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.

 

15 thoughts on “The (Seeming) Rediscovery of the Leica M5

  1. Kodachromeguy

    Fantastic – it’s nice to see something that was ignored years ago suddenly become popular when people finally appreciate its merits. What might contribute is that film “has suddenly become cool. Hip even.” (Despite the best efforts of “photographers” obsessed with their 10^6 megapixels and image-stabilized zoom lenses.)

    Reply
  2. chrism

    You might be pleased or you might be mad to hear that I also had a black M5, and I gave it away! To a good home though; a student who was setting up a camera club concentrating mostly on film. He got a Bronica RF645 at the same time. I hope they are still being used…
    I’m down to just one Leica now, and M2, and as I’m typing this I’m running this morning’s Pan F through the X1. Sweet simplicity!

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  3. Lee Sternthal

    I’m another M5 shooter. Have been for over 2 years. I love this camera. My only contention is the size. I alternate between it and a Yashica T4 for more wandering about and discretion, especially in urban environments. Too many ppl ask me about it. But a hell of a camera that never fails and has more than repaid the 600.00 I paid for it with a legacy 51 summaron or a 40 cron. Images are absolutely soulful. It’s a beautiful experience to learn Rangefinder photography with this camera, and a great one to gain a little mastery. A more elegant creature from a more elegant time, you believe you can compose visual symphonies with this instrument every time you lift the VF to your eyes. It’s also got the smoothest most silent shutter of any camera I’ve ever shot.

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  4. Rob Campbell

    ” A more elegant creature from a more elegant time, you believe you can compose visual symphonies with this instrument every time you lift the VF to your eyes”

    Faith moves mountains, they say…

    Used to think that of the Hassy 500 Series, as well as of the Nikon F family. Most of us are far too modest to want to accept that the magic may be our own.

    But to be fair, most of us are also just as willing to admit that our failures are always the fault of the cameras and lenses!

    😉

    Rob

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    1. Lee Sternthal

      The song are mine, but it’s great to play them on a reliable, well made instrument I never doubt will always have perfect pitch.

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    2. Andrew

      Not possible with cameras as good as the M5 and lenses as good as the Summicrons, Summiluxes, Noctiluxes and Sonnars that I put on it.

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  5. Wayne

    The odd thing, at least in my view, is related to the fact that the sound of the Leica rangefinder shutter has always been at the forefront of lore and legend surrounding the cameras. Although I have rarely seen it referenced in reviews of the M5, the shutter sound of the camera is, far and away, the most discreet of all the legacy Leica film rangefinders………Barnacks included.

    I own two M5s. The second is a ratty old 3 lugger that still works like a charm. I was not really looking for it. It just sort appeared before me………$250.00. But I guess that is your point.

    P.S. The 3 lugger came with a very tacky, 70s era black leather strap that includes two chrome rings. It, too, is ugly; but it works. I thought about taking the strap off when I purchased the camera; but I cannot bear the thought of separating the two. It is like they fell out of a time warp together.

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    1. Lee Sternthal

      yeah, the M5 shutter is smoother than the XA, really the only rival, in my experience. For me, it’s the rhythm of the camera, the rhythm in the pictures. It really makes it a different, unique experience, if you’re open to that kind of thing. No other camera, analog or digital, has that kind of satisfying silkiness in the release.

      Reply
  6. Rob Campbell

    “but I cannot bear the thought of separating the two. It is like they fell out of a time warp together.”

    You old romantic, you.

    But naturally, that’s why the cameras!

    😉

    Rob

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    1. tennjed

      The seller said it was his dad’s, purchased by him new. I never really thought about it before, but the act of buying a new M5, back in the day, probably did segregate the real “form follows function” patriots from the fashionistas…….Heroes, really. The strap stays….. as a legacy to a great man I never knew. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Colin Templeton

    I think you were instrumental in my purchase of an M5. I’d had an M6 since 1998. Ended up giving that to my girlfriend in 2014, and getting an M5. I kind of liked the underdog status of the M5, and I’d read a lot of praise for the camera on various sites, including yours. And I was curious a to how good this machine was.

    I have to say that the M5 has become, hands down, my favourite M. It handles beautifully, the meter is always dead-on, and there are no attention-seeking LED lights in the viewfinder. Matching the needles is almost zen-like. Everything falls to hand. Changing shutter speeds is a breeze – you don’t need to take your eye from the viewfinder – and the loading and rewinding is easier than on any other M. There’s no white-out of the viewfinder patch, and the genuine vulcanite is super grippy compared to the shiny vinyl leatherette of the M6.

    But also there’s a sense of the M5 being over-engineered, and really well thought out. I like that too. It’s completely uncompromising in it’s design. Not cute or pretty like a modern day MP. Just sheer bauhaus industrial design. It was the last time that Leica seriously tried to compete with Nikon and Canon.

    The price of M6’s is going through the roof these days. It’s crazy. The M5 is still around two thirds, maybe less, the cost of an M6 – a veritable bargain.

    Anyway – here’s to the fabulous M5, and thank you for your championing of it, and your uncompromising, thought-provoking, and philosophical website in general.

    Cheers,

    Colin

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Thanks for the very kind words. I’m happy to know I had maybe just a little influence on your decision to buy an M5. It’s a rocking good camera. Time it received its (much belated)due.

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  8. 0mind

    I had been collecting various M bodies. Already attracted to the M5, I was encouraged to take the leap after reading an article of yours on the beast. Right after the package arrived and I had it slung on my shoulder off its vertical lugs, looked through its magnificent viewfinder and worked the speed dial, I knew it was hooked for life. I now have three of them. So, thank you.

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  9. Max Jenkins

    I am a dedicated M5 user, and have been for more than 20 years. My first Leica was an M4, purchased in 1975 – I was in college, and it was a huge stretch, involving no food for a while, and late rent while I worked overtime to make up the fiscal deficit. At the low point, my boss in one of my part time jobs, a working photographer, offered me his M5. He let me use it work a week – I desperately wanted it, but could not swing the $500 needed. It was many years later, the late 90s, that I got around to finding and buying a good one, a black two-lugger. I regularly use it and would not (will not this side of the grave) give it up.

    I use a resistor equipped voltage converter to manage the lack of proper 1.3 volt batteries. Works perfectly. I leave the Luna Pro or Metrastar home when using the M5. One of these days, I’ll send it to Don Goldberg for a more elegant solution to the battery issue.

    Final note – I discovered this site from a search for M5 users. Been reading it since. Thank you.

    Reply

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