AC Gears Bonzart Ampel review

The AC Gears Bonzart Ampel bills itself as a unique tilt-shift camera, but in reality it just blurs the top and bottom of the frame.
Photo of AC Gears Bonzart Ampel

The AC Gears Bonzart Ampel ($180 direct) is a toy camera that’s styled like a classic Twin Lens Reflex (TLR). Instead using one of its lenses as a viewing lens and the other as a taking lens, its top lens is a standard lens, and its bottom is a “tilt-shift” lens. But instead of providing real tilt, or any sort of shift adjustment, it simply blurs the top and bottom of the frame, leaving the center strip sharp. You can get more control over selective blur using a phone app like Instagram, or, if you’ve got an SLR, from a more useful (and less expensive) special effects lens like the Lensbaby Muse or the modestly priced Lensbaby Spark.

The Ampel measures roughly 4 by 2.5 by 2.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 8.5 ounces. Like a TLR, the viewfinder, in this case a 2-inch LCD panel, is mounted at the top, protected by a folding cover. It’s a throwback to the waist-level finders found on Rolleiflex TLRs and Hasselblad V medium format SLRs. But I found that the retro placement was actually a detriment to effectively using the bottom special effects lens in this case. There were times where, in order to get the framing and blur that I wanted from an image, I had to hold the camera sideways or even upside down. A rear LCD would have allowed me to frame the shot without attempting to be a contortionist.

Tilt aside, it also makes shooting standard shots in portrait orientation difficult. Rollei and Hasselblad cameras shoot images in a 1:1 ratio, so there was never a need to change perspective in order to get the desired framing. The Ampel’s 5-megapixel image sensors record in a 4:3 ratio by default, although there is a 1:1 option available in the menu. But enabling it doesn’t show the cropped view in the Live View feed, which is a serious detriment to accurate framing.

According to published specifications the 2-inch LCD is a 960 by 240 panel, but it’s not clear if those numbers are in dots or pixels, and they certainly don’t match the 4:3 aspect ratio. Numbers aside, the LCD isn’t good. The resolution is very low, and it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get an idea of what the blur effect of the tilt lens is doing to the image. My results were much more miss than hit.

In order for a camera like this to really work, you need to be able to control the amount of “tilt,” and the Ampel just can’t do that. True tilt lenses allow you to move the front element of the lens so that is not perfectly parallel to the image sensor, which allows you to do some neat things with selective focus, as a slight tilt will make the normally flat focus plane angled. The Ampel just blurs the top and bottom of an image, and it does it consistently. A strip along the center third of the frame is perfectly sharp, giving way to blur at its top and bottom. It can be a neat effect, but it ain’t tilt, and you need to really be aware of your framing in order to get it to work.

There’s no attempt to emulate true shift, which keeps the lens parallel to the sensor but moves it up, down, left, or right to change perspective. It’s often used by architectural photographers to correct keystone distortion, but most cameras that feature a miniature, diorama, or other “tilt-shift” effect only simulate tilt.

You’ve got very little control over images. The camera only shoots at ISO 100, and its shutter speed and aperture are fixed as well (1/30-second, f/2.8). There’s no flash, so don’t expect to get bright exposures in dim light. Each lens captures a field of view that’s roughly equivalent to a 70mm prime on a full-frame camera. Focus also seems fixed; everything from a certain distance is crisp, but if you try and move in close for a tight shot, you’re left with blur.

There are a couple of controls on the body. Dials on the right side toggle between video (up to 720p) still, and playback modes. There’s a picture effect dial below it—color output settings include Standard, Vivid, Black and White, Sepia, and a green tinted mode called Ref. The front has a shutter release and a button to toggle between the standard top lens and the blurred bottom lens. On the rear, above the battery compartment that houses 3 AA cells, are the power and menu controls. The menu is a bit of a pain to navigate, mainly because the four-way directional pad that is used to navigate is prone to recording a directional press other than the one you intended. By default the camera plays sounds when starting up, shutting down, or taking a photo—these can be disabled in the menu, but you’ll need to use the front shutter button to turn them off, not the OK button that is indicated by the on-screen menu. There’s an SD card slot on the bottom, protected by a rubber flap, along with a mini USB port. The camera had no problems recording images to a 16GB SDHC card.

The Bonzart Ampel is deceptive. On its surface it looks like a fun toy camera that creative photographers can get a lot out of. But its limitations are just too many for it to earn a recommendation, even one with reservations. Its $180 price tag has a lot to do with that. At a third of that price, it could be a neat camera to have on the shelf and break out for the occasional fun shot. But you can get the Lensbaby Muse for a little less money, and a Spark for a lot less money. Both of those special effects lenses give you actual control over tilt, which is a lot more than you can say about the Ampel.

Specifications
Dimensions 4 x 2.5 x 2.3 inches
Weight 8.5 oz
Megapixels 5 MP
Battery Type Supported AA
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
LCD size 2 inches
Interface Ports mini USB
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 100
Type Compact
Sensor Size 1/3.2" (4.5 x 3.4mm) mm
Sensor Type CMOS

Verdict
The AC Gears Bonzart Ampel bills itself as a unique tilt-shift camera, but in reality it just blurs the top and bottom of the frame.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc