The release of the Thambar-M 90 f/2.2 makes a unique classic Leica lens available to the modern-day photographer: Leitz’s first and only soft-focus lens, which creates a dreamlike, romantic effect particularly in the portrait range. We talked about the new Thambar-M with Lars Netopil, vice president of Leica Historica e.V. (Leica Historica Association), and owner of the Leica Store Wetzlar, and Jesko von Oeynhausen, product manager for the M-System.
Mr. Netopil, what were Leitz and, more specifically, Max Berek envisioning when designing the Thambar? Which aesthetic movement were they responding to by developing a lens that was so untypical for the Leitz product range?
LN: A great deal of Max Berek’s documents have been preserved, especially technical drawings, calculations etc. But as far as I know, there are none in which he – for example in a letter to a colleague – discussed his thoughts on the development of the Thambar. And there are no longer any contemporaries of that time who we could ask. So all we can do in this regard is speculate. Having said that, you have already pinpointed a vital factor in your question: aesthetic movement. During various periods throughout the history of photography, there was a trend to consciously turn away from the naturalistic, perfectly sharp rendition of objects by introducing a soft focus. In the 1930s, this became a real fashion. The Rodenstock Imagon – which many feel is the definitive soft focus lens – was also made in the 1930s.
How was the Thambar received on the market, and who was its clientele?
LN: Only around 3000 units of the Thambar were manufactured and sold from 1935 to World War II. But that doesn’t mean it was not well received. Those who bought a Thambar had their reasons for doing so, and were sure to have been extremely satisfied with the imaging results – as can be seen to this day by numerous examples in contemporary photo books and magazines. In addition to its classic portrait application, still life images in the close focus range were another domain in which the Thambar excelled. Compared to the 90mm Elmar, the Thambar was an expensive lens, so a certain amount of orders are sure to have gone out to professional studio and portrait photographers, as well as photography artists. However, both then and now, the proportion of Leitz/Leica clientele made up of discerning amateurs should never be underestimated.
The Thambar remained the only Leitz lens of its kind. What is its status among Leica collectors today?
LN: The value of any collector’s item is to a large extent dictated by its rarity. Another deciding factor is the condition, by which today we mean not only the state of preservation, but also authenticity: the Thambar’s lens hood and center spot filter were components which were only available in conjunction with the lens. So what a collector is really looking for today is a Thambar complete with all of its accessory components, seeing as they are virtually impossible to find on their own. A complete Thambar set, beautifully lacquered in its original finish, with clean glass elements, counts as an absolute rarity today – not to mention a full set in the original packaging. Of course the total production quantity plays a part. But collectors also covet the Thambar for the sake of its exotic position in a product portfolio that is otherwise entirely geared towards the sharpest possible rendition. Another factor is that, ever since the introduction of the digital Leica M cameras, there is also a growing interest among photographers to experience the imaging aesthetics offered by Leica’s historic lens designs. Experimenting with unusual lenses such as the Thambar forms a big part of that trend.
Mr. von Oeynhausen, Leica have established a new product line consisting of re-editions of classic lenses, which started out with the release of the Summaron-M 28 f/5.6. Could you outline the concept behind this new Classic Range?
JvO: With both products, we have chosen lenses that are unique both in terms of their optical design and areas of application. They both offer characteristics that are not covered by our modern-day portfolio. While they couldn’t be more different from each other, both lenses have had the same degree of modification. Exterior details such as knurling, engraving fonts and descriptive terms were brought up to date; the optical design was retained, in order to preserve the imaging aesthetics of the original lens. The mechanical construction was also largely adopted from the original design.
However, we consciously want these classic lenses to look like a modern-day product – they are not meant to be replicas. Nor are they primarily intended for collectors. Their purpose is to be applied in practical photography for the sake of their exceptional imaging traits.
Leica is synonymous with outstanding image quality, achieved through utmost dedication to the correction of optical flaws. What has prompted the decision to present today’s M photographers with lenses whose style of rendition is essentially based on aberration? And how exactly is the soft focus effect created within the lens?
JvO: It’s certainly true that, had these two lenses been designed according to the ‘normal’ evaluation criteria of modern lenses, they would have very different traits. In this field, aberrations are reduced to an absolute minimum in order to achieve a crisp, clear and detail-rich image that is almost free of optical side effects. Therefore, the special character of a lens manifests itself more in the background, in the form of bokeh, depth of field, and detail rendition in the close focus range. In the case of classic lenses such as the Summaron and the Thambar, their unique effect is much more obviously apparent. The incredible plasticity offered by the Summaron is largely the result of strong vignetting in combination with high resolution and depth of field. As for the Thambar, it creates a bloom effect, particularly around coarser structures and surfaces, that causes the colours to blur into each other. Yet at the same time, it allows the photographer to make fine details visible, even at open aperture. This results in flattering portraits with a romantic, dreamy look, which the trained eye will immediately attribute to the Thambar.
The effect is very distinctive, and cannot be imitated with a digital filter.
The soft focus effect is achieved by the deliberate preservation of a spherical flaw, which is normally corrected using complex optical calculations. Spherical aberration is caused by the lens’ perimeter rays – which is why it is minimised by stopping down. The Thambar’s screw-on center spot filter consequently offers the opposite effect to stopping down, as it blocks the axial rays and only allows the perimeter rays to pass.
