I didn't set out to do unboxing videos on this website, but I think there is enough interest in this camera to warrant one. This is an unusual and 'niche' camera, which I'm really excited to receive, and it's a relatively affordable one to boot.
A favourite topic of discussion amongst photographers is the question of their choice of format, and whether or not the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. You can see why: there is a considerable investment that a photographer makes in a format, both in terms of cost and time. Nobody wants to labour fruitlessly, not just for financial reasons, but more pointedly at the risk of failing to achieve one’s aesthetic best. Why labour as a 35mm photographer, when my vision would be much more suited to medium format?
The saying ‘the grass isn’t always greener’ teaches that change doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. There is a particular reason why this is the case in the question of photographers and formats. The reason is that all formats have their strengths and weaknesses and necessarily entail compromise. It isn’t just that we may or may not be suited to one format or another, it is that we must learn to harness the compromises of a format before we can judge if it’s the one for us.
35mm is undoubtedly the most mobile of the film formats and allows considerable freedom and experimentation at the shooting stage. The negative being small in relative terms, it poses more significant challenges in the darkroom, 35mm negatives frequently proving difficult to print, especially for the novice. Medium format brings an immediate improvement in flexibility in the darkroom, and will more easily bestow a wide tonal range and controlled grain in the print, but at the cost of weight and size in the field. Large format goes further in this direction, slowing the shooting process and making new demands of planning and location finding, whilst bestowing the luxury of seemingly limitless detail and enlarge-ability. Most enlargements made from large format negatives will be entail much lower ratios (negative to print) than 35mm. The old saying holds true: if it’s easier to shoot in the field, it’s harder to print - and vice versa.
The key question is not, ‘which is the best format’, or, even, ‘which is the best format for us’, but ‘which is the best compromise for us?’ Which weaknesses in our chosen equipment and format can we live with in order best to enjoy its undoubted gifts. When I began to shoot large format, I immediately missed the flexibility of 35mm. C’est la vie. I knew that I would ultimately make a decision as to whether my 35mm work could be usefully and productively supplemented by some 5x4 work, on the premise that 5x4 had a quality I wanted and needed. Shooting 5x4, I would be shooting less 35mm (I don’t think I ever envisaged shooting no 35mm, nor do I), as well as putting up with the ‘negative’ aspects - for me - of large format.
I have concentrated on film photography, but my point could easily be extended to digital and beyond. Have you found the right compromise for you?
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 Leica M6TTL has become central to my photography over the last couple of years. I have recently begun to reflect on what I value about this camera, partly through writing about photography, and partly through my restless experimenting with different cameras and formats. Why, I’ve asked myself, does this camera endure? Proclamations of love for a specific piece of kit or format may be doomed to later contradiction, but it is very tempting to say that if I could only keep and use but one camera it might well be this, 50mm lens attached.
I remember picking up the M6TTL for the first time: it was much heavier than I expected. It is not unusual for people to have this experience when picking up Leicas for the first time - they look small but are surprisingly solid and hefty. Leicas are handmade tools and are built to last. I bought mine second-hand, very lightly used; I believe it dates from the turn of the new millennium. I remember it being cold and resolutely machine-like. Having used a largely plastic DSLR (along with some compact cameras) for some time, this was something of a shock.
I had read a great deal about the famous ergonomics and design of the Leica, but I can’t say it felt luxurious in my hands. I did notice how smooth the wind-on lever was and the shutter press felt ‘silky’, if somewhat recessed. I had used quasi-rangefinder cameras before: I played briefly with a Zorkii to study the design and shooting method, and I had used a diminutive Ricoh GR1s for many years (not a rangefinder of course, but, having a finder unconnected to the lens, unlike an SLR). I found that the design and operation of the Leica is quite distinct. I wouldn’t advise anybody to try out a ‘budget’ rangefinder to see if they may like a Leica. There isn’t enough information there and it can therefore be a false economy.
The pictures I first made with the Leica were impressively sharp. As a result, printing the negatives in the darkroom yielded a clear and much-appreciated lift in the quality of my prints. There are various theories as to why Leica cameras yield this advantage. The most obvious one is the lack of a reflex mirror. Only the cloth shutter is at work when the picture taken and thus the camera subject to fewer vibrations. Another is that the form and heft of the camera, often pressed to one’s face for extra support, allows one to press the shutter with a very gentle squeeze. I soon followed the Leica crowd and installed a soft release in my camera’s shutter button. I do believe this facilitates a more gentle and responsive shutter press. The winder also allows one to install one’s thumb behind it as one presses. This I believe is a reason why people install ‘thumbs-up’ metal supports into the hotshoe of digital Leicas.
The other thing that strikes you straight away is the finder. (I should say for completeness that I write about 50mm framelines on a 0.72 viewfinder magnification. This is significant technically because other focal lengths, finders, and cameras won’t give you the same view). The framelines sit within a wider frame. Photographing, one has the sensation of isolating ‘pictures’ in a bigger continuum of the world. I have written elsewhere about the effect and it’s something I really enjoy. As I look at the frame I can visualise my image as a picture (print) separated out from what is around it, but I still have the information of what is outside the frame. Some people particularly like being able to see things before they enter the frame, but it’s not so much this as the feeling of looking at a picture that I enjoy (and indeed, that I miss terribly on my digital mirrorless camera).
I started using my Leica for candid portraits as soon as I had it. Looking back on these early days, I see some of my favourite people images, and cannot help but think that the Leica raised my game. This may be nothing more than a subconscious owner’s pride, or an attempt to live up to the famous marque. After all, as Roger Hicks has pointed out, you hardly have any excuse for your poor photography when shooting with a Leica. I don’t believe it is this (or just this): I think the process of manually setting aperture and shutter speed, of conscious pre-focussing, of the need to imagine depth of field and indeed the film emulsion (in short, properly to visualise the result), leads to more careful and perhaps more memorable shots. Maybe it is the gap between taking and seeing an image with film that leads me to remember more vividly my film shots, but I think the care that the Leica demands seems to play a part too.
Leicas are not intimidating cameras to point at your subjects. I found that my regular family muses soon started to ignore the little M6TTL and went about their business, just as I like from a photographer’s point of view. Leicas are quiet, to the extent that subjects are hardly aware when a picture is taken. As we all know, this is a blessing because of the ‘acting up’ effect of so many initial encounters with a conspicuous camera and shutter.
So I return in conclusion to my original question about why the M6TTL has endured, for me. It is a well-made, hard wearing, quiet, unassuming camera that demands manual control and close attention to aperture, shutter speed, depth of field and timing. It offers a view peculiar to it (although we could speak of different views imposed by digital cameras and advantages therein) and encourages visualisation. Technical quality, when employed properly, is superb (there is a case for saying second to none with 35mm film, notwithstanding the role of different lenses and other factors). I know that the fact that I shoot film is of importance to me and surely a factor in my regard for the M6TTL.
My preferences are my preferences, they may not be yours. If, however, the factors mentioned above are important to you, or even spark your interest (and you haven’t yet tried this camera or something very like it), then a very interesting journey may well await you. Maybe a Leica M6TTL will turn out to be your ‘one camera choice’ too.