The Big Leica

We mean the 1970’s version of “big,” not the SL2. 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.

The 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’d driven 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Different days now, and the old long-lost M5’s been replaced by a black late-number three-lug example, a bit scruffy but tested and verified by Leica in Germany.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 camera like my M246 and then pick up the M5, the M5 feels joyfully airy.

The Leitz company themselves clearly believed in the M5, and leaned hard on it as simply “The Leica,” described without model number in mid-70’s books and articles. The CL was “The Compact Leica.”

But that Studio 54-era world wanted SLRs: 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, the CL. The CL is a great little camera, though intended less a “cheap M” and more an upgrade alternative to a compact RF like a Canonet or Rollei 35.

Leitz made some key mistakes with the CL’s purpose, 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 M 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. So why buy an M5 body, if you already have an M4 or M2?

For new cusotmers, 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 Little Leica to Big Leica. Oops.

By the time Minolta took over the CL entirely and released the 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. 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.