As some of you may have noticed, I am now a proud ambassador of the German tripod manufacturer FLM which are well known for their top of the line carbon fiber tripods. Thus I thought I should write down some of my experiences with the gear I’ve been using for the last couple of months – first in Japan, then the Alps and also during my road trip through Ireland.
For the most time I have used Slik AMT tripods, three different in total, Zomei carbon fiber tripods and Sirui heads (until I got insulted by one of their representatives). Resulting, I do have possess experiences with different brands and various products. Keep in mind, that I didn’t make an easy decision becoming an ambassador for FLM when the opportunity arose. I was considering the option for a couple of days because I didn’t whether being confined to a single brand for a prolonged period of time. In the end however I am very convinced this was a very good move.
So what exactly have I been using these past months? Even before my trip to Japan FLM were so kind to supply me with a CB-48FTR ball head, certainly one of the most sophisticated ball heads I held in my hands so far. The ball head was completed by a Acra Swiss platform SRB-60 as FLM sell the base plates separately. After I returned from Japan I also received a set of tripod legs, namely the CP30-M4S. I have to remark at this point that all communications with the company representatives were very friendly and logistics were handled excellently. I imagine that the service when sending in the tripod for repairs or maintenance will be handled just as well.
The Ball Head – FLM CB-48FTR
I thought since I was able to test the two components separate from one another, I would also separate my notes into two parts starting with the tripod head FLM CB-48FTR. I assume the cryptic name doesn’t give you much of an idea what it does, but it features some very distinct practical differences that aren’t offered by any heads I had used prior. The most practical feature is the option to control the friction of the ball head in two regards. The main setscrew can as per usual define the friction of the aluminum ball from almost lose to completely fixed. Very handy is the fact that with only a quarter turn of the lock knob you can considerably tighten the grip already, and at one complete turn of the knob the ball is fixated. This very quick and yet subtly controllable handling, allows for minute adjustments and comes in incredibly handy in various situations. Often times I recompose a shot only to a tiny degree and with the option to adjust the friction with just a few degrees of turning the knob – so I get very high friction – and the ball moves only when I move the camera to it but does not move – even when tilted – on its own, not even with my heavy Nikon D800 and a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 attached. This way I optimize and recompose very easily. Another advantage is that this way I don’t have to turn multiple times to lock it in place after composing a new shot, but only a few degrees. It’s fast and practical.
Now, there is also the option to set the maximum and minimum of friction possible if the main lock knob is completely loosened. For this adjustment there is an innovative locking ring on the lock knob which can be readjusted when the lock knob is tightened. It is not adjustable when the lock knob is loose. The scale indicating the numbers on the friction ring – one through twelve – is arbitrary though, and does not correspond to the amount of friction currently set. To me this was a bit confounding. The minimum on my head was nine and the maximum was eight after one turn clockwise. Once I had my head wrapped around it however it worked perfectly. This resetting of the friction can be repeated at will. I personally set it to a relatively high friction because I seldom want my ball head to move unless I apply some minor force. But for people first shooting wildlife where you might need a faster moving ball head and then switch to landscape or studio work this option is very handy I feel like. This is definitely one of the features that sets this ball head apart from many others. But not only the feature itself, but also how flawless and easy to handle it is.
The head does boast some other intriguing features such as the option to lock tilt and pan separate from one another. Once you have evenly footed the base plate of the tripod you can now not only pan the ball head on the x-axis for panoramas, which is regular with about any tripod these days, but also vice versa only on the y-axis. Something that people who like to shot vertoramas and architecture will find handy, since it allows for very precise vertical adjustments. I personally haven’t used it in the field so far.
The third very cool option the CB-48FTR has is the option to set the panning base to click in 15° increments when you turn the head on a x-axis. This detail is handy for any photographer who shoots panoramas at standard focal lengths. I have tried it for 24mm and 35mm panoramas with several vertically oriented frames and it work like a charm. I usually use to check the frames after each subsequent frame in my series, but now I may as well rely on the system when I use these focal lengths. Also the ball head has the now more or less obligatory panning index on the base plate so you can keep checking the angle during a panorama shot.
When it comes to the tactile characteristics I must admit, that you can feel it is made in Germany and that the company is very focused on refining their craft because the haptics are incredibly smooth and it is a pleasure to work with. However it comes at a price: weight. Coming in at around 600g, being the second biggest ball head of the FLM line, it is pretty heavy. For people looking for a ball head to attach to a travel tripod this is not the best option. They should probably look at the smaller offering by FLM such as the CB-38F. The ergonomics are terrific once you actually grow accustomed to the different knobs. I say this because I can imagine that some might be a bit confused by the all the knobs and may turn the wrong one while focused on the live view or viewfinder com composing a shot. This has happened to me a few times, but till now this issue has all but disappeared.
