I have personally used and owned three Leica’s. The M3, M4 and M5. They are all wonderful in their own way but the Leica M5 is my favourite by a long shot.
Now you might say, well what does he know he hasn’t used an M6 or M7. Well you might be right but the last hand built and custom fitted series of Leica’s was the M5. The M6 and M7 follow the lineage of the M4, so all they add are meters to an M4 and TTL flash. Having a meter is important to me but TTL flash on a rangefinder used primarily as a street shooter is a little like putting slicks on a VW bug if you ask me. So in my humble opinion the M6 and M7 can be dismissed from this discussion.
When I was back in high school I joined the photography club. As a member of the club we were pressed into service to cover sports events, social events and general interest things that could be used in the yearbook. I had a choice of three different cameras my dad owned. A Rolleiflex TLR, an Exakta SLR and a Minolta HiMatic 7s. I choose the Minolta. The Exakta was a great camera, had a very nice Zeiss lens but was slow to operate and the pentaprism was rather dark and hard to focus. If I had damaged the Rolleiflex I might as well found somewhere else to live. The Minolta HiMatic 7s was a solid camera, bright viewfinder, great focusing patch and razor sharp lens. A true winner.
I used that camera for 3 solid years while in high school and it ever failed me. Rangefinders found a spot in my heart. Naturally I devoured every issue of Popular Photography and other photo magazines of the day and saw how Leica’s were revered. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was determined to own one someday.
That someday came about 30 years later. Through necessity I had been using SLR exclusively for my photography but once things started to wind down I began my quest for a used M3.
I frequent an internet forum who was once strictly analog. In the day it was call APUG or Analog Photography Users Group. Recently they have opened the doors to hybrid and digital. If your interested in film photography check them out at http://www.photrio.com
I found an M3 single stroke for sale that came with a 50mm Summicron. I figured I had hit the jackpot! Once it arrived I was quick to put some Ilford HP5 into it and take off to the streets. It was fun to use but I found it hard to load (large fingers) and I always had to take my eye away from the viewfinder to make shutter speed and aperture changes. It also did not have frame lines for my 35mm VC Color-Skopar lens which was a bit of a bother. Sure I could guess but I like to print my images full frame so having things cutoff or added into the negative was a problem for me.
I used it for a few years and took it to Mexico so do street shooting and cemeteries. As expected the images were stunning mainly thanks to the 50mm Summicron and a 90mm Summicron I was using. The VC 35mm Color-Skopar does good work as well. But the ease of handling just wanted there. It slowed me down and kept taking me out of the “zone” so to speak.
Our local camera store aptly named The Camera Store had a used M5 in the display case so I asked to fondle it. Once I put a lens on it and put it up to my eye I was sold on the M5. I could control everything from the viewfinder and it had a spot meter! It was certainly heavier than the M3 but I was always concerned about bumping the M3. I had talked to some old time PJ’s who had used the M3 professionally and they all said that the focusing would go out of alignment within months of getting them and they were always needing mechanical adjustments. One reason the original Nikon F virtually wiped out the Leica from PJ use in a very short time period.
When I was doing PJ work it was exclusively Nikon. Nikon F’s for most stuff and Nikkormat’s if you were going into a swamp or hanging off a cliff.
Getting back to the M5. Once I had determined the next Leica in my cabinet was going to be an M5 I watched the classified on my favourite forum and eventually one came up. I bought it, sent it for a CLA and have put hundreds of rolls through it since. It does not slow me down, it has a great viewfinder and is easy to load. In my opinion the M5 is a true “shooters” camera. It got a bad rap from the fashionistas because it did not look like a Leica. I do not buy cameras to impress people or as investments. I buy them to make photographs. Period.