A Review Worthy of the Thambar [Critically Annotated]

“Angelica”. Eolo Perfido. Leica M10 and Thambar-M 90 mm f/2.2


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.

[Oh Boy.]


Leica reviews, even the good ones, tend to be built on an edifice of words, given the ineffability of the subtle enjoyments Leica mechanical cameras have [legitimately] provided discerning lovers of photographic craft. We love our M3’s and M6’s, not because of their technical specifications but because of the ways they provide a unique enjoyment of the fundamentals of the craft of photography, that enjoyment being ergonomic, functional, aesthetic, all subjective things difficult to quantify. Even way back when, reviews of traditional mechanical film Leicas tended to have a poetic quality missing in more pedestrian camera brands because, frankly, the elusive, yet tangible characteristics that set them apart from other cameras were found at the margins of descriptive language, best described via emotional response and metaphor (hence the “buttery-smooth” description of an M’s wind-on. I’ve seen people mock that description; they shouldn’t. It is buttery-smooth. If you can think of a better way to describe it, I’m all ears.)

That sort of review, for better or worse, has followed Leica into the digital age. Now that cameras are computers – the M10 being a computer housed in the form factor of the iconic M cameras, sharing not much else – Leica reviews are now all too often over-the-top reflexive nonsense, vain attempts to justify modern Leica’s luxury pricing model. Sometimes bullshit is just that – bullshit.

We’re starting to see the first “reviews” of the new Leica Thambar lens, one in particular by an Italian photographer Eolo Perfido**, who apparently advertises himself as, among other things, a “Leica Ambassador” (You can find the “review at https://eoloperfido.com/blog/leica-thambar). I will note that Perfido in Italian is Perfidious in English, Perfidious in English meaning duplicitous, deceitful, unfaithful, untrustworthy, which pretty much sums up Mr. Perfido’s “review” from a critical perspective.

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In reviewing Mr. Perfido’s review, I’ve annotated some of his claims with my responses:

“Thambar means “something that arouses wonder” and never has the name of a lens been more inspired.” [Our respective capacities for “wonder” obviously differ considerably. It’s a soft-focus lens that has almost no practical application that can’t be met with a jar of vasoline and a $30 Soviet made Jupiter. The only thing that might arouse something close to “wonder” for me is that Leica have the cojones to market this thing for $6995.]

“I decided to let myself be amazed and started clicking less with my head and more from the heart.” [What the hell does this mean? “Amazed” by what in particular, or is this simply free-floating amazement, something like giddiness after an expensive bottle of Prosecco? Please define a shooting technique that mirrors this new “from the heart approach” and how it might differ from “clicking with your head.” This is a review, not surrealist prose].

“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.” [The Thambar “responds unobtrusively to all [your] solicitations” producing “a lack of control” characterised by “an instinctive approach”? Ok. Totally get it.]

“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.” [But only if I “forge an elective affinity with it,” apparently. Right? I’m confused.]

I enjoyed myself so much that when it came to returning the prototype I felt a sense of inner sorrow.” [Damn right you did. You could have turned around and sold it to some idiot on Ebay for $6000.]

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Footnote**: In his defense, Mr. Perfido has photographed some really cool people, as shown on his blog. Valentino Rossi, perhaps the coolest human being alive, and Jorge Lorenzo, another legendary MotoGP rider, among them. Bravo. My advice: stick to photography and leave the reviews to someone else.

14 thoughts on “A Review Worthy of the Thambar [Critically Annotated]

  1. Kodachromeguy

    That is a lovely portrait of the young lady with side-lighting and the glow to her skin. The Thambar was perfect for this application. I recently had my 1949-vintage Leica IIIC rejuvenated and used it extensively recently. The 50mm f/2.0 Summitar produces a similar glow (i.e., aberrations) at F/2 to about f/2.8. It is fun to use old lenses like this, a relief from the clinical perfection of recent lenses.

