If you enjoyed my post on the zone system you may be interested in this. I’ve written a longer version for the Intrepid Camera Company, which includes some practical exercises. You can click on the Tweet above, or the button below.
In the style of contemporary reviewers, I’m going to offer my conclusion here at the start. The Intrepid is a superb camera, consisting of the right compromises of design and cost, and ideal for those who are looking to make a first foray into large format. It is, in essence, a great ‘learning’ camera: affordable, light and straightforward to use.
I write this review as an experienced photographer, especially a 35mm one. I don’t have familiarity with a wide range of makes and models of large format camera. If you are looking for commentary on how the Intrepid compares to other, perhaps more refined (and almost certainly expensive models), I’m afraid you will have to look to other reviews. It is a fact that other models offer additional movements that the lightweight Intrepid does not. As you will see shortly, I am inclined to see the Intrepid in the context of its budgetary brief and accompanying design compromise. As a small format photographer who has a long-held ambition to get into large format in a more serious way (I have dabbled in the past), I reason I may be exactly the kind of person the Intrepid is marketed to. That puts me in a good position as a reviewer.
So what greets you when you open the box? The Intrepid is made in a small workshop in Brighton and immediately strikes you as a handmade object. It is constructed mainly from birch plywood, along with metal and plastic knobs, threads and gears. The aesthetic is resolutely ‘utilitarian’, and to my eyes, there is a certain beauty in this.
The finish is rugged, business-like and a little, well, unfinished - by which I mean it is not sanded and treated to the smooth furniture-like skin of other more senior models. We are meeting here some of the compromises of which I wrote a moment ago. (As this review progresses I will develop this idea of compromise because I think it is essential to arriving at an informed judgement.) Along with the finish, one also notices a characteristic smell. The wood is protected with and has the sweet smell of wax. This smell persists as you put the camera to use, and I personally found it pleasurable and evocative of my experience with the Intrepid.
The camera begins folded down, and, with some simple movements and a little tightening of the appropriate knobs, is ready for business. The rear of the camera simply folds up at a ninety degree angle and this, when tightened, is where it is left. The designers have decided to leave the rear standard without adjustment and this simplifies setup and use (although naturally reduces flexibility, especially if you are use to extensive movements). The front standard is more complex offers rise and fall as well as tilt and swing.
The bellows are flexible, if a little stiff to begin with, and extend far enough to offer some great close-focussing. The camera takes Technika style lens boards and will accommodate a wide range of lenses from what, at the time of writing, is a very plentiful second hand market (I can’t see anyone buying a new large format lens for an Intrepid, but I suppose folks have their own circumstances and needs).
The rear of the camera is interesting and has been very carefully thought through. The camera comes with a ground glass (with useful grid lines etched on), and the focussing plate is attached with thick elastic rather than the more conventional springs. The back is eminently flexible, having Graflok clips, and will accommodate a wide range of alternative backs (polaroid would be one obvious choice). The mechanism for changing from portrait to landscape is of the rotating kind. One simply puts one’s finger in the corner at the rear and with a gentle push the rear section (complete with ground glass) will spin and the format change is achieved. A great mechanism (I believe there is a round metal track inside) that is very practical.
It is all very well considering the camera and its controls in isolation, but how did I find it to use? In short, it was a pleasure. Large format cameras are essentially simple things, a frame to hold film and a lens at the other end, with a spacer (and darkness, one hopes) in between. Indeed, it is somewhat ironical with large format photography that while the equipment becomes much simpler than sibling formats, the shooting procedure is complex and very demanding of the photographer. The workflow has many aspects, and with that, many ways to make mistakes.
It does take some time to learn how to setup and use the Intrepid, but this soon becomes second nature, and really the time it takes to get the camera from folded to shooting is very short indeed. There are a number of knobs that need to be tightened, as described above, and one soon learns where these are and how much pressure needs to be applied so as to get solidity without risking damage to the camera’s threads. There are three different positions for the front standard, depending on the focal length of lens you are using. These are usefully marked out for you, and there are metal female threads to receive the securing knob. The front standard itself has a notch cut in it that the screw shaft goes through, and I did wonder whether a metal part here would guard against wear in the longer term. Pure speculation on my part, because I haven’t tested this for any great time (nor can I, yet) and the wooden notch may prove to be tough and perfectly adequate.
