In conversation with: Burley Cameras

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More and more film photographers are — literally — taking it into their own hands to create products and accessories that improve camera usability and ergonomics, as well as provide solutions to problems that some might say didn’t exist.

Don’t take that last statement as negative, film photography (more so than digital in my opinion) is ALL about those tools, cases, boxes grips and other accoutrements many of us didn’t know we wanted but can’t do without.


Today, I’m talking to one such maker, the UK’s Ross Burley, owner of Burley Cameras. I know a few of you will be familiar with him through his custom made wooden handgrips for the Pentax 67, 6×7 and 67II range of cameras. As you’ll hopefully learn, Ross is a little more than that.

Let’s get stuck in.


What was the reason behind starting Burley Cameras?

Well I have been interested in photography since my late teens. Very quickly picking up film after a couple of years doing digital. If you had told me then that I would end up starting a woodworking and camera making business I wouldn’t have believed you!

I trained to be a pilot as part of my university degree and after that worked in the aviation industry. Later on, I taught English in Japan. All the while being obsessed with photography.

I fell down the proverbial rabbit hole soon after trying out film photography. 35mm film lead me to medium format, which led me into to the darkroom and then the joys of large format. After that it, was only a matter of time before I started doing wet plate and coating my own glass negatives.

Before I knew it I was all in.


I had (and still have) a 10×12” field camera, which is a beautiful format for contact printing. However I hankered for a camera that was big enough and sturdy enough to take my heaviest portrait and ex-military lenses. I had trouble finding one, let alone one that I could take out in the field for doing portraits on location.

The camera that sparked the idea of camera making. A Middlemiss 10x12” field camera.
The camera that sparked the idea of camera making. A Middlemiss 10×12” field camera.

My plans for making a DIY heavy-duty camera from a plywood board quickly became more refined as I progressed. I didn’t have a workbench, so I made one. I didn’t have the tools required, so I bought them at boot fairs, antique tool shops, and on eBay. I needed to improve my sketches to proper drawings, so I bought a draughting table on Gumtree from a local architect. I have had to make many of my tools myself along the way. So what started out as a plywood board eventually became a jointed mahogany frame.

Tools of the trade.
Tools of the trade.

Then something clicked.

If someone would get as much joy using one of my cameras as I have had making it so far, then perhaps I should give it a go as a business. I contacted an organisation here in the UK, called The Prince’s Trust, that offers business advice and mentoring to young people and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since starting my business, and being involved on various Facebook communities, I have seen the many amazing projects and businesses out there that support traditional photography. I think what has been proven by people taking up wet plate collodion and dry plate gelatin negatives is that traditional photography can keep on going, even if it eventually becomes unprofitable for large companies to produce film. For example, Jason Lane is making gelatin dry plates that you can buy off the shelf; and Graham Burnett is keeping Graflexes and their focal plane shutters alive.

Looking at the website, I don’t see any cameras for sale! How did you get off the ground and is a camera still on the cards?

It became apparent when making my personal prototype camera that I couldn’t make cameras for sale from day one. I simply did not have space yet. However, I had some ideas for products that would be good to cut my teeth on, namely wooden lens caps, and cases for 5×4” film holders.

The wooden lens caps have proven very popular and I have made them in a variety of woods for all sorts of lenses. Market research through questionnaires was key to figuring out preferences and attitudes. The cases for 5×4” film holders have taken a while to prototype but I am happy to say the first two are hitting the shelves now and, aside from my subscribers, you heard it here first!

Ok, so there’s no space for a camera yet but there is something else that I noticed on the website. Care to tell us about those wooden Pentax 67/67II grips?

Right! Most recently I have focused on producing replacement wooden handles for the Pentax 6×7, 67 and 67II – left-hand grips. I think it is a great camera and one that I have always returned to. I make the replacement handles in a variety of timbers including panga panga and zebrano. Included with each handle are all the tools necessary to fit it into the grip.


The idea is to give Pentax users a way to customise their cameras by using luxury hand-selected timbers or replace a wooden handle that is damaged. They have received a lot of interest.

I’m still holding back on asking you about the camera. What does the immediate future look like for Burley Cameras?

Well the film holder cases have certainly been keeping me busy! I am also currently prototyping an original design for a right hand grip for the Pentax 6×7/67 cameras. I hope to sell matching sets comprising of a left-hand replacement wooden handle and a right-hand grip. Oh and custom brass and aluminium lens caps are in the pipeline too! Busy busy!

The Watson 12x15” tailboard camera. When it was made it was the largest size available (from Watson). Unfortunately it arrived smashed and will require restoration. I hope to document the restoration in a series of videos.
The Watson 12×15” tailboard camera. When it was made it was the largest size available (from Watson). Unfortunately it arrived smashed and will require restoration. I hope to document the restoration in a series of videos.

I would love to get some interactive content out there too. I have a Watson 12×15″ tailboard camera that arrived smashed into pieces. (Enough to make you weep!) I will try to document the restoration of it.

Whilst all that is going on I will try to increase my workspace and begin work on ULF cameras for dry and wet plate processes.

Who or what influences and inspires you? How does this translate into what you’re trying to achieve with your business?

The Gandolfis. I think we are fortunate to have footage of them working. I think the industrial and craft heritage really shines through in their work and products. I have a 1968 5×4” Precision which I love. I think that and the Watson will always be cameras that I refer back to when looking at camera making techniques.

Film cameras and making things with wood aside, what other things are you interested in?

The effects of sun in England
The effects of sun in England

Aviation and history. I have an interest in aerial reconnaissance lenses like the Dallmeyer Pentac 8” 2.9 and other Air Ministry lenses. I started a facebook group for Air Ministry lenses recently. I was planning to make research trips to archives and museums in and around London this spring in order to collect information to share with the group but the coronavirus crisis and subsequent lockdown has put a stop to that for the time being.

And finally, I have to ask, how has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business?

I have managed to remain open despite the lockdown. It has affected delivery times and some of my favoured suppliers have had to temporarily close. Luckily I haven’t been affected in a more serious way.


And that’s it. Short but sweet. I hope to have a more extended look into Ross’ products at some point in the future and talk a little more in depth about his design and build process, as well as the long term usability of things like his wooden lens caps and film holders. As you can probably imagine, they’re not 100% suitable for 100% of photographers but in many respects, compliment the slow, methodical and considered approaches we take with large format and wet plate collodion.


Nameplates!
Nameplates!

If you’ve got any questions for Ross, please drop them in the comments section below and I’ll twist his arm into giving you a reply. In the meantime, please do check out the Burley Cameras website and give Ross a follow over on IG and Facebook.

~ EM

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