Review: Leica Tri-Elmar MATE — buy one, get two free
An M zoom? Is there such a thing? Well, there is and there was. And there are fresh rumours of another. As any rangefinder fan will know, the concept of an infinitely variable zoom lens doesn’t match the requirements of the rangefinder with its collection of alternate framelines for specific focal lengths. So any zoom lens has to have a step function locking in specific focal lengths for which suitable framelines exist.
I rather warm to the idea of a stepped zoom. It’s welcome on the little Leica D-Lux, for instance, which can be set to step between conventional focal lengths. In some ways it is preferable, from a creative point of view, to having an infinitely variable range of focal lengths.
Many beginners (who almost always start with a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a kit zoom, usually 28-85mm (or 18-55 in APS-C, 14-42 in m4/3), spend too much time zooming and not enough composing the picture properly. It’s something else to adjust and slows down the picture-taking process. Worse, it can result in over-cropping which cannot be recovered subsequently.
With the Tri-Elmar you have the best of both worlds — the fixed focal length of a prime lens with the convenience of a bag of lenses in one compact unit.
There’s nothing new in the idea of an M zoom. It has been well explored in Leica M circles. There have been two such lenses, both called Tri-Elmar, each offering three distinct focal lengths. The wider lens, with 16, 18 and 21mm framelines, is still in the catalogue and is known as the WATE (Wide-Angle Tri-Elmar).
But its forerunner, the MATE (Medium-Angle Tri-Elmar) — the subject of this review — with its trio of 23-35-50mm focal lengths is no more. It was discontinued in 2007 after a production life of only nine years. Designed by the legendary Dr. Walter Mandler, the lens comprises eight elements in six groups. Cost of manufacture — this is a very complex lens apparently — is generally believed to have been the reason for its premature demise.
Yet this doesn’t explain why the WATE, which was introduced only in 2006, is still a current lens. I would have thought that the manufacturing challenges are similar. A lens expert such as Erwin Puts will probably have the answer to that. In any case, I suspect the MATE would still be a popular option if it were still in production. Fortunately, it is still available on the secondhand market but is quite sought after, thus not too common.
Recently, with the introduction of the much-improved Visoflex on the M10, the attractions of a zoom lens are again apparent. There have been rumours of a new M zoom but no concrete information. It is possible to use R zoom lenses on the M10, so a slightly smaller iteration with an M mount, avoiding the need for an adapter, is an enticing thought.
What form could such a lens take? I think we need look no further than the stunning 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit of the SL system. Scaled down, by removing all the electronics and, of course, the autofocus gubbins, a manual zoom with high image quality potential is a viable proposition. I for one would welcome such a beast. Rangefinder fans wouldn’t use it exclusively (and nor, as far as I believe, did they ever use the Tri-Elmar exclusively) but it would be fun to own and use on occasion.
But let’s stick to what we know. I don’t have direct experience of the current WATE (16-18-21mm) but I do own a fine late example of the MATE (28-35-50) and a superb lens it is. I bought mine from David Stephens of the Leica Store Manchester a couple of years ago. The MATE has a fixed maximum aperture of f/4 (it goes down to f/22) which is better than you will get on a typical kit lens. Even at f/4 it can produce a good amount of subject separation and bokeh. And, with the higher ISO capabilities of the M10, the scope of both Tri-Elmars in low-light conditions is widened.
Don’t be put off by the f/4 maximum aperture. The MATE makes a great general-purpose lens and is ideal for travelling. Not only does it remove the need for lens swapping, it helps keep your sensor free of dust. In hot, dusty climes this lens could be your saviour. For landscapes, portraiture and street photography it makes a lot of sense. Set it to f/8 and you have the perfect street photography tool. The three focal lengths are the very ones that occupy centre ground in the street photographer’s rule book and are really all you ever need.
