 33900 according to the production numbers) and many believe that this is the reason Leica halted manufacture in 1976. It would be another eight years before light metering came to the M with the introduction of the M6.

Still wrapped and unopened after 40 years: Part of a trove of CLs bought recently by Red Dot Cameras (Image Mike Evans)

Admirers

Designed jointly by Leica and Minolta and manufactured by Minolta in Japan, the Leica CL is often considered a “mutant” camera, even sometimes being labelled as “not an actual Leica” by Leica purists. But the truth is that this unconventional pairing of manufacturers has been a primary reason for the camera developing a close group of admirers.

The Leica CL is a 35 mm compact rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses in the Leica M-mount. It first appeared in April 1973 and was released in the Japanese market in November 1973 as the Leitz Minolta CL. Both the Leica CL and Leitz Minolta CL were manufactured in a new Minolta factory in Osaka.

The Leica CL has a vertical-running focal-plane shutter, with cloth curtains, giving ½ to 1/1000 speeds. There is a through-the-lens CdS exposure meter mounted on a pivoting arm just in front of the shutter, similar to that on the Leica M5. The exposure is manual and is set using a needle system. The shutter is mechanical, but the shutter speed set is visible in the viewfinder just like the M5. The camera can still be used without any battery. There were two special C lenses produced for the camera, a 40mm f/2 and a 90mm f/4, both made in Germany. The finder’s framelines are for a 40mm, 50mm or 90mm lens. The 40mm and 50mm framelines appear when a 40mm or 50mm lens is mounted and the 40mm and 90mm framelines appear when the 90mm lens is mounted.

Leica CL with the 40mm Rokkor (Image Red Dot Cameras)

The original CL is a superbly compact and relatively cheap camera on which to use M-mount lenses, but it does not have a rangefinder as precise as that of any Leica M body. The rangefinder base of the CL is 31.5mm and the viewfinder magnification is 0.60, leading to a small effective rangefinder base of 18.9mm. This is probably too short for accurate focusing with lenses longer than 90mm and fast lenses used at full aperture. Some users report the camera is rather fragile, especially the rangefinder alignment and meter mechanism.

Sixty-five thousand serial numbers were allotted to the Leica CL, and this number does not include the Leitz Minolta CL. 3,500 examples of the CL received a special “50 Jahre” marking in 1975, for Leica’s 50th anniversary.It is also said that 50 demonstration examples were made. They are completely operational, with the top plate cut away to show the internal mechanism.

Here is an example of the 50th anniversary model from William’s collection with the 40mm and 90mm lenses, a special leather purse to contain the camera plus 40mm lens and a thin haze filter which fits between the rubber lens hood and the front element on both lenses.

Leica CL 50th Anniversary model from William’s collection (Image William Fagan)

Leica M5

The Leica M5 is a 35 mm camera by Leica Camera AG, introduced in 1971. It was the first Leica rangefinder camera to feature through-the-lens (TTL) metering and the last to be made entirely in Wetzlar by hand using the traditional “adjust and fit” method.

Leica M5 sales were very disappointing, and production was halted in 1975 after 33,900 units (from 1287001 to last serial number 1384000; 10750 chrome and 23150 black chrome bodies). Cost was an issue for the M5 body. In today’s currency (Consumer Price Index Integer) the price is around $4200.

Rangefinder camera sales were seriously undermined during this period by the predominance of mass-produced SLRs, primarily from Japan. In addition, Leica continued selling the M4 in 1974 and 1975, and the Leica CL was fully represented in the market by 1973. The UK Leica catalogue for 1975 lists the M4 and M5 and the CL.

Often cited as also contributing to the poor sales are the larger size and weight, the departure from the classical M design, the impossibility of attaching a motor winder, as well as the incompatibility with certain deep-seated wide angle lenses and collapsible lenses (i.e. 28 mm Elmarit below serial number 2 314 920) – see furher details below.The larger body dimensions also prevent the use of many M series accessories, such as external hand grips, quick release plates for tripod heads, or the Leica Lens Carrier M. The M5 is actually wider than the Nikon F, the camera that started the slide in the fortunes of Leica. There is an interesting story beyond the scope of this article about how the Leica company ignored the warnings about the threat from SLRs from its own engineers and then delayed the introduction of the Leicaflex until it was too late to recover. The M5 represents a failed attempt to make up lost ground.

Leica reverted to the M4 and its M4-2 (often called ‘the camera that saved Leica’) and M4-P developments, until the coming of the Leica M6, which offered built-in metering, albeit through the use of more electronic circuitry, while retaining the classic M design.

Here is a size comparison photo of some items from William’s collection, including a CL with 40mm f/2 Summicron and the M5 with a chrome 50mm f/2 Summicron and the M4-2 with a black 50mm f/2 Summicron. For proper comparison the M4-2 is wearing an MR light meter as the other two cameras have built-in metering.