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  2. insolublepancake

    If this wasn’t the internet and you couldn’t check such things, I would say, Tim, that you made up this review together with the name of the photographer, which I find almost Pynchonian…

    Reply
  3. Jon

    It’s still a nice lens, albeit a severely niched one, and so expensive. Frivolous? The pictures we take with our iiiG can also easily be taken with a Zorki…but we don’t, do we. I use a iiiG not just because it holds the film flat, but because of the feel and construction, and the marque…and even then it has limitations, but I made the choice. I don’t think we should confuse construction quality and feel with every aspect of specifications – Leica sells on the first and not the second, and always did except in the earliest days or with some of their current glass. You’re right, the review is a bit too poetic; most Leica literature is, and even includes at times the excellent writing on this site (which I adore and quote to others regularly). But I do applaud Leica for making something like this vs. chasing incessant MTF chart comparisons with Zeiss Otus etc…as though the ‘best’ lens is the one that is the sharpest in the corners for an agreed price point. We’re pretty hard on Leica…we applaud them for not being all the other camera companies, yet when they differentiate themselves, we cry foul. The ‘best’ lens (and camera) to me is the one that is decently built, is a pleasure to use, and does what I want. The Thambar is a LOT of money for nostalgia and a one trick pony lens. But for someone who did a lot of studio/beauty/portrait stuff, I’m pretty sure it produces results and will give a lot of joy. Better than a smeared Jupiter? Possibly, or not…but then no one probably notices whether we use a 1950s Nikon RF lens that is technically better than a Leica for its time, or a newer Zeiss Ikon vs. an M4, or an aspherical Lux vs. non aspherical, or the whole entire rationale we have for nearly everything else we own that often contributes more on the ‘before’ and the ‘during’ vs. the ‘after’ and the results. Musicians have no qualms about spending money on certain tools, often elegant and quite highly priced, for sounds, and feel, that they seek. And often that is a $7,000 guitar when ‘a $500 one in the right hands will do just fine’; they’re rarely criticized for doing do. But whenever someone buys something expensive from Leica, they’re now seen unfortunately as a frivolous rich dilettante. Which I’d suggest isn’t always the case.

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    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Jon: I think you’re right to a large extent. We do ask Leica to be different but then often criticize it when it does. Fair enough point, although my main problem with this “review” is that it’s not a review at all but rather a jumbled word-salad that means nothing, and furthermore uses the strategy I see too often employed when Leica requests someone friendly review their product – gross generalizations couched in mystic mumbo-jumbo. Madison Ave calls it “selling the sizzle, not the steak;” that of course is in the context of marketing. This isn’t supposed to be an advertisement but a review, a supposedly objective evaluation of the lens. As such, give me some facts, for example, tell me the thambar is a soft-focus lens and tell me why I should buy it, at its price, as opposed to something else, or nothing. Or, if I should buy it because it’s going to be a collectible, or because it’s a valuable piece of Leica history, then say that. Be honest. That’s the first requirement of criticism. Don’t obfuscate your inability to do so by lapsing into mystical mumbo-jumbo that means nothing. Guarantee you this guy has some sort of remunerative relationship with Leica and this is directed advertisement masked as objective review. It deserves to be ridiculed. C’mon Leica, you can do better than this. Stop treating us all like suggestible herd animals. It doesn’t become you or your loyal customer base.

      You write very well. In one throwaway paragraph I learned more about the Thambar and what it might be, do, and mean than in Mr. Perfido’s entire “review.”

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  4. Scott

    Ridiculous price aside, I don’t understand the whole concept. Variable soft-focus lenses make sense on SLRs, where you can see the effect before you take the picture. On rangefinder cameras you have no idea what you’re getting until after the shutter is pressed. On film rangefinders, not until the the session is over, the model has gone home and the film is developed.
    .
    In 1935 the Thambar was a less than perfect way for “miniature camera” users to approximate the effects that were common, and easy, on view cameras. In 2017, it just doesn’t make much sense.
    .
    If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the “portrait lenses” sold by the low-end mail order houses like Spiratone. These were 100mm f4 (with no diaphragm) doublets that cost about $20. They came with an adapter for your Miranda and they worked fine. I think I may still have one in the basement. I’ll sell it to you for only $4000.
    .
    Regarding the language, gosh, Italian shopping lists sound like that. And I say that con amore e rispetto as someone whose family name ends in a “i”.

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    1. Rob Campbell

      Well, my middle one ends with an “o” and my website’s handle celebrates Rome.

