The Intrepid Camera Company is a small manufacturing company shaking up the world of large-format photography from a workshop in Brighton. Ailsa McWhinnie finds out more
The tolerant, welcoming, vibrant culture of the city of Brighton and Hove makes it a great place to live. One of its flaws, however, is its lack of decent employment. Vast swathes of the working population board commuter trains to London each morning, while many others are self-employed. And as for manufacturing, well…
But one company is bucking that trend and creating a small beacon of light in the manufacturing wilderness. Nearly five years ago, recent graduate Max Grew found himself moving into a workshop in order to be able to service the orders from an unexpectedly successful Kickstarter campaign. The product? A simple but slick 5x4in camera made from high-quality birch ply and anodised aluminium, with bellows constructed from coated nylon. Called the Intrepid Camera, its launch was the start of a real story of success.
‘I was doing a degree in product design at Sussex University,’ says Max, Intrepid Camera’s founder. We are sitting in the informal coffee area of the shared industrial building near the back of Brighton station, ‘and I used photography as a way of making my college portfolio – and some not very well-thought-out ideas – a bit better,’ he laughs.
In his final year, he started to experiment with building cameras, but it only occurred to him to incorporate this into his studies when the time came to present a brief for his final project. ‘I called it Intrepid from the start,’ he says. ‘I wanted a name that would suggest that creating a new large-format camera was a bit of a stretch. Also, I wanted the camera to be quite lightweight and outdoorsy, so the name did nicely for that, too.’
Max went on to start a Master’s degree, but didn’t finish it. ‘My Instagram and Facebook pages morphed into being about the cameras, and they gained quite a following,’ he recalls. ‘But I launched the Kickstarter campaign on a bit of a whim. Around the time – 2012 to 2014 or so – the phrase “You should chuck that on Kickstarter” was bandied around a lot. So I did, and it went a lot better than expected.’
Launching in October 2014, the campaign had a target of £27,000. By the time it closed 30 days later, its 495 backers had pledged a total of £63,158. At this point, Max ditched the Master’s degree and found himself a workshop. Or a garage, to be precise. ‘I thought I’d sell a few, but not that many,’ he says. ‘Initially, I thought I’d do a lot of the production by hand, but I soon realised I’d need machinery and staff. And I definitely over-promised. But all those first cameras eventually went out and people are still using them today.’
In that first year, he recruited four staff – a number that increased to eight the following year.
That original 5x4in body is now in its fourth incarnation. Max admits the earliest model was ‘a little over engineered’, and included a number of bells and whistles that turned out to be unnecessary. Such features meant it wasn’t quite as lightweight and portable as it was intended to be. ‘We increased the functionality but reduced the weight and number of parts,’ explains Max, ‘so we’re doing more with less.’
Intrepid camera 8×10 Mk1 and Mk2
What also became clear before long was the desire and potential market for a 10x8in Intrepid camera. This hadn’t been part of the plan, and required a fair bit of consideration on the part of Max and his team. ‘You can’t just size up from 5x4in,’ he explains. ‘You have to start from scratch again.’ But start from scratch they did, and the result was another overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign. Launched at the end of May 2017, the £18,000 target was reached in 12 minutes at. By the end of the 30-day period, the camera’s backers had pledged a total of £220,722.
‘The new version of the 10x8in camera is what I’m most proud of,’ Max reveals. ‘To create a 10x8in camera that isn’t expensive but has high functionality and is fun to use… the whole team is proud of that.’
This camera is now in its second incarnation, and it and the 5x4in have been brought in line in terms of sharing aluminium bases and steel linear guides for focusing. Both have front rise, fall, tilt, shift and swing, and rear tilt, with the 5x4in weighing a mere 1.1kg and the 10x8in tipping the scales at 2.5kg.
Things didn’t stop there, either. The most recent addition to the Intrepid family is a device that converts a 5x4in camera into an enlarger, and can be used with all film formats up to 5x4in. ‘It wasn’t an original idea of ours,’ explains Max. ‘They were made in the 1950s for press photographers on assignment. I loved the idea of adapting it for today’s needs. Most people live in smaller homes, and don’t have access to darkrooms, so it seemed like a good idea to give them the chance to make their own prints.’
Intrepid Camera Kickstarter 2020
As with the previous two campaigns, the enlarger blew its £15,000 target out of the water, garnering £103,982 worth of orders. And the top-secret new product that’s currently in development will no doubt do the same when it hits Kickstarter in 2020.
Max has hit a rich seam of interest in film photography, and at just the right moment. Why does he think it’s worked so well? ‘For many people, digital photography feels stagnant,’ he says. ‘It’s becoming increasingly expensive at the high end, and is very clean cut and clinical. Plus, we are spending a lot more time in front of screens, and that’s not necessarily what people want to get out of photography. Film photography is the perfect balance in terms of grounding you in the moment, while also creating images that are as good if not better than digital.’