The CL, M5 and M-42 with MR light meter — examples from William’s collection (Image William Fagan)

The M4-2 can be used with the M4-2 winder, which William has, but he decided not to mount it as neither of the other two cameras can be used with winders.

The CL and the M5 were designed to be used with PX 625 1.35 volt mercury oxide batteries, which were subsequently banned. They can be used today with Wein Cells or be modified to take modern PX 625 A 1.5 volt alkaline batteries. Williams article here deals with these issues in the context of an M5.

The M5 is now a relatively uncommon type, and their price on the second-hand market is comparable to that of the M6. M5s were discovered by Japanese collectors in the late 1990s and their price experienced a sharp rise at that time.

Boxes of new CLs and CL lenses discovered recently by Red Dot Cameras after lying in storage for over 40 years (Image Mike Evans)

Lenses for the Leica CL

The CL was sold with two lenses specially designed for it: the Leitz Summicron-C 40mm f/2, sold as the normal lens, and the Leitz Elmar-C 90mm f/4 tele lens. Both take the uncommon Series 5.5 filters. A Leitz Elmarit-C 40mm f/2.8 was also briefly produced but it is said that only 400 were made and they are now valuable collectors’ items

The lenses specially designed for the Leica CL can physically mount on a Leica M body, but Leica recommended not doing so because it would not give the best focusing precision, allegedly because the coupling cam of the C and M lenses is not the same. However, some people say that it is unimportant and that they can be used perfectly well on an M. Indeed in Williams experience he finds that the 90mm C lens is one of the most accurate 90mm lenses on an M.

When sold with a Leitz Minolta CL, the lenses were called Minolta M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 (later just Minolta M-Rokkor 40mm f/2) (see picture at top) and Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm f/4. It is said that the 40mm was made in Japan by Minolta while the 90mm was made by Leitz and is rare. With the later Minolta CLE, Minolta would produce lenses of the same name but with a different coupling system, the same as the Leica M lenses. A new Minolta M-Rokkor 28mm f/2.8 lens was introduced as well. All these lenses can be mounted on the CL too. Rokkor-branded lenses for the CL and CLE take the more easily found 40.5mm filter size.

The CL can take nearly all the Leica M lenses. Exceptions are some lenses that protrude deep into the body and could hurt the meter arm, which resembles a swinging lollipop. Such lenses include hese include: 15mm/8 Hologon, 21mm/4 Super Angulon, 28mm/2.8 Elmarits before serial number 2314921. The eyed lenses, including the M3 wide-angle lenses, the 135mm/2.8 Elmarit, and the 50mm/2 Dual Range Summicron, cannot be mounted either because they are incompatible with the body shape. The 90mm/2 Summicron and 135mm/4 Tele-Elmar are incompatible too. The collapsible lenses can be mounted but they must not be fully collapsed to avoid contact with the meter on a ‘swinging lollipop’ and Leitz advised to stick an adhesive strip of adequate width to the barrel, to limit the collapsing movement. Another limitation is that the rangefinder is only coupled until 0.8m. The same issues also apply to the M5, which also has its meter on a similar swinging arm, visible here.

William had to put an adaptor on this M5 in order to persuade it to show its ‘lollipop’.

The M5 with “lollipop” meter arm saying cheese for the camera (Image William Fagan)

Resurrection

The CL was consigned to history and, eventually, Leica got itself back on track with the M6, the M7 and, latterly, with a blossoming range of digital Ms.

Now it’s all ambiance as the new digital CL takes over the hallowed name after 40 years (Image Leica Camera AG)

The CL, as a film camera of course, was potentially just as capable as the M4 and M5. They were all, as we say these days, full frame. In those days full frame meant ‘not half frame’. It is interesting also that, whereas in the 1970s Leica was trying to make up ground on cameras with flapping mirrors, these days Leica seems to have left flapping mirrors behind with its move to EVF’s. A whole new era of Compact Leica (CL) photography has commenced with the launch of the new CL with EVF last autumn.

Thanks to Red Dot Cameras for supplying the shots of the Leica CL. According to Mike, It’s a good place to look if you’re in the market for a Leica

The Existential Dilemma of an M5 Lover

Readers of the blog are well aware that I’m fond of the M5. As far as metered mechanical M film bodies, I think it’s the best of the bunch, ergonomically superior to the classic M bodied M6. As for the M7, it really isn’t a classic M given the electronic shutter and step-less aperture priority automatic exposure control.

I’ve owned a slew of M5’s over the years, my first purchased in the 70’s. I’ve also owned an early classic (i.e. non-TTL metered) M6, and it’s also a beautiful camera, although the M5 feels to me more solid and refined, and all of the M5’s are TTL metered with an excellent spot meter. As for the ergonomics, I like the M5’s match-needle meter reading, much preferring it to the M6’s annoying red diode meter reading. I also love the M5’s overhanging shutter speed dial combined with the shutter speed shown in the viewfinder, which allows you to keep the camera to your eye while fiddling with the shutter speed. With the M6, you’ve got to take the camera from your eye to see what shutter speed you’re using. The M5 seems to load better too; it’s the only M that seems fool-proof to load. Little things, I know, but better nonetheless. And maybe I’m just imagining things, but the M5 viewfinder seems bigger and brighter than the M6’s.