I was quite surprised to learn that glass had been used to make the focussing screen, largely because I expected that, given the cost of the camera, this was a logical place for a plastic alternative (and thus a saving). The Intrepid Camera Company should be applauded for their commitment to quality here. I was using an f5.6 lens and generally found the screen to be bright enough at this aperture. It is trivial to change the screen to a brighter model (finances permitting of course), and something I can see myself doing in the future. Again, I think what you are given with camera is completely in keeping with the philosophy of Intrepid - the camera is ready to go and will serve you well as it is.
Next comes inserting the film holder and making the exposure. Of the many aspects of large format workflow that will be new to the 35mm photographer, this operation is perhaps the most intimidating. It's intimidating because, once the film is inserted, you have gone ‘blind’ (no more image on the ground glass). Not so much of an issue with static subjects on a windless day, but with real live subjects, a whole other level of challenge. Having said that, I should remind myself that a goodly part of my own motivation to shoot 5x4 is precisely this kind of risk - and thus excitement and anticipation - that the process provides. Take away such elements and the possibility of significant mistakes, and the victory of a well-exposed sheet of film is surely less sweet.
The camera did perhaps play its own role here. There is considerable movement when the film holder is inserted, and one has to be really careful not to knock anything out of position (remember, you have done your critical focussing at this stage and want all elements to remain exactly where they are). The elastic that holds the focussing screen section in place is pretty strong, and in a way needs to be, but this does contribute to stresses and strains on the camera body as the holder goes in. My solution has been to disengage the top two elastics to allow the film holder smoother passage. I don’t think there’s too much the designers can do about this, it is, after all, simple physics, given the materials and construction involved. I should also note that I haven’t seen any discernible impact of this on actual images, even those shot wide open. At smaller apertures depth of field will allow greater play and allow more margin for error.
Before I move on to my conclusion, I’d lastly like to address the question of weight. You don’t need to have extensively handled heavy large format cameras to know that the Intrepid is a light camera. Weighing in at just 900 grammes, it is a camera that will surely encourage use and will doubtless be picked up by photographers ahead of their other large imaging systems. The question of what you can carry depends on a number of individual variables, such as where you are travelling to and how, and of course your own physical strength and capabilities.
This is surely the wrong comparison to make, but next to my other kits there is no doubt that my Intrepid bag is noticeably bulky and heavier. I don’t think that would prevent me from carrying the Intrepid however, and I had at any rate employed an old bag replete with pockets and padding, and can imagine formulating a much more compact kit based on alternative bags (the market is hardly bereft of options today). In summary, if you are new to large format, you will not be able to avoid the bulk of film holders, dark cloths, loupes, lenses, 5x4 film and so on; but you have a huge advantage with the Intrepid as your camera of choice.
I now want to end this review with a little qualification of an earlier statement about design choices, because this will help form my conclusion and is the basis of my high regard for the Intrepid. I think there are a number of areas where the Intrepid could be improved, some of which have been raised here (and will be raised in other reviews). Yet we do have to bear in mind the design brief for an affordable, lightweight, accessible 5x4 field camera. The work of design is in essence the work of compromise. You have a set of constraints, financial and practical, and must make the best decisions you can to fashion the product you want. Would the camera benefit from built-in spirit levels? Sure. Could the finish be more refined? Absolutely. Could the camera be sturdier? Perhaps. Yet we are beginning to speak of an altogether different object, a thing belonging to an altogether different budget and design brief.
The point for me is that the Intrepid’s designers have made the right set of compromises, given their own brief. There is even a hint of wizardry, given what they have achieved in a product that retails at £250. I had to wait about eight weeks to receive my camera after I had placed my order. I simply accepted this as part and parcel of the aforementioned limitations and parameters (and, in truth, rather enjoyed the anticipation - it felt rather bespoke too, knowing that my camera was being made ‘for me’). In other words, if you want your camera faster, with more supporting products, better build quality and guaranteed longevity, you will simply have to look elsewhere (and be prepared to pay for the privilege). If you are beginning in large format and want something that is going to work straight away (excepting lens and film holder) and do a fine job, look no further than the Intrepid.
You can find out more about the Intrepid and place an order for one here:
Two big* negatives in the drying cabinet can only mean that my new large format adventure has begun. An exciting sight this week, and, perhaps, the start of a whole new aspect to my photographic work.
I somewhat improvised the development procedure - time was certainly against me - but the negatives are basically sound (maybe a tad underexposed).
Onto the contact prints!
*I can't resist pointing out that 'big' is a relative word in photography. There's always somebody with a bigger camera! Relative to 35mm 5x4 is a big negative. But to 10x8? And so on....