As a last point I want to address the only negative aspect that I’ve encountered with the ball head so far, or rather the Arca platform attached to it: since it is a screwing lock mechanism and I work more or less in the dirt most of the time, some of that dirt has gotten into the springs of the locking mechanism which proved to be annoying and made cleaning necessary more than just once so far. If not dealt with muck can lead to the screw not locking in completely and the L bracket moving in the quick release after a couple of moments, which proved to be annoying while readjusting camera settings during a DRI or panorama shot.
The Legs: CP30-M4S
When it comes to the legs everything is a bit more straight forward. Much akin to the competition the FLM CP30-M4S possesses a screw lock mechanism for its four leg elements and comes with a mechanism to reverse the legs’ angle in order to minimize the potential pack size. The legs are made of eight layers of carbon, giving the tripod legs terrific durability and stability. I mostly used metal tripods because I felt like most carbon tripods were a bit feeble. I abuse my equipment quite a lot, attaching the tripod to my trekking backpack and then hiking, scraping along stone edges, trees and putting it down on rocks, sometimes gently sometimes, in a hurry, not so much. After hiking with it and seeing how it looks now it’s pretty tough from what I can tell. Still, even though it uses eight instead of six layers of carbon as most other companies use, the legs aren’t as heavy – I have no idea how FLM do that. The CP30-M4S weigh around 1,49kg which is light, considering their operation height of 150cm without the center column. I was used to utilize larger tripods for my road trips and seascapes and smaller ones for my multiday hikes, due to lower weight, but after using this setup for both, I feel like that it can be a weapon of all traits. Only on the Irish coastline, with strong wind gusts, standing in the sand, it had trouble to provide my with the same level of stability I got from my 3,7kg Slik tripod I used most of the time for coastal landscapes in the past. But that is to be expected coming in at around one and a half kilograms less. Therefore the combined weight of around 2,2kg is still light enough for hiking.
What I really love about the CP30-M4S are the ergonomics. The handling of the locks feels smooth and turning the screw locks about half a turn lets the leg segments slide out effortless. Even after a couple of trips, using them on sandy beaches, in salt water, and the fine sands of mountain streams, they are still clean and the mechanisms haven’t been compromised by the elements. This goes to show how meticulous the parts are manufactured and put together.
On my first outings with this splendid pair of legs I only had one minor fallout, being that one of the screws of the fixture of the legs became lose for no apparent reason. I have no idea what might have cause it since I used the tripod, put it back in the car, and upon taking it out again one of the legs went limp. I was still able to use the tripod, but ultimately had to buy a set of Torx in a nearby fisher town to fix the issue. This sort of annoyance has never happened to me so far with any other tripod, but after an hour of detour the problem was resolved and I was on my way again. I only had to tighten the screw again by about 3 turns and since then the issue hasn’t come up again.
Futhermore the legs have retractable spikes at their feet. I’ve only once had a Camlink tripod which had this particular feature, but the mechanism was so cumbersome that I mostly never used it. With the CP30-M4S by FLM it’s really easy to use and pretty handy. The rubber feet have to be turned about a quarter turn and then pushed up slightly to reveal the retractable metal spikes. The are great for the usage in difficult, slippery, or rocky terrain. I’ve used them on the Irish coast and in a mountain stream in the Alps so far and they do make a difference stability and security on such surfaces by providing may more grip on these surfaces.
Concluding I can say that the tripod is certainly the most tactile and functionally pleasing tripod I have used so far and that I am proud to be an official ambassador of this premium manufacturer. I am by no means a person thinking in national categories but the tag “Made in Germany” really is true with FLM, everything just feels precise, smooth and well-crafted. I am already looking forward to taking it out on the road again soon. All the while I am selling my other tripods, since I think I have no need for others anymore, maybe a spare will stay, but the rest can go. While I am believer in change and toying with new equipment I fancy at least in regards to my tripod I will no longer have to do that, since I already got the best the market has to offer. The only thing I may need is a bigger FLM model for studio work and a different platform with a snapping mechanism, maybe. I highly recommend looking at FLM’s current lineup and consider purchasing one of their tripods, especially their heads, if you don’t want to ever think about this issue again, resting assured there is nothing better to buy anymore.
Pictures supplied by Philipp Lutz and Conal Thompson.