I even like the aesthetics of the M5. Granted, the classic M profile of the M6 is a thing of beauty, an example of the timelessness of the design. As for the M5, its design met with criticism when introduced and for many it’s still an acquired taste, but I’ve always found it elegant in its own way, designed by Leitz from the ground up for functionality, as evidenced by the original 2 lug design so that the camera would hang vertically on the strap, although Leitz subsequently bowed to traditionalists and added a 3rd lug allowing the camera to hang in a “normal” horizontal position. In any event the M5 is a classic example of form following function, which is the design gold standard. I like the fact that its different, a unique M. While most Leicaphiles have never used one, they’re prone to repeating the same tired criticisms first leveled at the M5 by its initial detractors in the 70’s – ugly, too big, not a “real” M etc etc. Usually, you simply need to pick one up and use it for a bit – and then it makes perfect sense. It’s a superb camera, to my eye simple yet beautiful, and simple and functional in use.

************

So….I’ve currently got two of them, a black three lug and a chrome 2 lug. Both work perfectly. The black M5 (#1377140, which puts it at the tail end of black chrome M5 production in late 1973) was CLA’d by Sheri Krauter (to the tune of $450) about 10 years ago and works as nicely as the day it left her hands. Meter works perfectly. The only issue it has is that the mask showing the shutter speeds in the viewfinder has dropped out of place, so you currently can’t see the shutter speeds in the viewfinder. Other than that, it works like new, shutter speeds spot-on down to 1 second, everything – in the words of dentist Leicaphiles everywhere – “buttery smooth.”

The Chrome M5 (#1347010, production date 4/72) is an interesting piece, as I’ve written about here. It’s a 2 lug “Panda” i.e. a chrome bodied camera with black chrome shutter lever, film return lever and and hot-shoe bracket. I’ve never seen another one, and have no idea if other M5 Pandas exist. For all I know, the guys putting them together that day decided to have some fun by mixing and matching. Whatever the explanation, it’s unique. Like the black M5 it’s in great shape, having just been CLA’d by Alan Starkey in the UK. He went over it head-to-toe, and it works perfectly, “buttery smooth.”

*************

The point of all this is I’m selling one of them and keeping the other. One of them – I’m not going to say which – has been with me since new and I’ve developed a certain affinity for it. I’ve said elsewhere that I would never sell it, as it’s like an old friend. Of course, as readers have no doubt noticed, anything I say is subject to change without notice, which, I explain to my wife, is actually a positive quality, the result of an open mind. However, there are certain things about the other one I really like, non-functional aesthetic things subjective  in nature, and to this point I’ve been incapable of making the choice of which to let go and which to keep, which is where you come in…..

I’m offering both for sale, the black chrome 3 lug for $1100/shipped, and the chrome 2 lug for $1300/shipped, payment by Paypal or Bitcoin. *** (And no, they don’t come with the lens shown in the pictures). Whichever sells first I sell, which ever is left over I keep. Problem solved.

Frankly, if you closed your eyes and picked up both cameras, you couldn’t tell the difference in use. They both work flawlessly and should for many moons. Cosmetically, they’re both in very good condition – no dents, obvious flaws etc, just two M5’s that have been well taken care of. They’re covered by my usual return policy: if you get it and don’t like it, send it back, no harm, no hard feelings.


***Update: Chrome Panda M5 is sold.

Is the Leica M5 Still “Too Big”?

Above is the Leica M5 with a 50mm next to a Sigma SD Quattro with 17-50 2.8 zoom. Probably a bit of an unfair comparison given the Sigma zoom, but in actuality the 30mm Sigma prime – which would be the functional equivalent on the Sigma of the 50 on a 35mm body – is about the same size.

The Sigma SD Quattro isn’t considered overly large for a high-end digital (it’s a really interesting camera too, incredible value for what is in effect medium format output) but it dwarfs the M5. The pictures really don’t give you a full sense of how much bigger it is than the M5.

I note all this because one recurring complaint about the M5, even today, is its size. I’m convinced most critics who complain of its size havent ever used one but are simply repeating what they’ve heard or read from someone else, that person typically having done the same.

My sense is that the original antipathy to the camera was borne of its look – certainly different from the iconic M profile – and most of the criticism justifying the antipathy was what logicians call special pleading (put an M5 next to a Nikon F2 for clarification).

