Leica M5: How Jim Sarsfield put new life into my oddball rangefinder
Jim Sarsfield of the Small Battery Company may not know it, but his name is very well known in my country. Patrick Sarsfield the Earl of Lucan, was a well known Jacobite soldier and we were taught a lot about him in our history lessons at school. His battle cry was ‘Sarsfield’s the word, Sarsfield’s the man’. Jim Sarsfield, no relation as far as I know, certainly is a man of his word and the Wein Cell which he supplied to me has breathed a welcome puff of new life into my M5.
But first, to finish off the Patrick Sarsfield story: After Sarsfield’s death, his title fell out of use until around a hundred years later when the title passed to a great nephew of his who happened to be a member of the Bingham family. It has passed down through the years and the 7th Earl of Lucan was, of course, the infamous ‘disappearing’ Lord Lucan.
Just like Lord Lucan, the original mercury oxide batteries for the M5 also disappeared following their banning in many countries because of concerns about their toxicity and disposal. Modern alkaline PX 625A batteries, which will fit in the M5 (mine came with one), are 1.5 volts. This raised voltage will give a false meter reading since the the M5 was designed for a 1.35 volt battery. You can, I believe, have the M5 adapted to use 1.5 volt batteries and you can also cheat the meter by setting the wrong ISO. I have a Leica CL that seems to have been adapted for the modern 1.5 volt batteries.
However, when Mike Evans mentioned the Small Battery Company on in a comment to an article on Macfilos a few weeks ago, I thought that I would check their website to see if they had a solution for the M5 issue. Sure enough, I saw that they had the 1.35 volt Zinc/Air Wein Cell batteries and placed an order straight away. The battery arrived here in Dublin in double-quick time (thanks Jim) and I discovered I had to remove a tab at the back for about 30 minutes before use. Presumably, this is to get the mix right for the charge. Here is the packet in which the battery comes. You will see clearly that it is indicated as suitable for the Leica M5.
I checked my M5 meter with the Wein Cell fitted and I found that it more or less matched my other meters , both hand-held and in-camera. With the M5 the meter sensor swings up on a lollipop-type arm. The sensor is about visible here. To take this photo, I had to ‘fool’ the M5 into thinking that a lens was fitted by putting on an adaptor. It will not appear unless it the camera ‘believes’ that a lens is fitted as here.
When taking a meter reading you must make sure that, unlike with modern digital cameras, your finger is not on the shutter button. If you depress the shutter button you will get a false reading. The next thing was to test the camera and its new battery cell in the field. My first choice was to fit a 1950s Summarit 50mm f/1.5 with its XOONS hood as shown below. This is a really excellent lens, which, while it pre-dates the M5, has image quality that is outstanding.
One of the features of the M5 is that it has different metering areas depending on the focal length of the lens used. Here is the description of this feature in a number of photos in the camera manual (I acquired a collection of the manuals for all film Leicas some years ago).
The first one shows how the metering area changes with different focal lengths.
The second one shows how the match-needle metering works. Note that the set shutter speed is visible; something you will not get with an M240 today unless you use Live View or an EVF. On the other page you can see what is visible in the viewfinder as regards frame-lines and metering areas.
The change in the metering area feature is perhaps more important for transparency film than it is for negative film, where there is a wider exposure latitude.
I also decided to test the M5 with a longer focal length; in this case the 90mm Summicron.
The lens and camera are shown with the Gossen Digi-Six 2 which I used to check the Leica M5 meter. This has a lovely feature of having a digital read–out which, when the reading is converted to the outer wheel, shows the correct aperture for all relevant shutter speeds at a glance. I find it very quick to use.
With the 90mm fitted, the combination is one heavy lump. I might as well add my comments here on what the camera is like to use. I am six-feet tall but I have smallish hands and, to be frank, I find this an uncomfortable camera to use. I find it very difficult to grip it on the right hand side and to depress the shutter at the same time; it needs to go down a long way in order to fire. In addition there is a small but very sharp-edged knob on the top of the rewind lever which shreds my fingers as I hold the camera. I also don’t like the self-timer lever but that is not as much of a problem as the rewind lever. Looking at the photo in the manual , the guy holding the camera has huge hands. I simply cannot hold the camera like this.
I do know how to hold a Leica M camera as I have all of the other models from the M3 up to the M7. I tried an M3 afterwards and my fingers fell into place as usual with no discomfort whatsoever. The solution to the M5 may be to wear gloves or to use an ever ready case—but who wants to have to do that? I wonder who Leica used to test the handling of this camera before it was launched. Perhaps the guy with the big hands in the manual?
The M5 was an advanced camera for its day but it was not a success. It did not look as well as its predecessors and, in my experience, it does not handle as well. Customers were being asked to make a lot of handling sacrifices in return for a built in meter. I am sure that a few people will say that the camera suits them handling-wise but I can only report on how it is for me.
One thing is beyond argument, the camera can take excellent photos.
Here are other photographs taken with the M5 and the two lenses. Click to enlarge.
In summary, therefore, the camera is a bit of a ‘curate’s egg’ for me. Other views would be most welcome.