The Big Leica: M5

The 1970’s version of “big” – not the SL2 or S. The biggest film M ever made: the Leica M5. You might recognize it as Number Two in the police lineup above. It’s always been the Leica that people love to hate, so I bought a second one.

My first M5 was long ago, purchased new but years after it had been discontinued. It was languishing on a Minneapolis shop shelf: body with a 50mm Summicron and I probably paid around $900. But I was a student and couldn’t afford to feed it – sold it off during my first year at CalArts, to another student who drove up from UCLA. Unlike me he could afford both a Leica and a car.

Different days now, and the old long-lost M5’s been replaced by this black late-number three-lug example, a bit scruffy but tested and verified by Leica in Germany. Thirty-plus years later yet my hands still find everything without thinking.

“Hands” plural is an important factor when dealing with M cameras or old manual-focus SLRs. One-handed operation isn’t really the intended pattern. So this isn’t the best camera to use while carrying the shopping or walking hand-in-hand.

People said the M5 was too big, too heavy – yet in the lineup above (X-Pro2, M5, Contax G2, Leitz Minolta CL), it’s just one in the middle. It weighs less than a modern M10 or M240, and by a wider margin than compared to the M4. If you come from a digital M camera, the “heavy” M5 feels light and joyfully airy.

The Leitz company themselves clearly believed in the M5 when it was released. They leaned hard on it as simply “The Leica,” described without model number in mid-70’s books and articles. The CL (released a year or two later) was “The Compact Leica.”

But that Studio 54-era world wanted SLRs, not rangefinders: the Nikon F2s, the Spotmatics and FTbs, soon to be followed by the lightweight Olympus and Canon models that were as small as Leica yet easier to use (and far cheaper).

And then, that CL. The CL is a great little camera, though intended less a “cheap M” and more as an upgraded alternative to the then-popular compact RFs like the Canonet or Rollei 35.

Leitz made some key mistakes, however.

They’d created a 40mm lens for the CL, to avoid people using the inexpensive little “Summicron-C” or “M-Rokkor” 40mm’s on their M cameras (which didn’t have 40mm framing lines). But: they included a 50mm frame line in the CL viewfinder. So if you were already an M2, M3, or M4 user: the CL was indeed a cheaper alternative than the M5. A CL body with a 50mm Summicron is a cracker of a little camera. If you’re an existing customer who already has a 50mm M lens, why would you want to buy an M5?

Meanwhile for new customers, not already Leica users, the CL was a kind of dead end, in terms of being a “starter Leica” – no other M would let you properly use your 40mm. They’d deliberately cut off the upgrade path from Compact Leica to Big Leica. Oops.

By the time Minolta took over the CL design entirely and released their own more-advanced CLE, they’d removed the 50mm frameline. Lesson learned, though late in the game. Automated point and shoots were exploding, as were the early AF SLRs. Leitz fell back on M4’s and killed the M5. It’s said that Leica considered dropping the M line entirely and going all-in on their R SLRs… they’d probably have met the fate of other heavy and clunky SLR makers of the day, like Topcon, Alpa, or Exakta. Collectible oddities from a dead manufacturer.

I still like the M5. Lots to love. The biggish viewfinder, the placement of the controls. I’ve always prefered match-needle meters over the later LEDs. I like the wide strap lugs (sideways or normal). The industrial, tractor-factory looks. I’ll probably hold onto this one a bit longer than the last.

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