Using as Opposed to Collecting

A Like New Black Nikon F: One More Beautiful Thing I Don’t “Need”

If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity, you’ll know that i’ve been periodically selling off equipment in a professed attempt to de-clutter my photographic life. [More to come shortly.] I woke up one day and realized my collection of ‘must have’ cameras and lenses had grown ridiculously large. I’m not necessarily against owning a collection of cameras, it’s just that, when it comes to photography, I’m not a ‘collector’ but rather fancy myself a user. You’d think that having a lot of cameras and lenses would be beneficial for someone who intended to use them for specific purposes, but in reality it doesn’t work that way. What happens is that the multitude of choices you’ve given yourself make choosing more difficult. Faced with the decision of what to pick up and use, I find myself defaulting, usually grabbing the same camera and the same lens as always, saving myself the trouble of having to deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes along with justifying whatever choice I would have otherwise made. And then there’s the emotional component, you know, the fact that I got such and such camera at such and such time and such and such place and did such and such thing with it back in the day, all part of the myriad of irrational factors we consider when we make value judgments about the things we own. Such are the anxieties that come with affluence.

You’ll also know that I tend to lapse into abstract discussions about things as I’m doing here, a habit I’ve possessed since young (my favorite book as a teenager was Nausea by JP Sartre (!)), and have an annoying habit of citing obscure thinkers to make a point. From a psychological perspective, it’s probably overcompensation, something I learned early on as a non-conformist teen with a middle finger up to any authority; when faced with the specious claims of those who claim authority to speak, you can often shut them up by one-upping them with competing claims based upon arcane sources, given that those in positions of authority dread admitting you might know arguments and authorities they don’t. Using this method, many years ago already I had come to the realization that most of those who claim authority over a subject are usually full of shit, their claim to it easily deflated with some critical argument.

One thing I have concluded, with certainty, is that cameras, however beautiful or iconic they might be, are still just things produced and meant to be used. You can put them on a shelf and admire them, but the satisfaction that brings is fleeting because, at bottom, they’re tools to be used, and where they find their meaning is in their use.

***************
A Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar, disassembled, cleaned and calibrated by Mr. Sweeney himself. Is it a rare, super-cool lens to use with your Leica? Yes. Do I “need” it? No.

But I digress. The reason for this post is to sell some stuff. In this case, really good stuff, the stuff I’ve been holding off selling in the hope I’d find a reason to keep it, because, frankly, I’m getting down to the equipment I have a real emotional attachment to insofar as one can be emotionally attached to things. It doesn’t help that the IRS is sending me letters suggesting I owe them money and hinting at extraordinary measures to collect it if it’s not immediately forthcoming. So much for emotional attachments. The IRS notwithstanding, I’d recently reached the conclusion that my photographic life would benefit from some further downsizing. Specifically, I’ve concluded I “need” the following: 1 film rangefinder camera with 21/35/50 lenses. And 1 digital camera with a lens. That’s it. The rest, nice as it might be to have, is redundant and certainly not required.

What I actually have at this point is this (even though I’ve been gradually selling off things now for the last year or two):

  • -A mint black Chrome Leica M4 ;
  • 2 Leica M5’s, one black, one chrome, the chrome version needing a new beam-splitter but otherwise quite nice;
  • a Leica IIIg, in need of a general overhaul;
  • a Leica IIIf, also in need of maintenance;
  • A chrome Leicaflex SL body;
  • A standard prism user black paint Nikon F with a stuck shutter;
  • A standard prism black paint Nikon F with perfect 50mm f2 Nikkor-H, the nicest Nikon F I’ve ever seen and definitely a collector;
  • a Nikon S2 in need of a CLA;
  • A Bessa R2S with Voigtlander 25mm, 35mm and 50mm lenses and a few Nikkor RF lenses as well;
  • A Nikon F5 with a slew of manual and AF Nikkor lenses;
  • A Contax G2 with 45mm Planar and data back who ISO button is stuck that I’ve been using to take one picture of myself in the mirror everyday for about 6 years now;
  • A very nice, seldom used Leica M8;
  • A Ricoh GXR with M module;
  • A Ricoh GXR with Ricoh 28mm, 50mm and zoom modules

Frankly, as my wife periodically notes to me, that’s ridiculous.

*************

Pretty Much “Perfect” Black Chrome Leica M4 # 1381902 (1974). Selling this will hurt.

In deciding what to sell and what to keep (for now), I’ve taken into account what I’d recoup from selling a given item, as an example, the Nikon F5. It may be the most sophisticated, bulletproof film camera ever made: incredibly robust, full of all the features we now expect of DSLRs, it sells for a fraction of its true photographic worth. A quick trip to Ebay sees them selling for $200 and up. That’s nuts. Keep batteries in it and that camera will be working long after I’m dead, plus you get to use the full range of Nikkor lenses, manual focus lenses dating back to the 50’s all the way up to full frame AF Nikkors being produced today. All of that is worth more to me than $250 in my pocket, irrespective of how few times I use the camera. The F5 I keep. Likewise, the cameras that need service. Sell em now for next to nothing or have them serviced and sell them for what they’re worth. So, the Chrome M5, IIIg, IIIf, user Nikon F, the Nikon S2 and the Contax G2 all stay. Next step is to get them serviced, sometime down the road. Which leaves me with a working F5 and tons of optics for it, a Bessa R2S with 25/35/50/85/135, a black M5, a mint black M4, a mint black Nikon F with mint period correct 50mm Nikkor-H that’s apparently been on the camera since new (since it seems as unused as the body and plain prism), a little used M8 and two Ricoh GXRs.

The M5 I keep, as I’ve had it 40 years and is the one camera I’ve always said I’d never sell although it would make sense to sell the M5 and keep the Bessa with its Voigtlander Nikkor mount lenses. Given this, I’ll keep both. As for the digital bodies, I’ll keep one GXR with the 28, 50 and zoom modules.  If I can’t meet my photographic needs with

  • a Nikon F5 and about 20 Nikkors of various size, shape and focal lengths
  • An M5 with a 21/35/50
  • A Bessa R2S with a 25/35/50/85/125
  • A Ricoh GXR with 28 and 50 modules

then clearly my “needs” are driven by something other than what’s necessary.

*************
Selling this one too. Got the boxes and all the ancillary stuff. Just don’t need it.

How does someone who’s always considered himself above the petit-bourgeois consumerist mindset end up with so much pretty stuff? Good question. It sneaks up on you; while you’re busy chuckling at the lost souls on the photo forums commiserating with other lost souls about which new Fuji body they need to replace last year’s Fuji kit, which 6 months ago replaced the 2015 Fuji, you yourself are engaged in the functional equivalent, buying another camera just because, telling yourself your motives are somehow better, less suspect than the neurotic consumerists who populate the usual sites. You’re not. You’re just another American who’s bought into the idea that happiness comes from stuff, especially really nice stuff like used Leicas.

[ So…., a bunch of things – the M4, the M8, the F, the CZJ Sonnar etc – will be going up for sale on the “For Sale” page of the site. They should be up in a day or two.]

 

A Leica M5 Made in 1992

You learn something new every day. Above is a beautiful chrome Leica M5 , serial number 1918015, which puts its manufacture date in 1992, 17 years after the last full run of the M5 in 1975. I had no idea any M5’s were produced after 1975. Apparently, Leitz made a further run of 20 M5’s in 1992:

1918001 1918020 Leica M5 1992 20

The one above is currently for sale on Ebay, ***from a dealer in Tokyo, which leads me to believe Leitz probably made a specially requested run of 20 cameras for someone in Japan. The seller wants $1888 for it, which is a damn good price for a Leica that eventually should become very desirable as a collectible.

I ran across this while perusing a popular camera forum I usually try to stay away from. Of course, the mere mention of a Leica M5 has brought out a number of thoughtful folks espousing their M5 opinions (some good, some bad, all considered), and then of course the resident forum “Mentor” (!) putting an imperious kabosch on the proceedings by categorically declaring all M5 users lumpen proletariat idiots, apparently based on the fact that he used an M5 once and didn’t like it, it being too big for his delicate fingers, (or was it that the viewfinder window scratched his monocle?), all further discussion met with compulsive browbeating.

*** It appears the same camera is being offered by two different Tokyo based Ebay sellers, one the auction on Ebay’s American site, listed above; and also, on Ebay UK for a price in UK pounds equal to approximately $2900. Confusing, and slightly concerning, although there may very well be an innocent explanation. In any event, it’s a great deal at $1888 as sold on Ebay’s US site if in fact its legit.

The (Seeming) Rediscovery of the Leica M5

Some Guy named Nathan out and about using a Leica M5. This used to be very unusual.

As readers of Leicaphilia know, I am a big fan of the Leica M5. I think it’s the best metered Leica ever made. I’ve clearly been in a distinct minority over the years, more like a member of a lunatic fringe in my love of the M5, and have been since the inception of the M5 in the early 70’s. I remember seeing the ads for the M5 in Modern Photography, back when I was an impressionable kid compulsively thumbing through photography magazines like other kids did their dad’s Playboy.  In 1971 Leitz Wetzlar promised me that the M5 was now the pinnacle of the Leica M system, both an evolutionary and revolutionary advance in the iconic system. There it sat, at the top of the camera store ads in the back of the photography mags (along with the utterly weird Alpa SLR, but that’s a story for another day), imposing and yet aloof, top of the 35mm food chain, beckoning the increasingly select few who still might value the uncompromised excellence of a Leica and were willing to pay a hefty premium to own one.

Unfortunately, most leicaphiles met the M5 with skepticism or outright disdain because it was “too big,” or aesthetically ungainly, or just too different, or whatever. In short, just wrong. Such opinions were invariably a function of our mediated reality; potential buyers saw the pictures, read the reviews, assimilated other’s ignorance as truth, and most decided to pass, usually optIng for an SLR system then all the rage – a ubiquitous Nikon F/F2 or Canon F1. Most of these folks never bothered to actually use one, relying instead on the hive-mind to tell them what they should think about it (and if they’re still around, they’ve likely carried that prejudice forward).

Try googling “Leica M5 Photographer Images.” You’ll get me and Nathan and this guy. That’s it.

I meanwhile, was too young and stupid to know any better, a trait I’ve happily carried into late adulthood. Being a contrarian since birth, I wasn’t going to be content with a Nikon F or F2, or a Canon F1 (ultimately not enough for my elitist tastes even then) so I saved my money and eventually bought one, because, well, that’s what I wanted, damn it. A Leica M5. Back then that was the functional equivalent of an 15 y/o kid saving to buy a Lenny Kravitz Leica with his paper route money. I was nothing if not dedicated to the idea.

That M5 is still with me, while most every other Leica I’ve owned over the years has come and gone. Certainly there’s a measure of nostalgia involved, the inability to part with a camera that’s accompanied me for 40 years; never underestimate the emotional resonance of things long held and valued, things that come with time to define who you are. In my mind, I’ll always be an M5 guy.

*************This is how you’re supposed to hold it, Nathan

Which brings me to the point of this story. Up until a few years ago us M5 guys were pretty thin on the ground, as in almost non-existent. Arguing for the M5 was a sisyphean task. No sooner had you laboriously pushed the rock up the hill than it came tumbling back down amidst a torrent of ignorant condescension, usually by the very people who should have known better. I remember as recently as 2004, while living in Paris, running across a guy in the street with two M5’s around his neck. Two? Hell, it’d probably been 20 years since I’d seen anybody with one. My dear friend, a well-known, successful photographer, an otherwise thoughtful man with exceptional taste and a Leica film camera guy to the core, laughs at my M5 fixation. He refuses my standing offer to even use it, sniffling contemptuously as if it might sully his hands. M5 prejudice, like M5 love, for whatever reason, runs deep, much like theology, politics or sexual mores, almost hard-wired.

Yours Truly, holding my M5 in the approved manner

But a funny thing has seemingly happened along the way. The M5 has suddenly become cool. Hip even. I’m seeing threads on different photo forums extolling the charms the the M5, multi-page threads no less, of gearheads posting fawning photos and odes to this previously much -maligned bastard son of the Leica M series. Maybe the diehard iconic M lovers, along with their reflexive dismissal of the M5, are slowly being weeded out of the Leica gene pool through death and the inevitable generational shifts that come along with time. Just maybe the prejudice against the M5, so obvious for so long, has dissipated enough that a new generation of Leicaphiles can see the camera for what it is without having to contend with the studied ignorance of inherent prejudices.

And maybe, just maybe, Leicaphilia has had something to do with it. I’ve been pimping the M5 since I started the blog a few years ago, pimping it at every available opportunity – because I can.  And I can’t help but notice that the seeming rediscovery of the M5 has coincided with the popularity of the blog. A coincidence only? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who knows. I’d like to think that I’ve had a little something to do with it, but then again it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Leicaphiles are finally seeing the M5 for what it is – a damn fine Leica M.

 

Now THIS is a Beautiful Leica

s-l1600-2 s-l1600-3

Currently for sale on Ebay from a seller in France, what looks to be an unused, pristine chrome two-lug M5, #13553167. The serial number puts its production date as 12/1972, which is smack dab in the middle of the M5’s production run but late enough to avoid the shutter issues that beset the earlier models. Seller claims everything works properly.

What would I pay for it? God only knows. I wouldn’t be interested in it as a collectible but as a user, so the box and all the supporting stuff would be irrelevant to me except insofar as it confirms the claim that the camera hasn’t been used much, but, of course, this potentially cuts both ways – lack of use for the last 45 years might leave you with a camera in need of service, and the one downside of M5 ownership is that M5 specific service isn’t cheap, usually double what you’d pay for a traditional M.

In any event, in my opinion, a good working M5 is about as good as you’ll get in a Leica M, and the chrome versions are the aesthetically more pleasing. Granted, not everyone agrees with me. Some Leicaphiles loathe the M5, which is their right. It’s my observation that the folks who hold the most negative opinions about the M5 are those who’ve never used one.s-l1600-1 s-l1600-5

Automatic Leica M Leaf Shutter Prototype

m5a m5c

This is a “Leica M5” with Elmar 50mm f2.8 Compur shutter, designed by Leitz in the early 60’s. Calling this an “M5 prototype” is misleading. If memory serves me correctly, this was Leica’s first attempt at a metered M, dating to the early 60’s while the M4 was on the drawing board but not yet produced, and long before any plans for the actual M5. In actuality, it’s a prototype M7.

Yes it’s ugly, and Leica might have tanked in short order had they been stupid enough to produce it, but it’s still an amazing bit of Leitz history. As for the two ‘rangefinder windows’, the second window appears to be to read the shutter speed of the Compur lens.

The Five Best 35mm Rangefinder Values (That Aren’t Leicas)

Occasionally, I’ll have someone contact me to ask about what rangefinder camera I would recommend they buy. Usually it’s someone new to film and or rangefinder use, and they’re looking to dip their toes in the water without spending the kind of money a Leica is going to cost.

Having had lived through the original rangefinder renaissance in the late 80’s, early 90’s, and being an incorrigable gearhead, I’ve probably owned or tried every variation of non-Leica rangefinder along the way, other than most of the 60’s and 70’s era fixed lens rangefnders from Japan, pedestrian cameras like the Canon Canonet or the Minolta Hi-Matic, which really weren’t meant to appeal to people who might consider a Leica, but rather were that era’s glorified point and shoots. So, with the criteria that it not be a Leica but a reasonable alternative to one; and that it be “affordable” (an admittedly subjection criterion), here are my (admittedly idiosyncratic) choices if you’re looking for the rangefinder experience without all the humbug, and costs, that comes along with owning a Leica. By “rangefinder experience” I mean this: 1) its got the be a rangefinder, obviously;  2) it’s small and compact; 3) it allows manual use i.e. you control shutter speed and aperture if you prefer; 4) it allows you to change lenses.

So, moving from better to best, here’s my favorite five best non-Leica values:

hexar af

5) The Konica Hexar AF ($400 with lens): yes, I know, its got a fixed lens, which should immediately disqualify it, as it doesn’t meet the criteria I myself set. But….the 35mm f2 Hexanon that comes with it is an excellent lens, the equal of that $2000 Summicron you’re lusting over, and the camera itself such a perfect little jewel, incredibly inexpensive for what it is, that its made the list anyway. And yes, its AF, but the AF is pretty much bullet-proof, maybe even to this day the fastest, most accurate AF you’ll find. As for those who claim a camera with AF “really isn’t” a classic rangefinder because, well, it just makes things too easy – just remember, you get no points for difficulty. The point is to get the shot, and for that, the Hexar AF is brilliant, especially when working indoors. Plus, it’s got a stealth mode that’s super quiet, quieter than any Leica. Really, the only downside of the camera, other than the fixed lens, is that its highest shutter speed is 1/250th, which makes shooting pictures of fence rails at f2 in bright sunlight for the amazing bokeh problematic. Then again, you can’t always have everything.

s3-year-2000-limited-50-f1-4

4) The Nikon S3 Millenium w/ 50mm f1.4 Nikkor ($1500-1800 LINB on Ebay): yes, I know it’s pushing the affordability criterion, but hear me out. Imagine if in 2000, celebrating some corporate milestone, Leica had made the decision to remake the iconic M3 from the ground up, the exact same camera offered in 1954, hand made to the same exact specifications as the original – no cost-cutting- and coupled it with a new, modern coated Summilux 50mm f1.4. Imagine as well that these were eagerly snapped-up by collectors and speculators for about $6000 a kit, and were usually put aside, still in the box, to await the massive value appreciation you assumed they’d someday command. Suppose as well that now, 15 years later, for some bizarre reason, collectors and speculators, usually from Japan, would now sell you the full kit, basically new, for somewhere between $1500-$1800. Would you want one? Of course you would. You’d sell your children into slavery to get a kit like that at that price.

Well, that’s what Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) did in 2000 when they decided to re-offer a brand new Nikon S3 rangefinder coupled with a modern version of the venerable 50mm f1.4 Nikkor. And you can easily find one now, like new in box, between $1500-$1800, which is crazy, given that the lens itself is every bit the equal of the best 50 Leica is offering now. And the S3 itself is an amazing camera, possessing a solidity and quality feel equal, but different in its own way, to the best Leica M’s. Those who are familiar with the Nikon F will feel at home with the S3, given the F shares the same body architecture – essentially, Nikon created the F by taking an S3 and putting a mirror box in it – the detachable back, the wind on, the funky position of the shutter button. Like the M3, it’s unmetered, and like the M3 the viewfinder best accommodates a 50mm FOV, although there is a native frame for 35mm. At $1500 for body and lens, it’s a killer deal.

