Category Archives: Leica M5

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Why The Leica?

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Now that’s a beautiful Leica, a silver chrome M5. From an aesthetic perspective, I think that the chrome M5 with Summilux is the most elegant M ever made, the “industrial art” design oddly pleasing to my eye, the silver chrome, as opposed to the matte black chrome offering, setting off the camera’s minimalist lines perfectly.

Ergonomically, the M5 is superior to the iconic M’s: it fits in the hands perfectly, the viewfinder gives you shutter speed information without taking your eye from the finder, and the overhanging shutter speed dial allows easy one finger adjustments. The M5 has bright line framelines for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm with the opening of the entire viewfinder equivalent to the angle of view for a 28mm lens. And, it’s the one M that is foolproof to load- drop in the film, route the leader through the take-up spool as shown on the diagrammed bottom plate, wind once till it catches, close the back and start shooting. Unlike other Leica film cameras, no incredibally frustrating false starts, missed shots and wasted film, no fiddlng with the camera to figure out what the film is doing; Leitz finally made an easy-loading film camera with the M5.

And, it’s got the best meter, a match needle TTL spot meter by Cds cell mounted on a retractable arm in front of the shutter. The match needle operation is quicker and more intuitive than the triangular red diodes used by the TTL metering of the M6 introduced 14 years later.

Did it stumble out of the gate when Leitz introduced it in 1971? Yes, but not because it wasn’t a brilliant camera. Its relative sales failure was the unhappy result of a confluence of circumstances that had little to do with the merits of the M5 itself: the professional shift away from rangefinders to SLRS with the introduction of the Nikon F, a much more versatile system camera than a rangefinder; the really stupid  marketing decision by Leitz to offer the CL as an affordable enthuisiast alternative to the M5 at a fifth of the price, a move that canniballized what would otherwise be M5 sales; and the relative conservatism of Leitz’s rangefinder users who wouldn’t accept the updated design when measured against the iconic M2/3/4 profile.

In my experience, leicaphiles who still look down their noses at the M5 as some sort of bastard child in the iconic M heritage usually haven’t used one,

Confessions of a Leica Fondler

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Yes, I am a camera fondler. I’ll admit it. After all of the pretentious high-brow screeds about the superiority of film to digital you’ve read me post to this site; after all the barely concealed distaste for the basement bound losers and retired consumer drones who compulsively troll internets forums with their gross inanities, when push comes to shove, when I’m completely honest with myself, the biggest reason I dislike digital is this: digital cameras are boring, inconsequential utilitarian, soulless, artificial hunks of plastic incoherence. You can’t fondle them. Or, to be more precise, they give you no reason to. Fondle a Sony A7 with one of those Zeiss Tuit monstrosities? I think not.

Right now, as I type this into my computer, an obscenely elegant Leica IIIg with attached Leicavit and Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar, sits within arm’s reach, for no other reason than so I can occasionally pick it up and fondle it. It doesn’t even have film in it (ever tried to load a Barnack Leica?). It’s just there for emotional support. Next to it sits a Nikon SP with a W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 and a external finder, also with no film, although I did take it out this morning and ran a roll of HP5 through it [and no, I didn’t take it to the cafe to take pictures of smiling people and their pets; that’s for fondlers who are also dilettantes. I’m not one if those. I took pictures of serious stuff]. The SP is there in case I can’t reach the IIIg, I suppose.

I’ve been this way since I was 12, when my seventh grade teacher, Mr. Smith, a slightly creepy middle aged guy who for some reason took a keen interest in me, pulled me aside in a vaguely forced conspiratorial manner to show me his…..Nikon F. Holy shit. You’d have thought he showed me a stack of Playboys. I was gobsmacked. Something about that Nikon F spoke to something deep within me, something in my loins, some inchoate desire I didn’t even know I possessed, and I knew then that my future would be as a photographer.

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Yours Truly, at 13, with my  first “real” camera, but already dreaming of a Leica. 1971. I was already ahead of the curve, taking selfies in mirrors, probably before even Vivian Maier. I was always a cool kid, ideas all my own.

