A Camera That Turns Real Scenes Into Toy-Like Dioramas

The Bonzart Ampel delivers optically playful tilt-shift photography to amateur photographers.

In 2010, Uniqlo released one of their early digital products (they now have a mini arsenal of them) as part of a branding platform. The online calendar displayed monochromatic dates and times, alongside a rotation of stop-motion video clips depicting scenes of everyday life in Japan. At first blush, the vignettes don’t appear to be of real people but of Lego-like characters dancing around very convincing dioramas.


The people are real, however. The optical illusion was created by tilt-shift videography, whereby the angle between the camera’s lens plane and image plane gets adjusted. This changes the portion of the image that’s cast in sharp relief, as well as what shows up blurry and distorted. The effect turns frames into seemingly miniature toy models. To create the same effect at home, you need a lens add-on that can cost at least $200. But now there’s a slightly cheaper budget: Bonzart Ampel ($180) fakes tilt-shift images using Instagram’s blurring feature.

Sold through AC Gears, the self-described “Whole Foods of electronics,” the Ampel is a lightweight, retro-looking twin lens camera. It’s small–not much bigger than a smartphone–but still packs enough punch to impress professional photographers, says AC Gears founder Kohn Liu.

“Consumers are kind of dumbed down by how convenient everything is now that it’s all on one phone,” he tells Co.Design. “[The Ampel] has a native system built into it that can create something very artistic that your phone can’t produce.”

Ampel is manufactured in Japan, but the name is actually the German word for “traffic signal,” referring to the exterior design that resembles a traffic light. But the Ampel’s guts hold all the power–the camera captures still shots and video, along with digitally created filters in black-and-white, sepia, saturated hues, and a cool, green cast inspired by the Fuji film used for years in Japanese horror films. All these features are controlled via knobs on the camera’s face, so there’s no post-production, and nothing keeping you from filming a Tinkerbell-sized rendition of Godzilla.

The Bonzart Ampel costs $180, and can be found at AC Gears’ online shop.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.