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.
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.
"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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!