Bursting the Trioplan bubble

There is a growing interest in legacy lenses in recent years. With the rise in popularity of mirrorless camera bodies, and the availability of various lens mount adapters, photographers are testing old glass on modern camera bodies and the results can be surprising. One such lens is the Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f2.8, which became famous due its “soap bubble” bokeh and unique chromatic aberrations. Some time ago, one could find this old lens listed for sale for about $150, but nowadays popularity drove its market price upwards to around $1000. I though I’d share my thoughts about this lens in the context of nature photography, and maybe offer a warning to fellow photographers out there who are considering getting this lens.

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Meyer-Optik Görlitz is a lens brand made in Germany. Founded in 1896, it is most known for its Trioplan lens construction, based on Cooke Triplet. The Trioplan quickly became one of the most popular Meyer lenses because of its special visual properties, and a great deal of its increase in popularity is thanks to online image-sharing platforms that allowed photographers around the globe to learn of its existence. There are even photography groups dedicated to sharing photos of out-of-focus dewy blades of grass taken with the Trioplan. The Meyer-Optik brand stopped lens production in the 1970’s, but due to the high demand, another company, net SE, revived the lens in 2014 and started developing new version of lenses under the Meyer-Optik Görlitz brand (now available for jaw-dropping prices, I dare say). My experience is with the old version of the lens. In fact, the lens I got was even older than what most photographers use, as it belongs to a line that was manufactured in post-war 1952.

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8 testing

Soap bubbles! Also, my first selfie on the blog.

The goal with this lens is to get the “soap bubbles” appearing in the background where specular highlights are present, and for this effect you must use the lens with the aperture wide open at f/2.8. The problem is that an open aperture also translates to a very shallow depth of field. In other words, if you are photographing a big, three-dimensional subject, most of it will be rendered out of focus. Another problem with the open aperture is the loss of contrast; the image comes out very “soft”. Sharpness also goes of out the window. And to top it all the lens signature feature is also its Achilles’ heel: the chromatic aberrations that are responsible for the “soap bubble” effect will cause color fringing in highlight areas of your subject. In addition, compositions rich in highlights will result in a busy background, and those desired “soap bubbles” can actually have a negative effect by distracting the viewer’s attention from the subject.

Longhorn beetle (Taeniotes scalatus). Limón Province, Costa Rica

This photo of a longhorn beetle (Taeniotes scalatus) from Costa Rica shows a negative outcome of the Trioplan characteristics. Too many specular highlights in the background, and your photo might end up like this – a “beautiful” mess.

Longhorn beetle (Taeniotes scalatus). Limón Province, Costa Rica

However, change the viewing angle a little bit, and you might be rewarded with a better, less-distracting result, sometimes with a better color rendition.

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

This photo of a splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) shows another issue of the Trioplan lens – color fringing in highlight areas of the subject itself.

By the way, stop down the aperture to f/4 and the lens performs beautifully, producing punchy, well-rendered images. Alas, the “soap bubbles” are lost.

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

In this photo I closed the aperture to f/4. Very interesting result. I love the creamy background!

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Another photo taken at f/4, notice that the background composition is important if you want to produce a smooth result like in the previous photo. It will not always work.

But my main issue with this lens is a very simple one – it is fully manual. I do not have a thing against manual lenses, in fact I own quite a few and love using them. My problem is the lack of communication between the camera and the lens. After all, this lens has no electronic contacts. The lack of focus confirmation with this lens is the real deal breaker for me here. This is a common thing with uncorrected lenses; whatever appears to be in focus in the camera’s viewfinder is not necessarily in focus in reality. So in order to get a properly focused image you must take several shots and review them on the back screen. Then correct focus by “eyeballing”, and try again. This can take some time, and if your subject moves or is blown by the wind this can be quite nerve-racking. Some of the images you see in this post took over an hour to get, each. I am surprised these subjects were so patient with me.

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Could I have gotten a hold of a bad copy of the lens? Possible. The lens was old, and I am not sure what were the quality control standards when it was made. However, the lens was in overall good condition, despite its ~65 years of age. I do not think the minor scuffs and imperfections on its barrel were enough to deteriorate image quality. Nevertheless, because of the inaccurate focusing issue mentioned above I found the operation of the lens very challenging. This is the most unusable lens I have ever used. Maybe this was fixed in the new version of the lens (I‘d love to hear some input from someone who has it!).

Helicopter damselfly (Microstigma rotundatum). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Helicopter damselfly (Microstigma rotundatum) from Ecuador. Sometimes the Trioplan produces images that look like paintings. If you have a very artistic style as a photographer, you should definitely consider getting this lens.

I hate to say this, but the Trioplan lens is a gimmick. Although it does have some interesting capabilities, if you shoot with it wide open all your photos will have the same look, and this gets old very fast. It’s like the first months after buying a fisheye lens; suddenly your portfolio is flooded with distorted photos, until you realize they all look the same and this is boring. Head over to the flickr page I mentioned earlier and see for yourself, after you review 20 similar photos the wow effect will fade.

Spiny orb weaver (Micrathena cyanospina). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Spiny orb weaver (Micrathena cyanospina) from Ecuador. A slightly different take on the lens’ photographic style.

Leaf-mimicking peacock katydid (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf-mimicking peacock katydid (Pterochroza ocellata) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Don’t get me wrong. In the right hands, this lens can create some of the most visually pleasing images. For some nice examples check out these photos by Nikola Rahme, Alex Mustard, and Matthew Sullivan. If you aim for the artistic look in your photographs, this lens might be the right one for you. But at the end of the day, I ask myself if it is worth it. Its inflated price, all this time spent on composing for the “soap bubbles”, shooting, correcting focus and reshooting, then post-processing to increase contrast, correct the color casts and fringing, and finally sharpening, only to end up with another photo that looks just like any other photo taken with a Trioplan. For me it was not worth it. In the time it took me to photograph a single photo with the Trioplan I could have taken dozens of other great photos, maybe even better ones. Yes, this lens can take some cool-looking photos, but for the financial and personal time investments it gets a huge thumbs down from me. Don’t say I did not warn you. Needless to say I got rid of my Trioplan lens, and treated myself to a true legendary macro beast instead.

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