Leica Thambar, a creative portrait lens review

The Thambar is not for everyone. Let's make that clear. We are living in an era where we can design and manufacture lenses with incredible optical features, which can capture even the smallest detail in the most complex lighting conditions. So, when I received one of the first models of this lens and mounted it on my Leica M10, I struggled as where to place it among all the other 90mm I own, or have been lucky enough to try.

If you are looking for the maximum resolution, detail and optical quality possible in a 90mm, I can only dispassionately recommend the APO-SUMMICRON-M 90mm f/2 ASPH, one of the greatest portrait lens ever made.

If you already own a 90mm, and want to venture into new creative fields, then you should give this lens a try. The design project for this lens dates back to about 90 years ago.

The Thambar saw the light in the 1930's. The name derives from ancient Greek and can be translated as "something that arouses wonder."

The lens was designed by Max Berek, and slightly less than 3000 were made between 1935 and 1942. The main feature is the considerable amount of residual spherical aberration generated, which results in photographic results we could term "soft-focus".

The lens kit features a filter with a central darkening circle, 1cm in diameter, which causes a blurring of the image's center and not just the edges. Two scales of the diaphragm are marked on the lens barrel: the white one indicates the aperture with the filter not present, while the red can go up to f/6.3 and indicates the presence of a filter. The f/6.3 limit is due to the fact that after this value, the filter starts showing on the image in the shape of a circle, which becomes ever more detailed as the diaphragm's aperture is closed.

Angelica. Leica M10 and Thambar-M 90 mm f/2.2

At the time, the lens enjoyed huge success among portrait photographers. The fact it was manufactured in such small numbers has made the Thambar not only historically important, but also rare and therefore sought after by collectors from all over the world.

I've never been lucky enough to try the original model of this lens, so when I fitted the Thambar and started taking my first shots, I wasn't sure how much I would appreciate the results. In fact, the first photographs forced me to re-evaluate the entire portrait session I had prepared.

It is definitely a lens that creates a very distinct style, so I needed to shift paradigm and try a completely different approach. I was no longer in my comfort zone and venturing into unfamiliar territory.

This lens has character. A lot. And don't think you can count on this lens without considering how much the Thambar impacts on the photo's final rendering.

Years of photography have taught me that a portrait is done in two. For the first time I found myself dealing with a third subject, which has made photography sessions a new exciting challenge.

Thambar means "something that arouses wonder" and never has the name of a lens been more inspired. I decided to let myself be amazed and started clicking less with my head and more from the heart. I enjoyed myself so much that when it came to returning the prototype I felt a sense of inner sorrow.

The shutter speeds, the perfect focus, and the classic ratio between times and diaphragms I was used to, were totally usurped by an instinctive approach throughout the session. There were just me, the model, and a lens that responded unobtrusively to all my solicitations. Yet, precisely this lack of control meant I experienced a form of photographing, which will very likely become increasingly relevant in my personal development.

Thambar is a lens that responds very differently depending on the amount of backlight, the contrast ratios in the scene, and what you decide to put between the lens and the subject (from filters specifically designed for the lens, to objects like your hands or whatever else you decide to experiment with).

When asked, "why do you need a lens like this?", I feel like answering that this object requires an elective affinity to be forged, and thus by its very nature, does not fall within the choices made solely for practical use.

It is a lens for those wishing to take creative portraits by adding a lens with a great personality to their artistic journey. You will understand if this tool is for you by simply going to a Leica Store and trying it in person.

It will be akin to being in love, so if something clicks, this lens will definitely become an indispensable part of your kit.