The Leitz Thambar 90mm f/2.2
Why Is It Considered A Legendary Portrait Lens?

Photos © 2004, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

You can see the double aperture scale, in white (no center spot) and red (with center spot).

The 90mm f/2.2 Leitz Thambar is one of those few lenses that is always prefixed "legendary." Designed primarily for portraiture, it was introduced in 1935 in Leica screw fitting, 39mmx26 tpi. It seems to have been discontinued during World War II, although there are scattered reports of availability for a few years after the war.

At most about 3000 were made, probably in eight batches, starting with 226xxx (actually built in 1934) and going through 283xxx, 311xxx, 375xxx, 416xxx, 472xxx, 511xxx, and 540xxx (about 1940). It is anyone's guess how many have survived. Today they are staggeringly rare and extremely expensive: you would be lucky to get away with much less than $1500 for the lens without accessories (center spot, shade, cap), and you could easily pay twice that for a good, complete example with clean glass. In fact, I have seen people ask $4000 and more for mint or near-mint examples. I was amazed when an old friend casually mentioned that he had one and that I could borrow it if I liked.

Now, when it comes to "legends" I'm a bit of a cynic. I've owned a lot of "legendary" lenses--I still have a few--and as often as not, there are modern equivalents that are simply better. I'm even more of a cynic when it comes to soft-focus lenses, especially on small formats. I love my Dreamagon, but it's totally over the top: subtlety is not where it's at. The few other soft-focus lenses I've used for 35mm (and indeed for 120) have completely failed to impress me.

My old IIIa is roughly contemporaneous with the Thambar but unfortunately it has a shutter fault that no one can trace. The attractive brown finish isn't a special custom cover: it's just extreme old age (the camera is pushing 70 years old). I used a Leica MP for actual testing.

I was therefore prepared to be underwhelmed by the Thambar: a quick test, oh, yeah, very interesting, but who'd be fool enough to part with that kind of money for a lens that is way past pensionable age?

Boy, was I ever wrong. Here's one fool who'd buy a Thambar like a shot, if he could afford it. Fortunately, the owner is a good friend and I can probably borrow it again from time to time. And I want to.

Of course I tend to see my wife with a romantic glow anyway, but the Thambar makes her look more like that for everyone. It's not blatantly dishonest like the Dreamagon but it is subtly flattering--or not so subtly at full aperture with the center stop in. Kodak EBX was not the best film for this shot, as it rendered her face rather redder than either of us would like--but she had spent too much time in the sun a couple of days previously. Even so, a low-saturation film such as Fuji Astia would have been better.

It's almost impossible to explain why, and it may not be apparent from the pictures here in Shutterbug. The difference is subtle, but magical. Part of it, I think, is precisely that it is uncoated and "flarey": a coated Thambar would not be anything as impressive.

The word that springs to mind is "flattering," which of course is precisely the purpose of a soft-focus lens. At full bore, or close to it, the Thambar makes a middle-aged woman look 10 years younger; it makes a teen-ager with flawless skin look like a dream of perfection; it makes a child look like a cherub. But even if you are shooting men, and using f/4.5 or f/6.3, it is subtly flattering without being obvious.

Well, OK, it was great in black and white, but how about color? And for other subjects than portraits? Once again, I was astonished. The results were gorgeous: dreamy, romantic, just the right blend of sharpness and softness, and very subtle control of sharpness via aperture. There were no problems with blueness, despite the uncoated lens, though I did use the very deep Thambar lens shade. The only problem I found was that with ISO 100 film (Kodak EBX, my favorite) I had to shoot at 1/1000 sec to avoid overexposure at wide apertures.

Like all soft-focus lenses, the Thambar relies on undercorrected spherical aberration. This means that a point is reproduced as a point plus a halo. As you stop down, this effect diminishes, until by about f/9 it's fully sharp. F/9? Yes. This is one of those prewar Leica lenses that is scaled in the old Continental system, and to add to the fun, there are two iris scales, one in white and one in red. The white scale goes f/2.2-2.4-2.6-big gap-9-12.

5-18-25 and the red scale goes f/2.3 (right alongside 2.2)-2.5 (alongside 2.4)-2.8 (alongside 2.6)-3.2-4.5-6.3.

I've always preferred soft-focus shots of flowers to bitingly sharp ones, and the Thambar is ideal for this. (Kodak EBX.)