The middle setting, 35mm, is the generally acknowledged sweet spot for street shooting, with 50mm being the “standard” focal length for Cartier-Bressonist traditionalists. The wider 28mm focal length, after going somewhat out of fashion for a time, is now back in vogue among Leica owners following the success of the Leica Q. I have the personal experience of growing to like and appreciate the 28mm focal length during my time with the Leica Q, my Leica of the Year in 2015
So, all in all, this MATE is just what you need to replace three individual lenses. For what it achieves, it is remarkably compact. Measuring only 70mm from tip to tail, the lens is commendably slim (49mm diameter) and light (330g). It compares well with a typical kit zoom in these respects. On the other hand, it is built like a tank and exudes typical Leica M quality. Admittedly it is 28mm longer and about 100g heavier than a 50mm Summicron; if you prefer to work with 28/35 and never use 50mm, the added length could be seen as a nuisance. But as an allrounder it is unique in the Leica firmament. It is certainly lighter than carrying three separate prime lenses and you can get away without a camera bag.
The Tri-Elmar MATE has two adjustment rings — aperture to the front and zoom behind. This comes as something of a surprise to seasoned M-lens users and takes a little getting used to. The zoom element has just three click settings, 28, 35, 50. What most people notice, and initially dislike, is that the markings are 35-50-28 with 50mm as the central, default position. There could be very good optical/mechanical reasons for this layout but, after time, you do begin to appreciate it.
With 50mm as the central reference point, you can adjust the focal length easily by feel. Turn to the right and you are at 35mm, two clicks back and you are at 28mm. I am fully at ease with this layout and wouldn’t want to change it. Incidentally, it is possible get a picture at an in-between setting if you are lucky, but I don't see any particular reason to want to do this.
Inboard of the zoom ring, next to the lens mount, is a confusing depth of field scale. Yes, even with this stepped zoom creation you get your precise scale to help with calculation of zone focus. The graphics and crazy connecting lines are a work of art and take some fathoming. But, again, it’s something you soon get used to.
My example, which is the later 49mm-diameter Tri-Elmar, has exceptionally smooth control rings and it is generally an ergonomic delight. You’ll be at home with this lens in minutes. Note that the earlier lenses, made between 1998 and 2000 had a wider diameter filter ring of 55mm. The two versions of the late model, with the 49mm filter like mine, are the more popular and more plentiful. Black is more plentiful, chrome will command a premium.
A relatively small point is EXIF data with this unusual lens. Most examples of the MATE were not six-bit coded. Indeed, although there is a code to match the lens I am not sure if any of the production lenses were in fact coded at birth. I've had mine coded by Red Dot Cameras in London and it's worth doing if you intend to make a lot of use of the lens. All M digitals will recognise the selected focal length, because of the linkage which selects the appropriate framelines, but the lens designation will not be recorded unless the lens is coded. Incidentally, I believe that the wide-angle Tri-Elmar doesn't transmit focal-length details to the camera because there are no framelines to select at wider angles. On the plus side, though, most — if not all — WATEs will be six-bit coded..
While an M rangefinder will recognise the focal length and populate the EXIF data accordingly, if the MATE is used on a non-M camera (such as the Leica SL or a Sony A7) the camera has no way of knowing which focal length has been selected. I found this a disadvantage on the few occasions I used my Tri-Elmar on the SL. But then do I have a proper zoom for the SL, if a bit on the large side.
So how does it perform? Does the zoom facility impair image quality as is often the case with a cheaper multi-purpose lens, but less so with professional lenses built to Leica’s exacting standards? Well, as you can imagine with Leica, this is a well engineered confection both mechanically and optically. I have been delighted with the overall results. I find the lens sharp even at the widest f/4 aperture and notice no real improvement in sharpness as it is stopped down to f/8. This is unusual and helps us live with the relatively slow aperture. I am happy to use it at full aperture without any worries about sharpness. As Leica expert Erwin Puts says,
“The (Tri-Elmar) hardly improves on stopping down and this statement is true for all three focal lengths. This behaviour is only possible in a very well corrected optical system. It also means that the (Tri-Elmar) exhibits excellent optical performance at its full aperture.”
He is the first to say that the MATE does not ultimately perform as well as modern prime M lenses in the three focal lengths, but
“The Leica user who needs outstanding performance at apertures wider than f/4,0 and/or big enlargements showing the smallest image detail with great clarity and contrast needs to (use individual prime lenses)”
The point is that Erwin is talking about the very top level of clarity and sharpness, not to mention the very top level or pernicketiness among photographers. No names, no pack drill. For lesser mortals such as me and thee the Tri-Elmar’s three focal-length options provide more than adequate performance. Add in the convenience of the three-in-one focal lengths and you have a compelling lens.
