Fstoppers Reviews the Intrepid 4x5 Film Camera

This one hurts. I don't think I've ever written a review for a product that I wanted to like more than this one. From its beginnings as a Kickstarter back in 2014, large format film photographers have been drooling about this camera. Finally, a low cost camera that, at about $300, would make 4x5 photography accessible to the masses. But, long story short, The Intrepid Camera just doesn't live up to its promise. Read on to find out why.

I first heard about this camera a couple of years ago in an Fstoppers article, back before I was writing for them. I had never touched a large format camera at the time but had always been curious about the format. However, it's difficult to walk into a store and try out one of these behemoths, so when I found out that someone was offering a low cost model, I was really excited. Of course, being the cynical guy that I am, I held off on the Kickstarter. Although it was funded very quickly, the company ran into production difficulties very quickly and couldn't meet the demand. The particular camera I'm using I borrowed from a friend who waited well over a year past her quoted delivery time to receive the camera.

I'm a huge proponent of film, and an even bigger proponent of saving a buck. I shoot my large format work with a Shen Hao TZ45-IIB camera, so I'm not used to shooting super-high-end cameras that would taint my opinion of this camera. The Shen Hao is a middle of the road field camera. Not the best, not the worst, but it does the job. The reason I mention this is that I believe that in order for a new 4x5 user to make an informed decision they should know how a budget product like the Intrepid stacks up against something more mainstream. To be fair, the Intrepid is a Chamonix-style camera, and behaves differently when it comes to movements than my camera, but the observations I'll make still apply.

My comparison camera: A Shen Hao TZ45-IIB

The Good

Even though I've already said I can't recommend the camera, there are some rather pleasant aspects about it that should be noted. Credit where credit is due.

Weight

"Light as a feather, stiff as a board" would be a great way to describe this thing. Compared to my Shen, it's half the weight. For people looking to go backpacking with a camera where pack weight is all important, losing two pounds of weight can be huge. A used camera bought in the price range of the Intrepid would definitely far outweigh this offering, so well done on keeping the weight down.

The Ground Glass

I'm not sure what kind of magic they've got going on with this glass, but it's very bright and clear, especially considering there's no fresnel lens behind the glass to spread the light evenly on the frame. It's as bright as my Shen Hao's glass and it has a fresnel. Maybe I'll buy just the glass off of my friend and give her back the camera.

The ground glass is bright, clear, and has tons of coverage, especially for lacking a fresnel.

The Not So Good

Now the hard part.

The Finish (or lack thereof)

This camera just doesn't look like it was ready to ship out. The edges are rough. They look like they were given a little bit of a sanding down on its way to being rushed out the door. The prettiest thing about this camera is the bellows. If you were out and about using it, I think people would more than likely think you built the camera yourself rather than bought it from somewhere. It looks like a project camera. Even as I type this I feel like I'm being superficial, but the feel and finish is just not there. As a hobbyist though, maybe the bar should be lowered as to how finished of a product you really need. But if anything, as someone learning, you need a tank. You need a workhorse. You need a camera that will inspire confidence and not make you question your hardware. If you make a mistake with an image, you want to know that it was your fault and not the hardware. A camera that you can depend on is just as important when you're learning as when you're shooting professionally.

Rough edges. Par for the course on this camera.

 

Hardware

The knobs, arms, and fittings also don't inspire confidence. In order to unfold the camera for use, there are two arms that much be attached to knobs on the side of the base. Once those are attached, you tighten down the thumb screws to lock the camera in the open position. Those arms though dangle oddly while they're not attached and feel like they're begging to get snagged on something. The fittings are attached by allen wrench screws and metal plates. Compare that to the Shen Hao that uses aluminum fittings with rubber knurled knobs. When you focus with the Intrepid there's a rough wood-on-wood scraping feel that accompanies any movement. Not so with the Shen.

Cheap-fittings and knobs, scraping and grinding movements

 

Much better

Movements

The Intrepid is limited to almost exclusively front element movements. Those movements include swing, rise, fall, and tilt, and are accomplished by loosening a plastic knob and repositioning the element on the base board in the desired orientation. To accomplish rise and fall you loosen the thumb screws on the sides of the element. In practice, there is a lot of flexibility in the front movements, but it's difficult to zero out the element to establish a true starting point. That offers a slight learning curve, but it's doable. Unfortunately the only rear movement available is a slight forward tilt.

Front element movements are accomplished using the plastic knob shown to reposition the element on the board.

Rear movements, including rear, are available on the Shen Hao.

The Rubber Bands

Film is inserted into Intrepid by means of a Graflok-style back held together by strong rubber bands. I'm going to let that sink in. Rubber. Bands. I get cutting costs, but in practice, the tension is not where it needs to enable smooth loading and unloading of the film holder. Compare that to the Shen which uses an aluminum tension mechanism, making loading much smoother.

Rubber bands. Say it with me. Rubber. Bands.

The Bellows

The bellows on the intrepid is made from nylon and glued to each element. It is not removable, so no using a bag bellows for wider angles. The Shen has removable bellows.

No removable bellows

Conclusions

It is with a heavy, heavy heart that I just can't recommend this product. Although the weight and ground glass were bright spots for the camera, after that it just falls apart under any level of scrutiny. I'm conflicted because the idea behind the product is great, but I'd feel remiss in recommending it. Perhaps Intrepid will take this as a challenge, making their next-gen model more compelling. In the meantime if you're looking to try out a large format camera, I recommend a nice used Crown Graphic.