Hexar_rf-1-weba

3) The Konica Hexar RF ($500 body only): The best AE M-mount camera ever made, including the M7. I prefer it to the M7 if you’re looking for an AE rangefinder because 1) it’s a 1/4th of the price of an M7; 2) it has a built in motor (an expensive add-on the M7; 3) it’s got a viewfinder magnification that allows use of a 28mm without external viewfinder, 4) it’s got a normal, swing-out back that allows trouble-free loading; and 5) it’s built like a tank. It takes any M-mount Leica lens you want to put on it. It’s the first camera I put in my bag when I’m shooting film, usually with the excellent 28mm M-Hexanon, or the equally superb 50mm M-Hexanon.

contax g1

2) The Contax G1 w/ 45mm f2 Planar ($450 body and lens): You either love this camera, or you hate it. I love it, as in love it. You can buy a G1 body for $125. It’s got a titanium outer shell (you’ll pay $25,000 for a titanium M7),  a built in motor (expensive add-on on an M7), AE, and AF. It’s the AF that seems to drive some people crazy, although the folks it drives crazy tend to be, in 2016 US presidential political terminology, “low information” photographers. Any “defects” of the AF system have more to do with the photographer than the camera; if you treat it like a point and shoot, you’ll have problems. To properly focus it, do this: point that little rectangular box in the middle the viewfinder at what you want to focus on; half cock the shutter; hold the shutter half-cocked while you recompose any which way you like. Voila, a perfectly focused photo. It really isn’t rocket science. Plus, you get to use the best trio of 35mm lenses ever made for a rangefinder system – the Zeiss 45mm Planar, the 28mm Biogon, and the 90mm Sonnar (the 35mm Planar, while the least awesome of the bunch, is no slouch either). Four incredible optics, the 45mm as good or better than anything you’ll ever find elsewhere, which you can pick up used for $300-$400, the 28mm Biogon easily procured for $300. A titanium body to support them, $125. Seriously?

M5

1) The Leica M5 ($800-$1200 body only): Yes, I know it’s a Leica…but it really isn’t, at least if you listen to the internet hive mind, most denizens of which have never seen one, let alone used one. The M5 is, in my mind, Leitz’s great, misunderstood masterpiece, the high-water mark of Leitz’s hand-assembled, cost is no object rangefinders.  The M5 made its debut in 1971, the first M with an exposure meter – in this case, a TTL spot meter still the best meter ever put in a film Leica. Big, bright .72 viewfinder, .68 base rangefinder, well-thought through ergonomics unbeholden to the “iconic” M design.

Unfortunately, it flopped in the marketplace, no fault of its own, rather a function of broader industry trends (the move of professionals to SLR systems), boneheaded decisions by Leitz ( introducing the CL simultaneously at 1/5th the price), and, most importantly, rejection by Leicaphiles because it didn’t conform to the iconic M2/3/4 design. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t a brilliant camera – it was, and still is, even today, a better camera than the M6 that proceeded it. However, all but the most discriminating Leicaphiles continue to simply ignore the M5, as if it didn’t exist, usually because they’ve bought into the common view that it’s too big and too ugly, “not a real Leica M.” Bullshit. It’s the best metered Leica M ever made.

The Mystery of the Leica Panda

Panda M6

Leicaphiles being what they are, any variation from the standard garden variety Leica model offers a potential opportunity to claim a “rare” collectible model, and, of course, to price it accordingly in the hope that someone, somewhere, is willing to pay a premium for it. Take the Leica M6 “Panda” for example.

The “Panda” is a name given by some imaginative Leicaphile to a series of chrome M6’s produced with the trimmings – shutter advance lever, rewind crank – of a black chrome M6. According to folks in the know, there are approximately 1000 of these “Panda” versions floating around, all apparently produced by Leica between 1991 and 1994. The variation was never officially noted by Leica, and no explanation has ever been given as to why Leica produced them in this manner. Lack of parts? Drunken Octoberfest shenanigans? Just screwing with us for the hell of it? We’ll never know.

Leica Panda 2

In any event, if you’ve got one, congratulations, you’ve got a “collectible” Leica.

The Mysterious M5 Panda

Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized I actually own that most elusive of Leicas, the M5 Panda. This iteration of the M5 is seemingly so rare that no one, anywhere, seems to be able to confirm its existence. Yet, there it is, sitting in front of me, even though I’ve put out the appropriate feelers from collectors and long time Leica users and have come up with nothing. Crickets.

20160117-20160117-R1099304-Edit20160117-20160117-R1099305-Edit-2

Its serial number, #1347010, puts it squarely in the last runs of M5’s, all silver chrome, produced by Leitz between August 1972 and May 1974. The fact that both the shutter lever and the hotshoe with serial number are black make it pretty clear that it came from the factory this way. Yet I’ve never seen another like it, and a Google search turns up no pictures and only one or two anecdotal claims that someone, somewhere, had one like it sometime in the past.

Maybe its obscurity is simply a function of the low esteem in which both collectors and users hold the M5 (see numerous of my other posts about why I think the M5 is a great camera and its unfortunate reputation is undeserved), but the fact that this camera clearly exists yet nobody has acknowledged or recognizes it, puzzles me.

In any event, if you own one like it, or know of the story behind the M5 Panda, tell me about it at leicaphilia@gmail.com. Until such time as I hear differently, I will claim to possess one of the rarest of rare Leicas: the Leica M5 Panda. It might even be for sale… at the right price.

*Thanks to Marco Cavina for the M6 panda photographs