After a year of backpacking with the intrepid 4x5 camera, I realized I was really falling in love with the idea of just using a lightweight wooden box to create images. I used the “older” mk2 version last summer during several trips, but swapped it out for my trusty and much heavier Toyo 4x5 during the fall and winter months. The five pound difference in the pack is quite noticeable, even more so when I get out of backpacking mode and add the extra lenses and film holders back into the bag. That said, there were some restrictions with the Intrepid that had me wanting to use the Toyo when I wasn’t backpacking. The metal camera is far quicker to set up, more rigid, and easier to use with gloved hands.
When the snow started to thaw and I wanted to get back into the backcountry, I immediately and happily started to shed weight. Five film holders get left out of the bag, two lenses get tossed aside, and I switch the lens boards over from the Toyo to the Intrepid. The reduced weight made me feel light on my feet and eager to pound out miles in the high country. The reduced rigidity and mildly finicky operation of the MK2 Intrepid went far to the back of my head in a place where I just didn’t care. It was summer and I wanted to move my feet. Over the last year I’ve really dialed in my backpacking setup for 4x5, so if you haven’t seen my blog post on that I would recommend you check it out here.
Early this summer Intrepid announced the new-and-improved MK3 version of their camera, and the addition of extra movements and easier setup made me order one right away. The price is still a staggeringly low 250GBP and shipping is affordable. Mine took about six weeks to produce, meaning I spent much of the summer using the MK2 version. Not that there’s anything wrong with that as that one has been a wonderful and light tool in the backcountry and I had a feeling the new one wouldn’t be all that different to get used to. Let’s take a look at the changes in the new camera.
At first glance you can tell this is still an intrepid camera. The general shape is the same and so are the bellows, which were always quite a nice and light material. You will also see the familiar plastic knobs for focus and the delightfully smooth rotating back. Aside from that, just about everything else is new. Here’s what you get:
Separate knobs for front rise and tilt - This is quite a nice feature. Before there was just one set of knobs that you loosened and all of your rise and and tilt movements when totally loose. If you wanted to just apply a little bit of rise to adjust your composition, your tilt went loose and you had to start your focusing all over again. Now you can loosen in the inner (larger) knobs to adjust rise and fall, and the smaller (outer) knobs to adjust tilt. This is a pretty neat set of hardware, but it isn’t flawless either. When you loosen the large knobs for rise/fall, your tilt can adjust slightly. It isn’t bad, but important to be aware that you should re-check focus. It’s far better than on the MK2 version.
Re-designed screw for front standard - Again I was really excited about this. The screw that holds the front standard to the base of the camera now has a captive nut system that keeps it attached to the camera. It means you can no longer lose the screw, and it means a lot less time spent spinning a nut in and out of the threads to store it. This thing works quite well and saves a good bit of time. As with the old version, I find the front standard locks down a lot better if you apply some gaffers tape to the surface where it contacts the base of the camera. This acts as a bit of friction and keeps the swing from moving too freely. You also need to make sure the bolt is flush with the front standard before inserting, or it will tighten down without actually clamping the standard. See the photo below
New spring-clip ground glass - This is also a genius upgrade to the camera. Instead of those hair-tie elastic bands on the mk2, the ground glass is attached by a spring-clip type of system. This allows you to easily insert a film holder, and I’ve found that I’m far less likely to bump the camera around when trying to insert or remove a holder. When looking at photos of the camera I thought these clips were metal, but upon arrival they are actually more of a flexible plastic. It looks almost like a carbon fiber or something that seems quite sturdy, and I haven’t seen any sign that the springs will lose tension or that they will struggle (or snap) in cold weather. Currently I have had the camera down to about 15°F, so winter in Colorado will tell me more.
Sturdier tripod plate - This doesn’t sound like much of a deal, but the MK2 tripod plate did leave something to be desired. I would find that mind would easily twist on a QR plate, no matter how much I tightened the plate down. This new one is much more rigid and seems to have more of a friction surface for better grip.
