I’ve done enough street photography now that I routinely overcome my nerves, although there are times when that familiar flutter in the stomach returns. I recently heard a comedian say that nerves can be turned into a kind of positive energy. I think I do that these days when I remind myself that I’m doing a ‘job’ - the noble job of photography - and that street is a place where the work has to be done. It’s a little mantra and a form of self-permission and motivation. When I’ve captured some frames, my nerves settle down.
Being in China with the 5x4 Intrepid Field Camera, my nerves were very much present. In point of fact, not since my first forays in public with a camera in hand had my nerves been quite so evident. A discomfiting feeling for sure, but also a life-affirming one. My senses were alive and I was all the time reminding myself about what I’d decided to do. I had come to China. I was going to do 5x4.
My nerves were not helped by the proportional nervous and suspicious looks I received from Chinese security guards, at what felt like every ten or so yards. There are a lot of such workers in Shanghai. It helps you to feel safe, but you are being watched.
Looking back, it may have been something to do with my newly purchased plastic Nikon branded tripod. This I had bought over in China, solely for the purpose of shooting with the Intrepid. The plastic beast came with a convenient black carry-case. You know, a sort of roughly ‘gun’ sized case. A case carried by a conspicuous white man who had turned up in busy areas looking nervously at security guards, walkways, entrances, exits and the crowds. Eventually, I learned to bag the case and carry the tripod with some leg extension - so it looked like a tripod. Everybody relaxed.
I didn’t have long to shoot large format in China. I did a fair amount of scouting for locations whilst shooting 35mm, but probably did no more than the equivalent of a day with the Intrepid. I set the camera up fully on three occasions. Each time was quite magical; the locations, light and people around me each a contributing factor.
On the first occasion I drew some modest attention. One gentleman in particular was quite taken with my red-bellowed companion. He stood for some time watching me work, to the point where I began to give a silent tutorial on the shooting procedure. I know not if he wanted that, but it seemed the polite thing to do. The second time I set up the camera I was decidedly braver in my choice of location - I was in a back alley in the suburbs - but I was much more shocked by the reaction of passers-by. There simply was no reaction! I thought I was bound to be approached by the workers who came out of an adjacent building, but no, they walked around me as if I wasn’t there. I chuckled at my self-consciousness.
The last time, on a car park with derelict buildings, a car drove into my shot at the worst time possible. Just when I began my curses, he suddenly reversed away. I was back in the zone when I was interrupted again. This time a joyous ‘CAMERA!’ was shouted in my direction. It was the driver of the car as he triumphantly skipped by. We exchanged smiles and I thanked him silently for respecting the shot. Well, I like to think it was respect.
So what of my experience of using the Intrepid on this trip? And what have I to now add to my original review? Two important things stand out: one is the relative compactness of the camera; the other is that I really hardly noticed the camera at all.
I was conscious of weight and bulk on my trip, a factor that led me to equivocate over whether or not to take the Intrepid. Having solved the tripod issue, I further reduced my load by forsaking my usual Manfrotto backpack. For this generously padded pack, I substituted my thin branded urban rucksack, inside which I placed a light generic camera bag to protect the 5x4. The film holders and darkcloth sat neatly on top. While the fit was a little tight, it did provide the further benefit of being very inconspicuous. With that rucksack on my back, I was truly in urban mode.
To be able to carry a 5x4 camera in such a manner is a real testimony to the design of the Intrepid. My improvised arrangement for China has made me reconsider my normal backpack: I was left with the strong sense that I had previously been carrying more bag than camera. This was a huge plus for me working in an urban environment, but it is of even bigger benefit for those wanting to work in rural and remote locations. If you are not carrying around a lot of film holders or alternative lens choices, weight is not an issue at all.
Setting the camera up and down was a pleasure. I suppose I have now developed enough muscle memory that such actions are smooth and automatic. There really aren’t a lot of adjustments to contend with. For some large format photographers in some situations this will be a problem, but of course, it very much depends on the work you are doing. As I have written before, if you are starting out in 5x4, the Intrepid makes a forgiving companion. It’s a great ‘learning camera’.
This is what I mean by not noticing the camera. At each location I was fully immersed in making the image, and my control of the camera and exposure really did flow. I’m pleased with the images I made given the time I had. Interestingly, I think I was shooting 5x4 while still somewhat in a street photography mode. I elected more than once to include a passerby, chancing my arm with borderline shutter speeds and using my intuition somewhat for compositional placement (after all, you have gone ‘blind’ once the film holder is inserted). This may be suggestive of further personal work; crucially, for the Intrepid, it shows how it can be used quickly and with ease in public locations.
I have one small caveat. I find that the front standard doesn’t ‘lock down’ as fully as I’d like, and is prone to moving around its central tightening screw. I pondered in my original review whether the wooden bottom of the standard would be hard-wearing in the longer term. It’s not the wear that now strikes me as the issue so much as the movement.
Now, this movement might simply be a feature of my own copy of the camera, but my suspicion is that it isn’t. I have just taken possession of the new 10x8 model, and I’ve noticed an addition that solves the issue entirely. They’ve included some small grip pads on the standard’s bottom (think sandpaper stickers and that describes them well). I don’t know whether this is in response to feedback, or simply Intrepid’s ongoing commitment to design refinement at work. Either way, the change is welcome and points to an easy user modification to the smaller 5x4. The front standard on the 10x8 is very solid when tightened.
I certainly fulfilled a personal ambition by shooting 5x4 in China, and you will gather from the tenor of my report that I continue to recommend the Intrepid for such a task. I’m looking forward now to doing some work with the newly arrived 10x8, a whole different challenge again. It’s funny that I’ve been in the habit of referring to my 5x4 as ‘the big camera’. That mantle has been lifted from it by the newly arrived 10x8, a camera that dwarfs it by comparison. The 5x4 looks tiny now, but it isn’t just the size comparison that has left me with that feeling. Using it in China has made me realise just what a compact large format camera it really is.