That chance encounter with Mr. Smith’s Nikon set me on the road for my lifetime’s journey with film photography. Cameras lusted after, many bought with hard earned money, darkrooms built,  tens of thousands of negatives sleeved and filed away. Discovering, some time in the early 70’s, an even more rarified object of desire, the Leica rangefinder – considered an esoteric, vintage throwback even then – and in particular, the new M5, a radical step forward for Leitz, and, based on how it looked in the pages of Modern Photography, now having supplanted the Nikon F as the ultimate object of my desire. I knew the hardcore Leica users didn’t accept it – too big, too boxy, too sophisticated, too expensive – but I didn’t care; this was my fantasy, not theirs.

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Atlanta, GA, 1970, overexposed Tri-X, and an Argus/Cosina SLR. The first photo I’d ever taken where, when I saw it in a contact sheet I said, “Yup, that’s good – I don’t care what anybody else says.” I was 12. I entered it in a middle school photo contest. It didn’t win; it didn’t even place. A very nice shot of a horse in a field with a sunset won.

My first cameras were bought for me by my parents. Parsimonious hard working blue collar folks, they saw no need to spoil me with what I wanted; instead I got the consumer grade Mamiya/Sekor, or the Argus Cosina SLR, or a Minolta SRT. But I wanted the M5, or at the least, a Nikon F. So one day, having saved my after-school money, I walked to the local camera store and bought a beat up black Nikon F with a chrome FTN finder and a chrome bottomed back plate, everything all beat to hell. But it worked, and I loved it, and used a Vivitar 35mm 2.8 on it because I couldn’t afford the Nikkors. Had that camera for years, shot the hell out of it, used it till it was falling apart and then sold it to some naive chap on Ebay maybe 15 years ago. Bet its still working.

In 1977, one year out of high school, I finally scrimped and saved enough to buy my first Leica, a spanking new M5 from Cambridge Camera in New York City. It had been sitting in inventory for 3 years, an orphan. Nobody wanted an M5. But, it was my dream camera, and they were selling at a steep discount, and that’s what I wanted, damn it, an M5. I’ll remember that day till the day I die: the drive into NYC through the Lincoln Tunnel, walk to the camera store, the purchase from the slightly bemused salesman (finally, a sucker who wants an M5!) the walk back to the car with the M5 and 50mm Summicron in my hands, feeling like Robert Frank.

I still have that M5. It’s the one camera I will never sell. Bought an M6 as soon as they were introduced. Subsequently sold it to a guy in Paris in 2003 who neglected to tell me that it was a collectible, one of the earliest serial numbered M6’s he had ever seen. No matter; never much liked the camera anyway. It seemed emblematic of the beginnings of Leica’s shift from professional tools to collectors’ trinkets. In the meantime I was stocking my shelf with real Leicas – M2’s, M3’s, M4’s, a few more M5’s, a Barnack here and there. Along the way I also discovered the Nikon S rangefinders, late to the party no doubt, but fell equally in love with them. They are great cameras, every bit the equal of the Leica rangefinders, and a whole nother rabbit hole to jump into, but that’s a story for another day.

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What my shelves look like

So the question I ask myself is this: to what end do I collect all of these cameras? Well, I use all of them, of course. Sitting on the shelf above me must be 150 undeveloped rolls of b&w film, all shot within the year, all waiting for a marathon week of developing and scanning. But it’s more than just that. There’s something that still moves me when I handle them and when I use them. It brings me back to those days when I was 12, and just discovering the joys of photography. It’s not often you can say something has given you so much satisfaction over such a long period of time. And it’s harmless, as I remind my wife when she asks why I’m spending more money on another old leica when I’ve got a ton of them already. Would you rather I be buying and racing Ducati motorcycles, as I once did, and have the broken bones, and depleted bank accounts that go along with it? No, but isn’t 20+ cameras enough, she asks? Would you rather I be spending it on hookers and cocaine, I respond? And, of course, good woman she is, she rolls her eyes, throws up her hands, and walks away, knowing how happy she’s just made me.