Rebuilt focus mechanism - The focus rail still uses plastic knobs and gears, but there’s been extra reinforcements that make it a lot tighter. There is still a bit of play once you crank the bellows out all the way, but overall I’m very impressed with the improvements here. I also think it will hold up longer.
Rear tilt - I know this was a deal breaker for some people, even though it’s possible to apply rear tilt using the tripod and the front standard on a camera with a rigid back. I don’t want to get the internet all riled up with my claims, so I won’t spend too much time on that. Regardless, enough people complained to where the new one now has rear tilt, quite a ridiculous amount of it actually. This is nice, I suppose, but there is no detent to lock the back in perfect vertical so you have to set the camera up visually. I would say it also makes the back ever-so-slightly less rigid than the MK2 version. Still, it’s a nice addition and does make rear tilt a lot easier. Some people adjust their plane of focus mostly using this movement so they will love it.
Rear swing - I don’t know who asked for this one, perhaps they just thought it was cool to add it because they could. It works well enough, but again has no detent (or even markings) for a zero position which has left me wondering several times why I’m having trouble achieving critical focus from left to right. The knobs seem to tighten down, but clearly I’ve been able to bump it while putting it into my camera bag. I might consider ways to delete this movement and lock down the bottom on my camera, as it’s caused far more harm than good for me. (Update: writing this article has made me realize how much I wanted to get rid of the rear swing. I just ran two screws through the slot for the movement. No more loose rear swing! Tip: if you do this yourself, make sure you can focus with your widest lens before you permanently lock down this movement. Since the rear swing is on long slots, it can affect how far back the focus rail can move relative to the ground glass.)
Using the camera in the field
Just a few days after getting the camera, I set out for the Wind River Range. To anyone unfamiliar with this region, it’s a massive mountain range in Wyoming with some truly remote wilderness. Known for endless granite spires and over a thousand lakes, it’s some of the most pristine and wild lands I have seen. A perfect place to pack light as nearly all the trails require long hikes to get anywhere. The new Intrepid fit in exactly the same space as my old one (it’s perhaps a few mm thicker and longer, but almost the same dimensions), so I packed it into my bag along with my 75mm and 135mm lenses, six film holders, extra film with changing bag, and my tiny tripod. The nice thing about having such a light camera is that you can get away with a seriously small tripod and head, saving even more weight.
The new version feels just about like the old in operation. It took me just a few times of setting up the camera to feel like it was already quicker than the other one, and within a few shoots I was also used to the extra knobs and enjoying the easier access to rise and fall. Again, it’s no highly refined field camera like a Toyo or an Arca-Swiss - but after a year of using the MK2 intrepid this one felt right at home in my hands. It’s a simple joy, just a wooden box that can take photos of equal quality to any other 4x5 camera. Here’s where things were different from last year: after backpacking I didn’t switch back to my Toyo, I just kept using the new Intrepid. Through my fall color trips and day hikes I just kept shooting with this wooden box!
Tips for the Intrepid
As with any camera, the Intrepid takes some getting used to. Here’s some tips and hacks that might save you time:
Gaff up the front standard - Add two strips of gaffers tape to the front standard to help keep it tight when locked down.
Focus on the middle ground, then apply tilt - This camera is actually quite nice in that the front standard tilts in the middle, where some cameras (such as my Toyo) tilt at the bottom. It seems to make for less re-adjusting of focus when trying to apply tilt. I like to focus about halfway between the furthest and closest points that I want to be sharp, then apply tilt until both come into focus. Sometimes an additional focus and re-tilt is required.