We can see that the Thambar’s exterior has been very carefully adapted to the design language of the present day. But what about its inner workings? Was it possible to adopt the original optical design in its entirety, and perhaps even use the same glass types – which would imply that the elements are uncoated?
JvO: The optical design has been adopted in its entirety, as this ensured that the imaging traits of the lens could be completely retained.
In fact, if you were to compare the new Thambar with an original from the 1930s, you would hardly notice any difference – provided the latter is in good condition. But obviously, the chances of finding a vintage Thambar that is in perfect order, untarnished and free of fungus, are very slim.
In the interest of durability, we decided to treat the glass elements of the new Thambar with a single coating. This has no bearing on the image results in normal lighting situations, and the anti-reflection effect is not as strong as that of modern lenses. In the case of backlighting, an uncoated Thambar is practically unusable, because the image would be covered in large, brilliantly white reflections. So the new Thambar offers a very tangible advantage in addition to its perfect, brand-new condition.
So you could say that the Thambar project is characterised by a wish to retain authenticity wherever it is reasonably possible. As a Leica historian, what other feature did you find important to preserve in this re-edition? For example, the extremely large focusing stroke and the absence of a click-stop aperture are very noticeable to a modern-day M photographer. Is this typical for the style of lens construction in those days, and what other features does this apply to?
LN: This endeavour required a great deal of finesse on the part of the developers, who had to create a sufficiently recognisable reproduction of the lens, while at the same time reinterpreting it in a modern way. They certainly achieved this balance with great success, and the new Thambar-M consequently represents a far more exciting feat than a straightforward replica. Keeping the original aperture scale (…4.5, 6.3, 9, 12…) was of great importance. However, just like the other engravings, the numbers are now displayed in the modern LG1052 (Leitz Gravur) font, which transports the lens into the present day and makes it visually consistent with the contemporary M-System. The knurling has also been brought up to date, using a similar approach as previously with the Summaron-M 28. The 1930s Thambar was, naturally, an uncoated lens. In my view, releasing a completely uncoated lens in the present day would have been a great mistake. To the photographers of the past, the intensity of the blooming highlights and reflections was not so much desirable as simply unavoidable. The new Thambar-M features a single coating, which means that these effects are still rendered as stylistic elements, but no longer have the potential to damage the final image. I’m sure the photographers of the 1930s would have very much welcomed an anti-reflective lens – it just wasn’t available back then.
Do you think that this re-edition could also become a sought-after collector’s item?
LN: Yes, I certainly do. Given the specialist nature of its traits, the Thambar most likely won’t reach the same production numbers as, say, the Leica APO-Summicron-M 90 f/2 ASPH. However, as long as it is featured in Leica’s current product catalogue, its potential rarity will probably not be recognised. Generally this only becomes apparent once a product is no longer offered by standard retailers, but can only be found on the second-hand market. Even in Leica’s more recent history there are plenty of examples, such as the Tri-Elmar-M 28-35-50mm f/4 ASPH. in silver chrome finish. This was not even a limited edition, but a lens that was for sale on the regular market. However, when it was discontinued, the total number of units that had been produced was so small that it turned into a real rarity. Today it usually sells for more than its original RRP.
When it comes to Leica lenses, it seems important to not merely discuss their outstanding craftsmanship, but focus on the practical application that lets us benefit from their excellent imaging performance. So on that note: what exactly do the red and white aperture scales indicate? On what basis do I decide when to use the center spot filter? And which lighting situation should I be particularly aware of in order to best emphasise the Thambar’s particular aesthetic?
JvO: The red scale marks the f-numbers of the effective aperture, which are applicable when you use the soft spot filter. The center spot blocks the axial rays, resulting in the effective aperture being smaller – which means higher f-stop numbers. The numbers also indicate up to which aperture setting it is appropriate to work with the soft spot filter. This is relevant because if you close the aperture too far while the filter is attached, the center spot becomes visible as a dark dot in the middle of your photograph. You should only apply the filter if you want the soft, washed-out effect to really take centre-stage, and fine details are not of primary importance. Even without the center spot filter, the Thambar’s rendition is very soft. Something to be particularly aware of is the proximity of objects. If the lights in the image are heavily overexposed, they radiate far into the neighbouring image areas. This can lead to undesirable effects, but can equally be purposefully used to create a dreamlike aesthetic.
This leaves one last question: what does the term ‘Thambar’ actually mean?
LN: Some Leitz and Leica lenses are named using syllables derived from Greek or Latin. For example, the prefix ‘Sim’ (also ‘Sym’, ‘Sam’ or ‘Sum’) refers to the assembly, the entirety, or the sum. So in the case of the Summar, Summitar, Summarex, Summarit, Summicron and Summliux – which were unusually fast lenses at their respective time of launch – we can assume that their names were chosen in reference to the amount of light they were able to capture. The Greek term ‘thambo’, on the other hand, means ‘blurred’ or, as a verb (thambono) ‘to make something look blurred’. Its figurative meaning is ‘to be blinded by beauty’ (me thambose me teen omorfia tis).