Below: Three-in-one without changing lenses. Small beer for mirrorless or DSLR fans but an unusual opportunity for M shooters. Tri-Elmar at 28, 35 and 50mm, Leica Monochrom Mk.I (Click to enlarge)
I find only one annoying problem with the MATE and that is the minimum focal distance of 100cm. It can be restricting, even for Leica-M photographers who are used to the 70cm distance of most modern lenses. And for users of mirrorless cameras and DSLRs with autofocus lenses, even 70cm comes as a shock. (Note that the still-current WATE lens features a surprising minimal focal distance of only 33cm and also differs from the older MATE in stopping down to only f/16 instead of f/22).
My old friend Don Morley, a seasoned and noted photo journalist, has been a Leica user for over 60 years, cutting his teeth on the IIIf before moving to Ms. He it was who first interested me in the Tri-Elmar when we went out on a photo walk back in 2014. I had the opportunity to try his late-model MATE and it was this that prompted me to buy my own copy.
Although Don no longer owns the lens, he tells me that he has always loved the late-model MATE (the one with the 49mm filter, just like mine). The original (55mm filter) version, he says, made it easy to miss pictures because it would sometimes fail to locate properly in its focal-length notch. However, he does have reservations over the performance of the later MATE at 28mm:
“Basically the MATE was pretty near as good in optical performance terms at 35mm and 50mm as the 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH and the final 50mm f/2 Summicron. However it was not as good as I would have liked at 28mm. As I happen to like the 28mm focal length and use it a lot (Leica Q for instance) I found this frustrating as it meant I also had to carry my 28mm f/2 Summicron ASPH as well — and this rather defeated the object. Additionally I was often very frustrated by the fact the MATE does not focus in nearly as close as any of the primes, indeed this often was its biggest downside.”
Above: Subtle but different: The first three views of the ancient Dove pub on the River Thames at Hammersmith in London show the Tri-Elmar at 28, 35 and 50mm, taken with the Leica Monochrom Mk.I. The fourth shot was taken on an earlier occasion with the 50mm Apo-Summicron ASPH mounted on the Leica M-P and converted in Silver Efex-Pro (Click to enlarge)
That said, I think he would agree with the statement that the Tri-Elmar 28-35-50 is an interesting lens that makes a fine addition to your lens collection. It is unsurpassed in convenience for travel purposes and as a general-purpose optic.
One dealer in used Leica equipment, Will Tang of Aperture Photographic, told me that they don’t see the Tri-Elmar in any of its forms very often.
“This is probably one of the least common lenses to see someone using, with most people falling for the allure of a Summicron or Summilux prime lens. Often, however, the Tri-Elmar is billed as a travel lens for photographers not wanting to carry around a stable of lenses. For that purpose, the smaller aperture allows for a smaller and lighter lens."
I would go as far as to say that this is a perfect lens for street and urban photography, despite its 70mm length. These three focal lengths are all you really need for a city walk — 28mm for the wider scenes including architecture, 35mm for general shots and 50mm for the odd portrait or closer view. While I wouldn’t recommend the Tri-Elmar as your only Leica M lens — it is a bit of an oddball after all — it does make a very interesting and convenient alternative to a bag of primes.
If you can find a good example buy it. This is a lens that can only go up in value.
All photographs in this article taken by Mike Evans
Above: A complex lens. The later version of the Tri-Elmar Mate has a 49mm filter thread and is relatively compact, with the benefit of a focus tab. Note the complex depth-of-field scale and the two adjustment rings, focus nearer the front of the lens and zoom in 35-50-28 steps to the rear (Photo L-Camera-Forum Wiki - see the full entry here).
- Erwin Puts on the Tri-Elmar MATE
- Ashwin Rao on the Tri-Elmar
- Places to look: Aperture Photographic, Red Dot Cameras, Peter Loy, MW Classics, Richard Caplan. Leica Store Manchester, Real Camera Manchester, Croydon Photo Centre, JK Cameras
- Typical prices: The earlier 55mm filter Tri-Elmar will cost around £2,500-£2,700 while the more desirable later lens with the 49mm filter ranges from about £2,700 to £3,500 depending on condition. When buying make sure that the framelines click into place accurately as you try the lens on your camera and as you turn the zoom ring.
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