Add a fresnel lens - The ground glass on the camera is not the brightest, mostly because it does not come with a fresnel. You can easily install one of the $40 ebay fresnel lenses with just a few minutes of careful filing and no additional hardware whatsoever. If you remove the ground glass frame and flip it over, you’ll see a raised area of wood that the ground glass sits on. You can simply grind away this shape on the fresnel carefully using a file. Do it just a small amount at a time and see if the fresnel will fit into the ground glass frame. Once you can squeeze it in gently, stop filing and you are done! Mine has stayed in firmly all summer using this method, since fresnels are plastic they have just a touch of flexibility to them to hold them tight. People will argue until the cows come home about how adding a fresnel changes your focus, but the fact is that it will not affect focus if you do not move the ground glass. That’s why this method works as the ground glass stays in its original position. A fresnel will have a rough and a smooth side, my understanding is that the rough side goes against the ground glass and the smooth side goes towards the lens. This modification also works on the mk2 Intrepid. *Note: you will see my ground glass has clipped corners. I did not use the ground glass from the Intrepid and stole the one out of my Toyo*
Get a ground glass protector - The new mk3 intrepid actually ships with a little bit of a better ground glass protector. It’s a piece of plastic that this time actually fits in the ground glass area. Still, there’s no way to hold it on. You could use a strap or I’ve seen people add little metal brackets, but I just ordered one of those ground glass protectors made of plexiglass. It’s incredibly quick to use and costs $31 at the time of this writing. You can find it at Badger Graphic. Sometimes when backpacking I end up cramming gear into my bag harder than I’d like to admit, and the protector plastic that comes with the camera would offer very little protection since it rests against the glass.
Is the Intrepid right for me?
Good question. This camera might not be for everyone. It’s not the most rigid and it isn’t the most perfectly engineered camera. The price tag reflects all of this, it’s hands down the most inexpensive and lightweight 4x5 camera that you can purchase new. If you aren’t at all comfortable with modifying your gear with a piece of gaffers tape or an extra screw here or there, then this might not be your camera. In my mind, gaffers tape is something that’s very handy to have as a large format photographer - I keep some wrapped around my tripod just in case I need to do a field repair on a light leak or hold a loose component down. These sort of problems can happen on any field camera and it’s good to be ready. Likewise, if you feel that you have to have the best gear on the market, then the Intrepid is probably not for you.
If you like having a truly simple device to capture images and make the best of what you have, then you will enjoy this camera every time you use it. I personally enjoy overcoming gear limitations and challenges, that’s half the fun of large format in general. The fact that you can add a piece of gaff tape or a screw to modify the camera as you see fit means that you make it your own. It also helps you appreciate the bare-bones requirements of creating an image: a light tight box with a place to put film and a lens.
I just bought the mk2, do I need to throw it away and get the mk3?
No, not really. I know I jumped on the mk3 train rather quickly but it really wasn’t necessary. I would say that if any of the shortcomings of the mk2 are really bugging you, or if it’s starting to fall apart for some reason, then you might want to consider the upgrade. The extra movements and setup are nice, but in the end it results in only mere seconds of time savings during shooting. They both can create outstanding images, and that’s the bottom line sometimes. It’s also possible that Intrepid will be making some minor improvements to the mk3 as they get feedback from customers. One of the great things about these guys is that they are constantly working to improve their product and support the film community.
As a note: I purchased my mk3 Intrepid at full price and was not compensated in any way for this review. This is all my honest opinions about the camera. When reading this review, I want people to keep two things in mind. First, this camera is incredibly inexpensive for a new 4x5 - or any camera for that matter. Second, it is hands-down the lightest 4x5 camera on the market. Those two things will mean that there will inevitably be some sacrifices in rigidity and build quality, and compromise is not the worst thing sometimes.
I have also made a short video showing some of the features of this camera to help see the operation. Watch it below:
Did you find this blog post helpful? If so, I highly recommend picking up a copy of my ebook "Film in a Digital Age". You’ll find all the info you need to get started with film if you’re new or master your skills if you’re experienced. On top of that, each purchase helps fund my travels so I can create more images and content like this. Thanks for reading!