Leica 28-35-50mm Tri-Elmar-M ASPH - The Lens that Seemed Like a Good Idea
This post is really a placeholder for the week. I need to ‘fess up. I’ve been working on two other posts. And normally, I’d be posting one of them. But I haven’t figured out how to present the first one - since Kodachrome doesn’t exist anymore. And the second one uses images I shot in spring - when the temperature was noticeably colder. Unfortunately, the weather is still warmish in Hong Kong, which means that photowalk wouldn’t look quite right - chronologically speaking.
Of course, the next obvious question is why I didn’t drag myself out on a photowalk? It’s not as if Hong Kong is experiencing any inclement weather? There’s been no typhoon as of late, and the sun has been more or less peaking in and out of the clouds. Thing is, I’m somewhat incapacitated by jet lag this week. And even though I didn’t even try to adjust my time when I was in New York, last week, I am seriously having a difficult time readjusting back to Hong Kong time.
And believe me, I had originally intended to go out on a photowalk. Since Anna is about to leave for Taipei this weekend, and won’t be back for a couple of months, it only made sense to see her off until she returns. But since that didn’t work out, my only alternative is to crack open the vaults and find whatever odds and end I haven’t yet shared - literally speaking, my version of the bottom of the barrel. As fate would have it, I have one more warm weather shoot.
In place of what I want to do, I am going to focus my attention on the Leica 28-35-50mm f/4 Tri-Elmar-M ASPH - a lens I couldn’t be less ecstatic about. If this lens doesn't excite you, I wouldn’t blame you for skipping this post. I know I would. But I suppose in the absence of any newsworthy content, I could take this as an opportunity to pontificate my less than enthusiastic view on this lens - especially since it seems to make so much sense on paper.
I mean, how could the Tri-Elmar not make sense to any Leica enthusiast’s bag? As a variable focal length lens that covers the most popular angles of view from 28mm to 50mm, the Tri-Elmar really can’t be looked upon as anything but useful. It was after all positioned in the Leica product lineup as a travel lens for the discriminating photographer who doesn’t want to go sightseeing burdened with a satchel full of lenses. In that way, the Tri-Elmar does seem like a practical choice.
But is it really practical? Does the Tri-Elmar really save the Leica enthusiast en vacances from the million backaches of carrying multiple lenses? Or more to the point, can one truly rely on just the Tri-Elmar while visiting far afield in points unknown? Clearly with a maximum aperture as small as f/4, snapping travel keepsakes can only be possible during the daylight hours. For when dusk hits, and the ambient light fades into the night, it won’t be bright enough to take a proper image.
Admittedly, I got the Tri-Elmar for the sake of slimming down my travel line to the bare essentials. But when it finally came time to pack for a trip, the Tri-Elmar never made the cut. All that sound and fury to lessen my travel burden, signifying nothing in the end. Unexpectedly, the Tri-Elmar is a lens I never use, because its promise of lightening your load isn’t true. That is to say, it needs help in capturing low light bucket list keepsakes on its own.
Invariably, the Tri-Elmar cannot go it alone, since it cannot recover from that loss of two to three stops afforded by faster prime lenses in conventional use. Because of that, the Tri-Elmar must fall back on faster lenses when its maximum aperture cannot overcome the challenge of insufficient light. Even in resorting to ridiculous five-digit high ISO extremes, the Tri-Elmar will likely end up ruining one’s low light proof of pilgrimage by significantly underexposing the documentation.
Being less than accommodating indoors and at night presents the Tri-Elmar with an unwelcome handicap. Essentially, it’s flummoxed by half of all documentary needs. And if the Tri-Elmar needs a nighttime companion, then what’s the point of this supposed one-lens-travel-wonder? Since the Tri-Elmar demands low light relief in another lens, wouldn’t it make more sense to travel with two or three compact lenses of different focal lengths that’s better suited for the challenge?
Early on, I realized just how flawed the Tri-Elmar was in conception. Frankly, it’s not a particularly useful lens in practice. What seems like a good idea on first glance seems less so beneficial upon further inspection. The promise of variable focal lengths at the most popular angles of view does not seem all that useful if the lens is hamstrung in low light. And that just the start of it. There is also an issue of size hampering its user experience.
If the Tri-Elmar were actually a useful lens, one could excuse it for being sizable. But it isn’t useful, which means its relative girth is unjustified. You’re basically carrying around excess weight for no apparent reason. And for the most part, you’re probably favoring one focal length. In other words, that means you’re intentionally shooting a bigger and slower equivalent of a more compact and faster prime - just for the odd chance that you may need to shift the angle of view.
Moreover, it’s not as if the spread in focal length is wide enough for any material benefit. Between 28mm and 50mm, the difference in focal length can easily be substituted by a couple of steps backwards and forwards respectively, when shot at 35mm. Mind you, the 28m angle of view at the minimum focusing distance cannot be replicated at 35mm. That being said, the 50mm angle of view shot at 35mm can easily be replicated by a simple crop.
The Tri-Elmar is too slow, too big, and really doesn’t offer a wide enough spread in focal length to offer any benefit in practice. And as already stated, you’re likely going to favor one focal length in actual use. Because of that, wouldn’t it just make more sense to carry a fast compact lens instead, supplemented by a compact super wide lens and a compact mid-range telephoto lens? I mean, if you need to change the focal length, just switch the lens.
Personally, I believe the best travel alternative to the Tri-Elmar is a three lens combination starting with any version Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron-M as the primary all purpose lens for conventional environmental portraitures and group documentations. Next for wide angle coverage, I favor the Voigtländer 21mm f/4 Color Skopar-M. And finally, I favor the Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f/4 when I need to get closer to the subject or bring the background closer in frame.
If you’re shooting film, the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M (pre ASPH) is the preferred option. And if you insist on fitting a UV filter, the rarer steel rim version is recommended - albeit demanding a significant premium in valuation. That said, the two stop advantage the 35 Cron has over the Tri-Elmar is generally enough to make a difference in handling low light needs. Besides, if you stick with the 35 Cron, all your lenses will benefit from the same size 39mm filter diameter.
If switching lenses is just too much of an imposition for you, then carry a backup camera. Frankly, if you’re not already doing it, you really should. Admittedly, carrying two cameras seems awfully burdensome. But honestly, should one really be taking a chance with only a single camera when capturing travel keepsakes far away from home? A little weight isn’t going to kill you as much as relying on your iPhone for the rest of your visit, should your camera fail. It can happen.
By the way, in no way am I suggesting that the Leica 28-35-50mm f/4 Tri-Elmar-M is an optically inferior lens. On the contrary, its standard of performance is consistent with what’s expected of Leica M-mount lenses. My issue with the Tri-Elmar isn’t its performance, but rather its position in the Leica product lineup. Personally, it just doesn’t make sense to me. You’re basically giving up user experience and speed for a narrow spread of flexibility in focal length.
Images have not been edited beyond narrow tweaking in exposure. Some images have been leveled on Adobe Lightroom. Only one image has been cropped, as mentioned in the caption of the affected image. By the way, I added some comparison images shot on the Leica 16-18-21mm f/4 Tri-Elmar just to spice up the blog post. Even at the time of conducting this photowalk, I knew just how boring this was going to be.