Questions or comments? Am I a traitor to the film cause? Sound off below!

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14 Comments

Ale Vidal's picture

Thanks. This is honest and I liked it

Darn! It looks like the camera, as you said, needs refinement. It looks like a "kit 4x5" (there are build your own 4x5 from scratch).
A 4x5 system is on my camera bucket list.

Robert Raymer's picture

I also wanted to like this camera, because I liked the idea of it, but even reading about it never even made me want to actually try it. For what it is worth though, I don't really consider large format THAT inaccessible, especially if you don't mind buying used for your first camera. When I bought my 4x5 a few years ago I was able to find a complete middle of the road camera, a Toyo monorail camera, complete with a lens (Fuji 180mm 5.6) and 6 film holders for under $500. Not exactly dirt cheap, but plenty affordable.

Jaysen Turner's picture

You had me at rubber bands. Rubber. Bands.

Spy Black's picture

With all the high quality used 4x5 cameras available for peanuts, I'm at a loss as to why anyone thought about this project in the first place, especially when such a piss-poor engineering and manufacturing job was done on it. Frankly it looks like another Kickstarter scam.

Jeff Weeks's picture

I dunno - I like mine. I've made some really nice portraits with it, so I don't really care about the unfinished edges, and those little bungee cords hold my film holders nice and tight.

Mike Buongiorne's picture

I just bought the second generation of this camera while moslty assuming what your review confirms. However for the price I intend to modify this camera with a few tweaks and a proper finish to make it my own. As a carpenter who frequenlty borrows loaner 4x5 cameras I see this as "half the work" being done for me and I'm happy supporting start-ups like this. I think this camera captures and renews the spirit of photogprahy for modren generations.

Mike Leland's picture

So sad :/ Thanks for the review.

I would love to see one of these amazing, small craftsman companies introduce a nice, American made 4x5.

Stephen Fretz's picture

Another option to an vintage press camera is an old Calumet or Graphic View. Available from eBay around 200ish, w/o lens.

Rolf Schmolling's picture

I like mine. I have an Intrepid Mk1 from the kickstarter.
The bellows – while non-removable – enables using lenses between 90mm (my Rodenstock Grandagon 1:6.8 f=90mm is on a recessed board) and 270mm (Schneider-Kreuznach Technika Tele-Arton 1:5.5/270) very nicely. The rubber bands are covered with some fabric and hold my film holders, including a Polaroid 545 or Grafmatic film holders/magazines just nice.

For a start into large format landscape this is just fine, and the monorails mentioned as an alternative are not really working, weighing 5kg and up!

Anything better (actually much much better, I concur) would either cost 500$ (for say a used Presscamera or Toyo Field) with much more weight and less movements or considerably more money to spend (Say VDS od Tachihara…). I expect to move up, when I am more at ease – and have been able to set aside the cash.

R.

Dave C's picture

I just ordered one. I hope I'll be happy with it, but it should be noted that the camera being reviewed is the first generation, if you look at their website the one currently offered is not the same design.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Yes, I'm currently in the process of reviewing version 2.

Colin Lawson's picture

Hans, while I appreciate your review, I have to cry "foul!" as you're comparing a FIRST VERSION handmade wooden $300 camera to your Chinese-made Shen-Hao $1,170 camera (where labor cost a small fraction of what labor cost elsewhere). While I don't own an Intrepid, I applaud the upstart company- and I wouldn't mind using one. Sure, if I ever bought one I'd probably take some fine sandpaper and wax to it, but you have to remember in the world of manufacturing, every time you pick up or touch something, you've just added to the cost of producing that product- whether or not it appreciably improves the product.

It's been years since I've played with a Crown Graphic you suggested, but as I recall the back doesn't have any movements, either- and the bellows are also glued to the standards (two things you complained about the Intrepid- though, the Intrepid does have a little front tilt on the rear standard).

The use of bungee cords doesn't bother me as long as they work (perhaps not as finely as your Shen-Hao, but they work). And when they eventually lose their tension, I'm sure the owner can easily replace them (or attach springs or whatever).

I feel like your review was more of a comparison with a fine camera, which of course the Intrepid isn't- and it was never meant to be, nor was it meant to compete with a fine camera. So, I feel that's unfair to Intrepid. Perhaps as you review the second version of the Intrepid, you should compare it with the first version instead of the Shen-Hao. Just a suggestion.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I do appreciate you taking the time to critique the review, and while I certainly could have done some things more in-depth (which I address in the review of the second version, here: https://fstoppers.com/film/fstoppers-reviews-intrepid-camera-version-2-1...), I disagree about the standard to which I need to hold the camera. As a reviewer, I can only take a product as it actually performs and not the sentiment that created it.

The first version was definitely rough around the edges, did not inspire confidence, and had some mechanical quirks that make it challenging beyond any reasonable standard of a finished product. The purpose of having the Shen Hao to compare to was to establish a baseline for those who are not familiar with large format photography. Else, there is no way for those unfamiliar to these types of cameras to understand how things are supposed to work. The Shen Hao is a very middle of the road camera, but it is fairly standard in operation, thus useful as a comparison tool.

The fact that there were so many things off about the first version becomes apparent when you look at the second version and see how much has changed in the fit and finish. By holding companies to a standard for their work, we are more likely to get products that get better and better over each generation. Lauding a product for what it "can be" with a little sandpaper and love doesn't do much to help anyone out.

Thanks for reading!