From the very beginning, Leica lenses have always had a very high reputation for their sharpness and their special tonal performance. This was a prerequisite, demanded by Oskar Barnck and realized by Max Berek with even his first lens designs for the Leica.
As a matter of fact, Leitz had been criticized from time to time for not having any good portrait lenses. Many Leica users thought that the Leica lenses were often too sharp for portrait work. That gave the impetus for Max Berek to design the Leitz Thambar at the beginning of the 1930s.
The Thambar was a soft focus lens, displaying some rather unique characteristics, which made it one of the premier portrait lenses of the time. The soft focus effect was the result of the lens having been purposely designed with a considerable amount of residual spherical aberration. The name Thambar was derived from Greek, meaning “something that inspires wonder”, or wonderful. The lens was comprised of four elements, with the two central elements cemented to form one group. A very similar formula was later chosen for the 125mm Hektor for use on the Visoflex.
Leitz Thambar on a Leica IIIc with VIDOM viewfinder
The spherical aberration of the lens was produced primarily at the outer perimeter of the lens. Stopping it down to smaller apertures would reduce this effect and it was totally eliminated at f/9. To further enhance the soft focus effect, the lens came supplied with a special, clear filter that had a one centimeter mirrored spot in the center which eliminated the sharp image created by the center of the lens.
Element configuration of the Thambar with installed filter on left
Leitz New York Thambar brochure
The maximum aperture of the lens was f/2.2. This was reduced to f/2.3 with the center spot filter in place. For that reason the Thambar had two aperture scales, one in white for the f/stops without the filter and one in red for the stops with the filter installed. The red scale went from f/2.3 to f/6.3 because above f/6.3 the filter became useless. The maximum soft focus effect was obtained with the lens wide open and with the filter installed. Stopping the lens down would diminish this effect, thus giving the photographer full control over the amount of soft focus. Photographing with back lighting or lighting that produced flare would further increase the soft focus effect. The distance of the subject also had a significant effect on the softness.
The Thambar actually was relatively difficult to use because the rangefinder of the camera did not allow the soft focus effect of the lens to be seen. Subsequently a fair amount of experience was necessary to use the lens effectively.
The production of the lens started on 1935 and ended in 1949. According to company records, about 3000 lenses were produced. Today the Thambar is one of the most sought after pieces by Leica collectors. Even though a production of 3000 lenses is not all that rare, it is difficult to find complete sets with the original filter, and sets complete with the filter and the original red boxes are quite rare. The Thambar is indeed a legendary piece of equipment among Leica enthusiasts.