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.
While I wouldn’t exactly call my early experiences with large format photography to date negative, my blog so far has tended to stress some of the intrinsic hurdles of the format. This derives simply from my knowledge and experience of other formats, and my awareness of the need to learn through a process of doing and reflecting. I expect stumbling blocks, just as I expect satisfactions.
This is a post about a further glimpse of the satisfactions, gained through a shoot in Cannock Chase in the Midlands. I have written before that LF demands planning in a way that small or medium format photography does not. You will of course see my logic: one cannot carry a LF camera and accompanying kit in the way one does a small shoulder bag with a 35mm camera tucked inside. I have blogged about this loss of what I called the opportunistic nature of my 35mm shooting. My visit to Cannock Chase confirmed this planning need, albeit I left with a slightly different view of the idea of settling on a location beforehand. I didn’t so much find and shoot a specific location as ramble upon one.
I had been engaged in making a colour photograph of a tree stump emblazoned with emerald greens and rustic reds. I suppose I got into the groove of taking my time and making the exposure; I had plenty of time (I was on location for the day), and had begun to take in my peaceful and beautiful surroundings. My tree stump was up a hill; I was aware of a view behind me too, and that began to take my attention. I moved the camera, already set up from the previous exposure, and framed and metered the new view. This was to be a black and white Delta 100 shot, a classic landscape-type image containing a tunnel of shimmering light.
Having framed, focussed and metered the image, I started to think about making the exposure. The scene contained a key subject in the near centre of the frame - a backlit fern that stood out against a darker background. The fern wasn’t especially big, but it was central, and the resting point for the eye in the picture. It was moderately windy: too windy for my chosen exposure time if I wanted the fern to be in sharp focus. I waited. The wind ebbed and flowed, but it was persistent. Having already made the tree stump exposure, I was quite relaxed, and, knowing the time I might invest in a negative and subsequently print, I resolved not to press the cable release should the wind not abate. Then it came: the slenderest moment of stillness, in my mind just the one second I needed to make my photograph. The fern went back to its little dance.
LF is a coming together of separate elements. It is demanding of the photographer because when a single element fails, so does the photograph. The converse of the this is that when an image succeeds, the coming together is quite glorious. Doubtless this is a romantic thought, but there is a air of destiny about it, a wink from an otherwise indifferent universe permitting a moment of photographic magic. My romantic frame of mind was hardly discouraged by what happened next: the light turned to darkness and the heavens opened. I was now in a photography novella penned by a Thomas Hardy figure.
Well, nearly, at any rate. My negative unfortunately shows that I should have paid a little more attention to the subject brightness range of my image. (I also regret my impatience with a developer measuring 21c and not 20c, but both of these issues are perhaps for another post.) It is a challenging negative indeed, with highlights a little ‘hot’ for my liking. Still, the idea of rambling upon a scene stuck with me, and, while the rest of my day failed to bring another exposure, I left feeling like I had got a little closer to a LF modus operandi that might fit with my own free time and opportunities.
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:
My large format adventures have begun in earnest and I’m starting to build some familiarity with the Intrepid field camera. I have a few observations and feelings to share with you right away, but am working on a more detailed review of the the Intrepid which will be coming soon. If you think you might be interested in taking up large format (LF) photography, or, if you are already into it and are considering buying an Intrepid for its weight advantage, please do check out my review.
The common wisdom on the nature of photographic formats has already taught me very well that I should expect to ‘slow down’ when doing LF. Surely this is true, but I have discovered other concerns in what little time I’ve had with my new camera, and have been given pause to reflect on some interesting considerations.
First, there is the physicality. LF is a physical and tactile operation. I was given good advice to simply learn how the camera works, without worrying about making any pictures. I am impatient too, so make pictures I did, and was aware that there is a great deal to set up when making a LF image.
LF is not something the photographer is going to enter into lightly. There needs to be a very good reason to make an image. You can’t bury a number of cheap shots and ‘fun’ indulgences as you can on a roll of thirty six frames. There’s simply too much time and cost involved, and you are heavily invested in the image you have made. It seems the stakes are very high with LF, but the payoff is substantial if things come together.