Five years on from those first steps into manufacture, Intrepid Camera is shipping its carefully crafted designs all over the world. Of its sales, 70% are international, and of those, 50% go to the USA, while 20% head to new homes in Europe. ‘We’ve never had fewer than half of our cameras shipped to the US each month,’ says Max.
With the whole operation set to move to new premises on Hove seafront, and interest in film photography showing no signs of waning, where does this leave Max with his own photography? ‘I do go out occasionally,’ he says, ‘but my main passion is designing and engineering, so I’m in my element as I get to spend a lot of time mucking around with ideas and machines. But the whole team really enjoys seeing the Intrepid Camera hashtag on social media. We make our cameras in our workshop, but to get to see people making these incredible images with them is the ultimate satisfaction.’
Behind the scenes at the Intrepid Camera Workshop
Intrepid Camera photographers – Using the Intrepid 5x4in Mk1
Dustin Veitch ,Canada
‘Film photography has been my release for experimentation and learning over the past four years. The way images are rendered on film is what keeps me shooting, and I love the entire process from beginning to end, but it took many boxes of fogged sheets, missed focus, development mishaps and the like to get to where I am today with large-format photography.
‘Shortly after the Kickstarter campaign for the first-generation Intrepid model, I bought my first large-format camera. It’s a lightweight, extremely portable system and it accelerated my learning as I can take it everywhere. The more I shot, the more I learned and continued to develop my skills; it all comes as second nature now.’
Intrepid Camera photographers – Using the Intrepid 5x4in Mk2
De Westelinck Smith, Belgium
‘Film photography gives me room to breathe and makes me feel as if I am a witness to a scene. Large-format photography takes this to another level – particularly now, when I’m working on a project with children in strange, moody settings.
‘I bought the 5x4in Mk2 after stumbling across it on the internet while researching large-format cameras. I always shoot on location, so its light weight is a plus. However, sometimes it’s not as sturdy as it could be. Overall, though, it brings a new dimension to my photography and it feels as if the camera has strengthened the images I make. It brings peace, but also nervousness, joy, doubt and contradiction!
‘With the images I create, preparation is key. Location, model, narrative, colours, styling, composition, light… I have to previsualise the image before the shoot, and see it come to life while I’m taking it.’
Intrepid Camera photographers – Using the Intrepid 5x4in Mk3
Richard Pickup, England
‘Primarily, I enjoy the special visual character of film. I print my own work in a traditional darkroom and use the zone system, so naturally film plays a central part. I enjoy the rigours and challenges of traditional photography, and get a great deal of satisfaction from practising and refining my craft skills.
‘I am predominantly a street photographer and work mainly in black & white. I like to respond to the ever-changing nature of the city, a place of chance happenings and visual contrasts.
‘I own two Intrepid Cameras: a 5x4in and 10x8in. I chose the Intrepids because they are affordable and lightweight, and I found them a great way to get into large format – they’re excellent “learning” cameras. Both have extended my photography in different ways. Owing to its small size and portability, the 5x4in enabled me to do large-format photography on a trip to China. As for the 10x8in, I’m especially enjoying contact printing from its negatives. This seems to me to be both technically elegant and very much in the spirit of this venerable old format.’
Alex Hahn, Germany
‘Film photography is like a recipe handed down from your grandmother. If no one cares about it, we lose it. I learned photography on film cameras, and still love the process. I work full time as a photographer, and my clients need their pictures fast, so shooting film makes me slow down. My main business is architecture and interior photography, and this is what I shoot on film, too.
‘I own an Intrepid 5x4in Mk3, and bought it because it’s lightweight and easy to set up. I also love the red bellows. Plus, with architecture, the shift possibilities come in handy.
‘Since using the Intrepid camera, I’ve learned to check my film holders! Loading them takes time, and if a shot is ruined by a light leak it’s no fun. But I’ve also learned a lot about precise light-metering.’
Intrepid Camera photographers – Using the Intrepid 5x4in Mk4
Andrew Roberts, Switzerland
‘With film, images are more tactile. I find when using film that I shoot different subjects in a different style to when I use digital. With large format, I shoot mainly landscapes in the Swiss mountains, where I have time to wait for the perfect light. Using it helps me to understand what the eye is drawn to in a scene.
‘I have a 5x4in Mk4 with red bellows which I named Lucille because of its old-school style. I do a lot of backpacking with my 5x4in and the light weight of the Intrepid was an initial draw, but I also wanted to support a company that is making large format accessible at a reasonable price. It’s really easy to ruin a photo when shooting large format because there are so many ways to get something wrong, but the challenge is also part of the fun.’
Andrew regularly heads to the Swiss mountains with his 5x4in Intrepid 5x4in Mk4, Nikon 150mm f/5.6, 1sec at f/32, Kodak Ektar 100, 0.6 ND grad