A three legged review
Here’s the thing about tripods. Like camera bags, they’re all compromise and one is seemingly never enough. I guess that’s why in my career I’ve owned so many tripods in so many shapes, sizes and brands and now find myself with three squeezed amongst all the camera bags in my office. For serious work I have my very old, very solid and very heavy Foba with its massive Superball head. No question, it’s been a warhorse and survived around twenty years of hard use, but unfortunately a warhorse is needed to carry it and unless I’m working near the car, or with two and a half bulky assistants, it’s often left at home in favour of my medium-sized Manfrotto. It’s been good as well, but is starting to come apart in various places and, to be honest, has always been a bit short. Lastly, for fishing stories, travel and backpacking, I have a tiny Gitzo 1540T carbon number with a little RRS BH25 ball head that fits into a small pack and weighs less than an impoverished rat. It’s a nice little tripod but limited in its uses for small size and low height. That said, it’s always been better than nothing and now lives in the car when not out on an adventure.
Recently I’ve found myself wanting a new tripod to bridge the gap between the sheer mass of the Foba and the portability of the little Gitzo and as a replacement for the worn Manfrotto, and I will also admit here that after having a look at my friend Charlie Brown’s spiffy new Manfrotto 055CX3 at one of our workshops,I was a little envious of it’s practicality or had tripod envy if there’s such a thing.
A major concern for me when buying new photo equipment is build quality and I can’t stand spending good money on rubbish that doesn’t last — an all too common problem these days where branding, re-branding and marketing seem more important than actual function or good design.
I also know from all the tripods I’ve owned that cheap tripods don’t survive and that the good ones last and are worth the money when the cost is averaged over many years.It’s with this in mind I started the search that ultimately led me to an old friend, and Australian photo industry staple, Peter G, now importing FLM gear into Australia.
It’s a small world because Peter — I’m pretty sure — actually sold me the Foba all those years ago. At the time, he assured me I was paying for longevity — an easy claim to make as I handed over enough money to buy a top-shelf new camera.
Now, all these years later, though the money is not quite as otherworldly, I’m getting the same line concerning how long an FLM will last. And given how well the Foba is going, I think I can take Peter’s word on that.
FLM is a German company and Germans always get a great rap for what they build, and deservedly so with the one glaring exception that is SAP software — it flat out sucks in every respect and proves that Germans are in fact human and capable of getting it very wrong. Really, if SAP made a tripod, it would have two legs and nowhere to attach a camera. Thankfully, FLM is cut from a better cloth and the tripod and head are beautifully designed and built and everything operates with a light, yet precise touch. There’s also a ten-year warranty, which says to me that my new German friends expect it to last and are happy to prove it.
If build quality is impressive, weight, or the lack thereof, is bloody amazing. The legs on their own are only 1.72 kg and the head doesn't add much more at around 600 grams.
Taking my new tripod out of the box for the first time felt like waking up to no gravity.
Seriously, the whole thing probably weighs less than the feet on my Foba.
Speaking of feet, the FLM has neat little spikes tucked under twist-lock rubber feet giving the option of either without changing any parts — a clever touch.
When fully folded the tripod and head is only 51 cm in length thanks to the legs, which can fold completely back over the raised centre column, making it easy to strap to my pack or across the top of my camera bag — given the max height is well over my lofty head, that’s pretty compact.
The legs themselves move with a solid, firm feel and don’t flop around during set-up.
On the bottom of the centre column is a single hook that can be tucked away or removed completely and it’s perfect for adding some weight if you need it.
FLM legs come in two models: the CP26 and the CP30. From there they break down into several lengths and number of leg sections to suit everyone from Hobbits to Hagrids.
Of course, a new tripod is only half the battle and I also wanted a new, lighter ball head to match.
When selecting the new head (from a lot of options), I went for the middle ground with the CB-43 FT, it’s easily big enough for any DSLR duty and would easily handle medium format should I ever go there again. (Like when Fuji or Sony make a cheap, compact digital rangefinder medium format. Hint, hint.)
There are a few camera mounting options for each head from basic direct screw in to more elaborate cam locking mounts and L brackets. I chose the SRB60 for the simple locking knob and light 50 mm plates with soft, cork mounting pads and coin screw. This plate holder also has a spirit level for quick reference (or frustration) when working on un-level ground.
As a safety measure, there’s a small pin on the base that prevents the plate from moving when the camera is tilted or when removing the camera.
Also worth noting: when folded no part of the legs make contact with the head and the fit around it is perfect.
Like the legs, the build quality of the ball head is exquisite with beautifully turned parts and control knobs, but it’s two real party tricks and what separates it in the market is the friction control and the tilt lock function.
The friction control is built into the main release knob as a separate adjustment and allows you to set the amount of friction on initial release from nothing to almost locked.
It’s proving very useful when I use the tripod as a big monopod with my long lenses.
The tilt function is a game changer for ball heads and, in my opinion, makes a traditional three adjustment head obsolete for everyone except maybe the die-hard architectural shooters or fussy macro work.
One option I didn’t choose that would be very useful to the stitching and pano folks is the 15-degree stop button that attaches the panoramic base next to the locking knob and allows for quick 15-degree adjustments. At only $65, I will probably add one at some point soon.
In conclusion, I can only really add that the CP30-XL4S FLM tripod and CB-43 FT head have exceeded all my expectations and would be a great choice for anyone, like me, looking for a good, take-it-anywhere do-it-all tripod. It’s light enough to render most excuses for leaving it at home lame, yet still solid enough to do the work of a lot of the weightier options out there.
The price, with head, is just over $1500 (AUD) and puts it in a different universe compared to the cheap Chinese stuff and quite a bit more than a similarly sized Manfrotto, but about par with it’s equivalent Gitzo or RRS model.
Given the great quality, feel, clever head design and the long warranty, I feel the FLM really stands out and I will also add that I find the size and weight of the CP-30 XL4S about perfect for what I need.
For a report on it’s longevity you’ll have to come back in twenty years, though I suspect, like my Foba, it will still be doing the hard yards even if I’ve long since stopped.
FLM gear is distributed in Australia by Kudos Cameras
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