Lenses, Prisms and Optics in Scala

5 minute read

This article is for Scala programmers of all levels, who are big fans of the DRY principle. We’re going to explore deeply nested data structures using the Monocle library and the concepts of “optics” in Scala.


Monocle is a popular library for traversing, inspecting and editing deeply nested data structures. In order to use Monocle, add the following to your build.sbt file:

libraryDependencies ++= Seq(
    "com.github.julien-truffaut" %% "monocle-core"  % monocleVersion,
    "com.github.julien-truffaut" %% "monocle-macro" % monocleVersion

1. Lenses

Monocle was invented because nested data structures are a pain to inspect and change. The pain increases with the depth of the data structures. Consider the following scenario: we’re designing an online web compendium of rock bands (Rock the JVM, right?). We’re thinking about the following data structure design:

case class Guitar(make: String, model: String)
case class Guitarist(name: String, favoriteGuitar: Guitar)
case class RockBand(name: String, yearFormed: Int, leadGuitarist: Guitarist)

Let’s assume now that we’ve created some bands for our database:

val metallica = RockBand("Metallica", 1981, Guitarist("Kirk Hammett", Guitar("ESP", "M II")))

Let’s also assume that we have a giant database of guitars, and we want to store them in a consistent format. To comply with that format, we’ll need to replace all spaces in a guitar’s model with a dash (don’t ask why). Normally, we’d have to go through the entire data structure and copy everything up to the guitar’s model:

val metallicaFixed = metallica.copy(
  leadGuitarist = metallica.leadGuitarist.copy(
    favoriteGuitar = metallica.leadGuitarist.favoriteGuitar.copy(
      model = metallica.leadGuitarist.favoriteGuitar.model.replace(" ", "-")

This is a pain. Imagine we’d have 10 places in our small app where we would have to do this. The code would be a mess.

This is where Monocle comes in. Monocle gives us the capability to access a deeply nested field in a data structure, inspect it and/or change it, therefore creating a new data structure as a result.

val kirksFavGuitar = Guitar("ESP", "M II")

import monocle.Lens
import monocle.macros.GenLens

val guitarModelLens: Lens[Guitar, String] = GenLens[Guitar](_.model)
// inspecting
val kirksGuitarModel = guitarModelLens.get(kirksFavGuitar) // "M II"
// modifying
val formattedGuitar = guitarModelLens.modify(_.replace(" ", "-"))(kirksFavGuitar) // Guitar("ESP", "M-II")

So far, this code has the same utility as accessing a field or copying a case class instance. The power of lenses becomes apparent when we compose those lenses:

val leadGuitaristLens = GenLens[RockBand](_.leadGuitarist)
val guitarLens = GenLens[Guitarist](_.favoriteGuitar)
val guitarModelLens = GenLens[Guitar](_.model)
val composedLens = leadGuitaristLens.composeLens(guitarLens).composeLens(guitarModelLens)

The resulting Lens now has the capacity to inspect the Metallica band right down to Kirk’s favorite guitar model, and change it if we want:

val kirksGuitarModel2 = composedLens.get(metallica)
val metallicaFixed2 = composedLens.modify(_.replace(" ", "-"))(metallica)

Now with the lens in place, we can use it everywhere we need to run similar transformations. We aren’t repeating the bulky code for copying case classes.

Why is this pattern called “lens”? Because it allows us to “zoom” into the deeply buried fields of data structures, then inspect or modify them there.

2. Prisms

Prisms are another interesting tool for manipulating data structures. This time, we’re working in the world of hierarchies, usually sealed classes/traits or enums. Here’s a scenario: we’re working on a visual design app and we have various built-in shapes in place. We’d like to be able to manipulate their features while still working against the main “interface”.

sealed trait Shape
case class Circle(radius: Double) extends Shape
case class Rectangle(w: Double, h: Double) extends Shape
case class Triangle(a: Double, b: Double, c: Double) extends Shape

val aCircle = Circle(20)
val aRectangle = Rectangle(10, 20)
val aTriangle = Triangle(3,4,5)

val shape: Shape = aCircle

In this scenario, we’d like to be able to increase the radius of this shape if it’s a Circle, and leave it intact otherwise - all without having to resort to isInstanceOf. Of course, we can do pattern matching:

val newCircle: Shape = shape match {
    case Circle(r) => Circle(r + 10)
    case x => x

But again, if we wanted to apply this transformation to many Shapes throughout various parts of our code, we’d have no choice but to repeat this pattern. Enter prisms:

import monocle.Prism
val circlePrism = Prism[Shape, Double] {
  case Circle(r) => Some(r)
  case _ => None
}(r => Circle(r))

A Prism takes two argument lists, each of which takes a function. One is of type Shape => Option[Double], so a “getter” (we return an Option because the Shape might be something other than a Circle). The other function is a “creator”, of type Double => Shape. In other words, a Prism is a wrapper over a back-and-forth transformation between a Double and a Shape. A prism allows us to investigate a Shape and get a double, or use a double and create a Shape.

val circle = circlePrism(30) // returns a Shape (actually a Circle)
val noRadius = circlePrism.getOption(aRectangle) // will return None because that shape is not a Circle
val radius = circlePrism.getOption(aCircle) // returns Some(20)

This seems complicated at first, but it clears a lot of boilerplate, for several reasons:

  • the prism’s apply method acts as a “smart constructor” which can instances of Circle for us
  • we can safely inspect any shape’s radius even if it’s not a Circle - this saves us the need to repeat the earlier pattern matching

Both of the above can be used at any point inside our application, without the need to type-check or pattern match every time.

Why is this pattern called a “prism”? Because from the many types (facets) out of a hierarchy of data structures (prism), we’re interested in manipulating a single subtype (a “face”). Together with the lens pattern above and with a bunch of others, the Monocle library describes itself as an “optics” library for Scala.

3. Composing Optics

Probably the most powerful feature of Monocle is the ability to compose the above patterns (and others). We can inspect and/or modify nested data structures by combining the capability to zoom in (lens) and to isolate a type (prism).

Imagine somebody is designing a brand identity with our visual design app:

case class Icon(background: String, shape: Shape)
case class Logo(color: String)
case class BrandIdentity(logo: Logo, icon: Icon)

If we want to change tha radius of the icon of a brand - assuming it’s a circle, or leave it intact otherwise - we would create the appropriate accessors (lenses) and modifiers for our desired type (prism):

val iconLens = GenLens[BrandIdentity](_.icon)
val shapeLens = GenLens[Icon](_.shape)
// compose all
val brandCircleR = iconLens.composeLens(shapeLens).composePrism(circlePrism)

With the above in place, we can take some brands and apply a transformation:

val aBrand = BrandIdentity(Logo("red"), Icon("white", Circle(45)))
val enlargeRadius = brandCircleR.modify(_ + 10)(aBrand)
// ^^ a new brand whose icon circle's radius is now 55

val aTriangleBrand = BrandIdentity(Logo("yellow"), Icon("black", Triangle(3,4,5)))
brandCircleR.modify(_ + 10)(aTriangleBrand)
// ^^ doesn't do anything because the shape isn't a triangle, but the code is 100% safe

All of the data access and manipulation is now reusable throughout the entire application!


You now know the optics approach to accessing, inspecting and modifying nested data structures. Let me know if you liked it, and I’ll write a follow-up to it with more advanced usage, including collections, isomorphisms and integration with Cats!