Thumb Prints & Signatures - The Leica 28-35-50mm Tri-Elmar-M "MATE"

Thumb Prints & Signatures - The Leica 28-35-50mm Tri-Elmar-M "MATE"

Beginning in 1998, Leica offered a unique lens called the “Tri-Elmar” for M rangefinder users who wanted to photograph at various focal lengths but not be burdened with more weight or have to switch lenses. The lens incorporated the 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm focal lengths in one lens with a maximum aperture of f/4. The feature of multiple focal lengths in one lens with the weight of one prime Leica lens made it a great lens option for travel. This lens was most often referred to as the “MATE,” short for “medium-angle Tri-Elmar.” Later, Leica introduced the 16mm, 18mm, 21mm, “WATE,” short for “wide-angle Tri-Elmar,” which is still in production at the time of this writing.

Upon mounting the “Tri-Elmar” onto an M system, and with the twist of the lens ring to change focal length, the corresponding frame lines are engaged in the viewfinder for accurate framing and composition. Because one has to manage the varied frame lines in the viewfinder, photographing spontaneously or “from the hip,” may require more thought than normal if constantly shifting between the three focal lengths.

Each focal length has a distinct visual signature. At 28mm and 35mm, the lens shows slight barrel distortion causing straight lines to bow, although it is not as prominent at 35mm. At 50mm, the visible distortion is mostly absent due to compression of the longer focal length. With the aperture wide open, at f/4, optical signs of coma and ghosting may be visible. Bright details of the image will have a slight glow and some portions of the frame might appear softer or blurry upon closer inspection. At 28mm and 35mm the effect is present but not as prominent, however, at 50mm it is more noticeable.
During my experiences with this lens, I found myself gravitating towards the 28mm and 50mm focal lengths, due to the way the lens was designed. The placement of the 35mm focal length felt odd as it is on the other end of the lens ring that adjusts focal length, essentially going from wide to close to somewhere in the middle. I rarely found myself using the 35mm focal length with the exception of the purpose of this lens overview.

In reality, the Leica “Tri-Elmar” makes for a great all-in-one lens, the variations from 28mm to 35mm and from 35mm to 50mm are so minor that it's easy to stick to 2 contrasting focal lengths or 1 happy medium focal length.

Overall, I had a fun and unique experience using this lens but the image quality and look that it provides at maximum aperture is incomparable to other modern prime lenses that I currently use. As for general use, this lens performed exceptionally well when stopped down and eliminated the need for carrying multiple lenses or camera bodies. Having the ability to choose between three focal lengths provides photographers who are unsure of what focal lengths best suit their style and approach with a viable alternative to just one focal length.

As for my style and approach; the Tri-Elmar “MATE" reinforced just how much I like using the 28mm and 50mm as a two-lens combo and the 35mm focal length as a stand-alone lens. I would highly recommend this lens to anyone that is looking to lighten their camera bag or is looking for a cost-effective solution. Even though the image quality of this lens is not 100% on par with other Leica high-performing lenses, the varying possibilities that this lens provides can inspire and expose photographers to new ideas and concepts that only one focal length could not offer.
Production of the lens lasted until 2007, and Leica continues to offer an alternative “Tri-Elmar” that offers the 16mm, 18mm and 21mm focal lengths.

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