This week saw the return of a legendary piece of Leica craftsmanship in the form of the Thambar-M 1:2,2/90 mm lens. The Thambar was first produced in 1935 and was cause for great surprise. Leica had become synonymous with unparalleled image quality and sharp focus, yet the Thambar went against the grain, creating its very own soft-focus effect and with it the possibility of a new romantic aesthetic.
Member of the Chinese Photographers Association and the British Royal Photographic Association, Jolie Luo, captured the following series with the new Thambar. We caught up with the Chinese photographer and Instagram sensation to ask about her experience shooting with the Thambar and her take on its endless creative possibilities.
Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?
I like traveling around the world recording beautiful moments with my camera.
How did you first get into photography and what twists and turns has your journey taken so far?
As my father is a photographer, I started taking photos of my parents when I was 2 years old. I enjoy the journey of photography. Although I’ve collected a variety of different experiences, I still believe you reap what you sow.
When did you start shooting with Leica cameras and how has your relationship to the brand evolved?
I used to shoot on analogue film at the beginning and owned a Leica M6. After that, I collected a lot of classic Leica cameras and this is where the connection between Leica and myself was formed. I have taken photos in Greenland with the Leica SL, Afghanistan with the Leica Q and shot the promotional video for the Leica Sofort. When the Leica M10 came out, I shot the launches and photo fairs for Leica Camera Greater China. Each of the Leica cameras is different from the next and my close relationship with Leica comes from my love and passion for the brand and photography itself.
Where did you shoot the series?
I shot the series in Dali, China in August when the first Master Class of the Leica Akademie Greater China was held there. At that time, I documented Patrick Zachmann giving his master class for the Leica Akademie Greater China. The scenery of Dali is graceful and calm. One day, I happened to being taking a walk in a park there. I saw the shadows of trees and the reflection of the sunlight on the lake. I couldn’t help but begin to press the shutter.
Which camera did you use, while shooting this series with the Thambar lens?
The soft-focus is a completely unique feature of the Thambar. How did you go about working with it, compared to a standard sharp-focus lens?
Due to the unique effects provided by the Thambar lens, I usually alternate it with other standard lenses when I am traveling. I use the standard lenses while shooting documentary images, but I like to use the Thambar lens to shoot dreamlike scenes. I have to say that I preferred using the Thambar for a certain period of time because I can look at this world as if in a dream and feel a sense of romance.
The romantic aesthetic of your pictures comes across very well. Do you think that the analogue effect the Thambar provides could be replicated digitally?
The Thambar is a remake of the legendary Leitz Thambar 90mm f/2.2 lens. The soft-focus effect is controlled by the aperture and a unique silver-plated, center-spot filter. The effect is so special that it is almost impossible to imitate with digital post-processing.
Your series has a fairytale feel to it. What was the story you wanted to tell with your pictures?
The series presents a dreamlike perception of nature on a pure and beautiful afternoon. Light, plants, water and people are merged together, giving the viewer a fresh and romantic feeling.
Did you use the center-spot filter, while shooting this series? If so, what were the advantages you noticed?
Yes, I used the filter. The center-spot filter stops the central sharp light getting into the lens. Meanwhile, it lets in more light from the edges of the lens to create the soft-focus effects.
The small depth of field, which the Thambar offers allows for some striking effects. How was the composition of your shots affected by this?
While highlighting the subject, the small depth of field blurs other elements into the background. In this situation, it is particularly important to pay attention to the collocation of the primary and secondary subjects when constructing the images.
The bokeh effects outside the depth of field react wonderfully with both direct and reflected light. How much were you able to play with these effects while shooting with the Thambar?
When the depth of field is so shallow, the composition becomes extra challenging for every photographer because you have to highlight the subject from the blurred background. If you are good at it, the background of your images will be great.
How would you rate the potential of the Thambar as a creative tool overall?
I think the special effect allows for infinite creative ideas. The Thambar is like a paintbrush for photographers, helping to paint unique effects with light and images.
The color palette of your series is very clean, in that it makes use of natural tones of green, brown and blue. Was it a conscious decision to work exclusively with these colors?
To photograph a feeling of purity and romance, I decided to choose natural colors subconsciously, as a simple color range can make the pictures cleaner.
Your series is in some ways reminiscent of the great watercolor painters. Was there a particular artist or style you were influenced by?
I didn’t expect the photos to look like a painter’s work initially; I just feel that the elements outside the focus, or out of focus, are like the strokes of a watercolor painter’s brush.
Do you normally shoot with a 90mm lens? What do you see as the advantages of using a greater focal length?
I don’t normally shoot with a 90mm lens, except when photographing wildlife. This was an interesting experience for me. The advantage of 90mm lens lies in close-up photography. It can capture varying points of view, revealing different scenes. At the same time, due to the long focal length, I can get the smaller depth of field I like so much.
The Thambar doesn’t have f-stop clicks and could be described as a very smooth lens to use. How was the experience of shooting with the Thambar for you?
Thanks to the non-click aperture ring design, it allowed me to focus on taking photos without any noise, in a silent environment.
Would you recommend the Thambar to other photographers?
Yes, I think different lenses provide new ways to see the world. The new unique style of the Thambar creates a fantastic range of emotions.
What advice would you offer to fellow photographers?
I think that all creatures have souls. The Thambar helps capture the misty sense of a Chinese legend or a scene from a dream. When you photograph, you should make full use of your imagination as you step into a dream.
Do you have a project you’re working on now? Do you have any exciting plans for the future?
I’m working on a lot of projects at the moment, such as portraying the lives of women from different social spheres throughout the world. I am also in the planning phase of a dreamland series shot with the Thambar lens.
You can check out more of Jolie Luo’s photography on her Instagram.