Now while my fingers had a great deal to contend with, I quickly learnt my way around the camera and before too long became much more confident. This really is like using a manual 35mm film camera, in the sense that, once learned, your brain goes into a kind of ‘autopilot’ mode, a bit like a driver who stops thinking about gear changes and clutch sequences and simply drives. Hand me any one of my digital cameras, with their formidable menus, and I wager there is something I will have forgotten how to change or access. The re-learning feels continuous with digital because of this.
I think it’s going to be very different with LF. I can hardly claim to have learned all the movements and workflow nuances, but it does fill me with confidence that my investment in effort and time will result in a thoroughly ingrained, automatic, practice. I guess we might say that this is just as well because there is a lot to deal with!
As a 35mm photographer the loss of the ‘image on the fly’ was immediate and obvious. It’s no exaggeration to say that with 35mm I am looking to make pictures all of the time. If an opportunity presents itself, the small camera comes out, does its work in one hundred and twenty-fifth of a second (allowing for a few more seconds of decision making and a pause for the right moment), and is put away. One can be ‘out there’ photographing and go largely unnoticed.
With LF I am really going to have to want to take an image. I am going to stand there, for some considerable time (hoping my technique is getting more fluid, but certainly not wishing to rush the workflow and get it wrong, and there are so many ways to get it wrong!), with my handsome but attention-grabbing red bellows (did I choose the wrong colour?), standing, senses momentarily muted, under a dark cloth, trying so very hard to concentrate on exposure values, aperture choice, subject movement, and so on. Oh please don’t let anyone try to talk to me! The secluded spot in nature suddenly looks very attractive while I earn my stripes.
And then there is taking LF images of people. I am curious as well as impatient, and there was no way I was going to omit this type of image making from my early experience. Yet it is a curious thing! You are thoroughly shackled by formality, and have to look for an instance where your subject can be ever so slightly natural, in an essentially unnatural situation.
You must place your subject and weigh-up the lighting in the scene. It is actually preferable to scout or adjust your scene before your subject arrives. If light modification needs to happen, it is best done in advance. You are going to have other things to worry about when your subject is in place. So your sitter arrives and you settle on a pose. You carefully survey the image on the ground glass. You have to keep engaging your subject - as any portrait photographer does - as you begin to check your workflow and finalise decisions of exposure, aperture and shutter speed. You make and check focus. You are still talking. Still engaging, showing that you are in control. Then comes that curious moment, the reason I write of a shackling formality.
You insert the film holder and are now working ‘blind’. You have requested your subject to stay in position, but have not yet pressed the cable release. You are faced with a Hobson’s choice: expose too early and risk a wooden pose; leave it too long and your subject will have strayed from the zone of focus and changed your composition. You are in search of a ‘moment’ within a moment. A happening in an ever-so-modest window of time. It is a wonder LF portraits are ever made!
Excuse me if I exaggerate for effect, but I think these observations have a validity and point to real differences in photographic formats (I’m assuming here that medium format is in many ways closer to 35mm than LF as far as the above is concerned). I have naturally made some exposures, and while I have perhaps inevitably made mistakes, I have had some successes too (it is true, LF portraits can be done). I hope to share these and some observations about them in a forthcoming post.
Watch this space for some more of my adventures with this venerable format.
I am not new to large format photography strictly speaking, for I have dabbled from time to time before. I am, however, largely a small format photographer, with the particular way of working that entails.
I decided recently to begin some 5x4 work in earnest, a desire which coincided with my discovery of the super light and keenly priced Intrepid camera. The title to this post thus describes a modest new chapter in my photography and an opportunity to share some of my experiences here. I hope there will be some value in this to anyone starting out in large format, or at least wondering what it is all about.
Watch this space for progress reports and a little review of the Intrepid. It is certainly looking rather handsome with its red bellows; I hope it performs as well as it looks.