Baby Balda: A Camera named Lisette

Camera people tend to be a particular batch.  They like to stick with names with which they are comfortable.  Witness any number of people who stick to certain lines in their modern day digital repertoire. There are any number of photographers who swear by Nikon or Canon and who will not shoot with anything else. 

Film photographers may be willing to experiment around a bit more with now "vintage" equipment being more affordable, but there is still bias.  Contax, Zeiss, Leica, and Schneider are a few of the names that come to mind as being among the preferred names to see on a lens of a film camera, and with these names comes a certain appeal.

I've got a few film products with both Zeiss and Schnieder glass, and they are exceptional. However, personally, there is one specific name that evokes a certain bit of love when it comes to color rendition in my film images... "Trioplan."  

This adoration of mine sprung forward in an almost accidental way, from a camera I didn't expect to like a lot, but which floored me with its image quality: the Balda Pontina.  This late 1930's gem has a special place in my collection, the majority of which results from the lens it bears: a simple triplet lens made by Meyer Gorlitz called the Trioplan. 

Lenses with the Trioplan name carry a bit of a following among folks using adapted lenses on digital bodies, as they can produce almost ethereal images filled with lovely bokeh. However, these Trioplan badged lenses are ones designed for use on (usually) Exakta SLR bodies.  

What is most perplexing about my love for the results on color slide film that I've gotten with my Trioplan equipped Balda is that this uncoated lens was really never designed with color film in mind.  As such, its lovely color results seem more the result of a happy accident than any engineered design.  Was this just a fluke? I had no way of knowing, but what I dod know was that the more I got results back from the Balda, the more I wanted to pick up another Trioplan equipped folding camera.

Around the same time, I was encountering continued issues with my Franka Solida. With an f/2.9 Schneider lens, it was the "fastest" medium format camera in my collection, and its images shot wide open were really nice, but it had a very undependable shutter that hung, leading to wasted time and film trying to get good results.  

So when I started to see occasional listings for some small 6x4.5 cameras by Balda, Certo, and Welta equipped with f/2.9 Trioplan lenses, my interest was certainly piqued.  It seemed like it could be perfection for me to have a camera that had a lens with the speed of the Schneider, the color rendition of the Trioplan, and the compact size and ability to shoot 16 exposures to a roll like the Ikonta A.
The coveted goal of my interests: a lens line I really liked with the fast maximum aperture I wanted.

Despite seeing a few of these emerge on ebay in the Spring, I was only willing to pay but so much for this dream camera.  After getting outbid on several auctions, I finally secured a fast f/2.9 Trioplan equipped little mini-folder at a price that didn't break the budget.

The little Balda looks very much like its larger sibling, down to its details like the film winding knob and the viewfinder. 

The camera hosting this glass is a Balda Lisette, certainly among the more poetically named of the German camera models of that time.  Though slightly larger than the Ikonta A, the camera is still very diminutive compared to any 6x9 folding camera.  Sporting a convenient flip up finder and a traditional Compur shutter, the camera is certainly no slouch when it comes to capability. 

The Lisette came equipped with a Compur shutter that fired well at nearly all speeds, a very reassuring result from a camera that is nearly 80 years old. 

Of course the story doesn't end here, as the real questions begin.  Could this camera become as endearing to me as its big brother Pontina? Will this Trioplan render color similarly to the lens on the Pontina?  Will the sharpness and bokeh be on the same level as the Schneider Radionar f/2.9 on my "anonymous Franka?" Obviously, the only way to find out would be to test it, and test it I did, loading up a roll of Velvia 50 to see what this little 1930's camera could do.  Below are the results, as well as my thoughts. 

Since a big consideration for getting this camera was to make use of its fast maximum aperture, I couldn't resist taking the first shot wide open.  At an aperture of f/2.9 for 1/10 second, I got the following.  Reasonably sharp in the center, with lots of fall off at the edges, but some very pleasing color.

Another shot at f/2.9, this time at 1/50 second.  The lighting of the scene is a bit too challenging for the narrow exposure latitude of Velvia, but some good color rendering remains evident nonetheless.

A sunny morning under partial shade allowed me to us the wide f/2.9 aperture at 1/250 second for this test shot at fairly close focusing.  Lovely shallow depth of field, pleasing bokeh, and fantastic color rendition make this shot just what I had hoped for.

Stopped down to f/8, the Trioplan offers some better sharpness across the frame, but the 1/250 second shutter speed didn't quite stop all the action in the frame, as seen on the numbers on the bus.

I stopped this one down just a bit to f/4 for a 1/100 second exposure. Since the majority of the frame is distant, it doesn't really work too well from a focus sharpness point of view.

Another f/8 shot at 1/100 second shows problems across the frame.  The shutter seems too slow to have stopped any action, resulting in blur in the center, while the sharpness outside of the center is problematic, resulting in even more blur.  

Stopped further down to f/16 however, the Trioplan combines the lovely rendering, particularly on blue shades, with some extremely good sharpness.  The exposure for this was 1/100 second.  Note the evidence of a light leak in the bellows.

The brightness of the scene allowed me only enough latitude to stop this down to f/5.6 at the 1/250 fastest speed, even with ISO 50 film.  The result is still fairly sharp on the in-focus parts while leaving a nice blue to the distant elements.  Yep, the light leak shows up again.

I focused this shot taken at f/5.6 about on the near tree, which rendered well, but the backdrop has a nice soft portrayal.  The glare is common given I shot this 1/250 second exposure towards the sun.

Under more subdued backlight, taken at f/4, I got a pretty decent result from this exposure of 1/250 second.

Even at f/8, this 1/100 sec. exposure shows mushniess along the outer portions of the frame, while the center holds no real item of interest for the eyes.  

Center details on this shot at f/5.6 for 1/50 sec. are particularly sharp, but the sides of the frame show a pronounced blur to them.

The small size of the Lisette allowed me to hand hold this shot taken at f/2.9 for 1/25 sec., with little in the way of side effects.  

On the last shot of the roll, I got one of my favorites of the batch.  Shot at f/2.9 for 1/100 sec., this shot offers a really nice three dimensional effect between the bicycles in the foreground and the highly blurred backdrop.  

So have I found the perfect camera, as well as a fitting replacement for my beleaguered Franka?  Not hardly.  The Trioplan on the Lisette has weaker edge sharpness than the much more capable Radionar.  That all said, I can see a lot of promise in the Lisette in the right conditions.  It seems a very fitting conduit for shooting centered closer subjects with narrow depth of field for a good effect that pops.  As well, it is particularly sharp when stopped down to around f/16.  Finally, the lens renders colors amazingly well for being over 75 years old.  I'm looking forward to thinking of fun new ways that I can use this camera within its confines to play on its strengths to deliver some great images!