      But regarding the ability to see or, rather, not see the effect of the filter effect prior to seeing the file or film, I’d suggest it doesn’t really matter very much. Once you accept the idea of less than total focus, then it all adds to the overall effect that a lens such as this lets you get; were I using one, I’d simply try to focus on the eyes and let the rest follow as best it may. Of course, unless using live view or similar, which in model-related situations must be a pain in the proverbial, you will, as indicated already, have problems anyway. It’s one of the reasons that the slr system knocked the rangefinder into cult territory: in practical photography, no contest. And before folks invoke zone focussing, nothing prevents you doing that with an sir. But if you bring into the equation af, then zone focussing itself becomes pointless: the camera is smarter and faster than the snapper. I only found this out by experience when I was forced to admit defeat because of old eyes. It was a revelation.

      As for digital cameras losing some tactile/functional quality, the only one lost that annoys me much is the fact that I prefer screens with split-image finders, preferably without a micro prism surround. It wasn’t difficult to set my pair of digi Nikons to as manual as makes no difference. Next to af, Nikon’s feather in the cap has to be Matrix metering which seems to me to be so good as to remove any need to chimp. Unless shooting inside a room towards a widow, always a special case.

      In a previous life I used Hasselblad Softars on both those cameras and also Nikon via filter rings. To pretend that it made a lot of difference to me being able to see the effect on the little Nikon screen would be a fib; it was a one-trick pony for getting pretty halos on backlit hair or other highlights. Years later, I have used a bit of plain glass, not even optical quality, in a Cokin filter holder; a very light touch of Vaseline, to suit the subject’s position within the frame, gives a great deal of control: you apply blur where you like. You can even rotate the filter and place the blur in a different location. Of course, you could do much the same in Photoshop, but non-pro photography is supposed to be fun, and a way to pass the time – I hope, for for me, that’s all I get out of it today. Which ain’t bad, considering the alternatives.

      Would I buy the lens if I already owned the cameras? I doubt it, because I’m simply not in that comfortable fiscal position, but I would think about it…

      😉

      Rob C

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  5. Andrew

    There is one very important distinction between a modern digital Leica like the M10 and a computer, and that is the optical/mechanical rangefinder. Whether I’m shooting with an M2 or an M10, the feel is almost exactly the same, and that is why many of us spend the outrageous amounts of money to have one.

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  6. Randle P. McMurphy

    Why does Leica has the reputation to be a toy for snobs ?
    Because this company produces articles like this !
    Nobody needs it and just a few can afford it to be special.

    Give me a M4 a 35 Cron and a roll of Tri-X and keep this gimmicks…….

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Well, nobody outwith a pro needs any camera – they might just enjoy having one.

      I’d be more than happy to have a Leica, modern and working, given to me as a present! Digital would make more sense because I no longer have a darkroom.

      On the other hand, my current toy is this iPad that’s a gift from my offspring; in the few months that I’ve had it, I’m still learning how to do different tricks with it – as they become necessary – but photography isn’t going to be one of them. I tried to shoot a stolen pic during lunch today, the subject a face just about two feet beyond me, and on the other side of a window. To my surprise, the face was tiny within the frame and there was no way to overcome that without getting even more close to the window – who on Earth needs such wide-angle lenses as standard?

      Rob

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  7. Ed Rubin

    The language in this review reminds of wine reviews talking about tasting the vineyard or the audiophiles talking about $500 cables making the soundstage more open.
    As you said, it’s word salad trying to justify a very expensive thing that is probably not objectively better than similar less expensive things partly by creating an impression of exclusivity. I’d be curious to see how Consumer Reports would test and review a Thambar lens in their dour and data focused style.
    Personally I’ll keep at it with my humble but paid for Nikons, as much as I would enjoy a Leica, just for the sake of using something that was a legend in my youth.

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  8. Rob Campbell

    You send an echo through my mind. Yes, I’d like an M, but only a digital one would make sense for me today – it would have an EVF and a 90mm lens, fast but crisp. C’est tout.

    Rob

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    1. Leicaphila Post author

      What you want exists, Rob. It’s called a Ricoh GXR with A12 M module and VF-2. You can pick them up today for a song and a prayer – $500 for the whole outfit, new in box, from japan. Voila!

      Reply

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