The weekly Creative Critique—Live continues this week with our 4th webinar this Thursday, April 23rd…
A good tripod and ballhead is one of a landscape photographers most important investments. Camera stabilization is critical to achieving the sharpest images, and the quality and operation of a tripod should be an enjoyable experience, not get in the way of your image making. So often that’s exactly what happens when we struggle with tripods, and either see them as a necessary evil or avoid their use altogether unless absolutely necessary.
On workshops, I don’t blame students when they avoid using their tripods in spite of my nagging that they should. I can see their focus and concentration disappear as soon as they have to deal with the dreaded contraption. This isn’t every student, of course. But in general I notice that when someone is resistant to a tripod, it’s usually because the tripod is of “questionable” quality. When it comes to tripods and ballheads, you certainly get what you pay for.
But is it just price, or is there more to be considered when choosing a tripod and ballhead? Afterall, what’s so complicated about three legs and a ball to attach the camera to? Well as it turns out, quite a lot that can make a night and day experience out of using a tripod in the field. And using it “in the field” is really the key, because that’s where the real test happens, not in a camera store.
But first, let me share a true story.
How Not to Start a Workshop
I awoke to the sound of high pitched whistling and realized it was the wind outside my hotel room door. I was in Maine for the start of the Acadia Autumn Adventure workshop, and my fears were confirmed when I looked out the window and saw the trees bending sideways under the stress of a steady 25mph wind, with higher gusts every few minutes. We were heading to an open expanse of rocky coast on the Atlantic Ocean, and I worried about how students would we’d all handle the wind.
As it turned out, quite well actually, except for that one sound I would remember for the rest of the workshop. I had advised everyone to hang their bags from the center column of their tripods for added stability, and to make sure they tightened everything before setting up their cameras. As I chatted with a student, I heard it – splash. We were far enough away from the water to know it wasn’t the ocean, and when we turned around, my greatest fears were confirmed. There in the middle of a large tidal pool were two and a half tripod legs sticking out of the water, and in the water, completely submerged, was an expensive DSLR.
Long story short, he had a decent tripod, yet didn’t tighten the legs properly, and it wasn’t solid and steady enough to withstand the high winds. So it tipped over.
This is just one example, but there are plenty others. Legs that don’t adjust easily, knobs and levers that resist your will, clamps that don’t quite work the way you expect, and let’s not forget the tripod that gets heavier with each use, becaue the owner is frustrated with it. I’ve seen and experienced them all, ranging from cheap Best Buy tripods to European and Asian brands.
I’ve learned to value and trust good design, function, and attention to ergonomic detail.
And this is where FLM comes into the picture.
Gura Gear Uinta and FLM tripod
A Matter of Trust
I rarely review products on this blog, but when I do it’s because I use them myself every day in the field and they’ve earned a spot in my “toolbox” so to speak. My tripods hold a special place in my toolbox, and I often wonder if they contribute more to my work than any other item I own.
A good tripod should be a “set and forget” item. That doesn’t mean you forget about its importance or function. When it works well it generates trust – something that develops brand loyalty and support. And most importantly, good design gives peace of mind, which I’ll return to later. The last thing I want is to second guess my gear while I’m focusing on great light or a once in a lifetime moment.
So all this to say I was skeptical of any tripod that I might choose over my trusted brands, even if I was already looking for alternatives. Why? Numerous issues, some of which were normal wear and tear, but also design features I had grown to dislike. For example, the locking mecahnism on tripod legs varies depending on the manufacturer, and I’ve used both the lever-clamp style (Manfrotto) and the rotation style (Gitzo) extensively. Yet both left something to be desired (based on the way they were implemented by these companies.)
Then there’s the whole issue of ballhead design and function, which again varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Bottom line is I was generally happy with my setup, and had learned to live with the quirks and weaknesses of each. They were also showing their age and wear, and I was beginning to wonder if it was time to start looking for a potential replacement. Upgrading to newer model seemed ideal and reasonable. But might there be an alternative, another brand I might actually consider?
I’d browse the tripod section at B&H Photo from time to time, looking at the different offerings (so many these days) but nothing really caught my eye, and I eventually returned to the tried and trued, my trusted tripods back home. Then I attended Photo Plus Expo in NYC this fall and discovered FLM.
FLM is a family owned business started in Germany that has been manufacturing tripods for different industries for 22 years. While they originally started out making surveying equipment, they are now committed to the photography industry and it has become their main focus.
FLM stands for F(photography), L (light), and M (metrology – the study of measurement or precision.) I love that acronym because it captures what we do with our tripods; we use them to capture light with our cameras in a very precise way.
Their ballheads are manufactured with a tolerance of 1/1000th of a millimeter, and most of the parts are produced in-house which means quality is maintained throughout the process. That’s certainly the first thing I noticed when I handled one of their ballheads. It felt so smooth and precise, whether the knobs themselves, or pivoting the head on its base. It almost felt like there was oil at every joint, yet was totally dry.
I wondered why I had never heard of them before, and the owner told me that while they have had great success in Europe and Asia, they are still relatively new to the US market. The owner of the company was there, demonstrating the products and very eager to answer questions at length about the operation and use of his products.
That also impressed me, since a personal connection is something I still value when buying products that I use every day. Yes, corporations get large and lose their personal contact, but that doesn’t mean they have to forget about the individual, something that happens all too often in today’s profit driven industry.
As an aside, I realized part of the reason I enjoy working with other brands I promote, like Gura Gear and Canson Infinity, is precisely because they are dedicated to the individual photographer – they care about you, and not just another sales line on a speadsheet. FLM is no different, and that was another good sign that I had found my tripod and ballhead replacement after all.
I’d use the words precision and elegance to describe the design of FLM tripods and ballheads. Right from the outset, I could feel the attention to detail, and the thought that went into designing a product that ultimately falls away and you forget you’re using it.
Lets start with the tripod I tested, the CP26-M3S.
Ari Tapiero at FLM Canada recommended the carbon fiber CP26-M3S based on my gear and preferences. By the way, Ari was amazignly knowledgeable and helpful, and another reason why I was so impressed with FLM.
Why carbon fiber? Two main reasons – strength and weight. Carbon fiber is stiffer than metal which translates to more stability. And it’s also lighter, which means less weight to carry into the field. Another important detail is that FLM uses a total of eight layers of carbon fiber for all of their tripods, where as most of the competion uses six, except for their most expensive models. The more layers used, the stiffer and stronger the construction.
The CP26-M3S has a maximum height of 162cm (5.3 ft) and supports 10kg (10 lbs), more than enough for my Canon 1DS Mk III with a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 lens. And it weighs a mere 1.23kg (2.7 lbs). I prefer 3 leg sections to 4, simply because the fewer the sections, the more stable the tripod is. Also there are less rings to twist to get the tripod open and ready to shoot. FLM uses a twist lock system that have a rounded shape, which means they fit into the palm of your hand, unlike flat locking rings that just don’t feel as comfortable. They are smooth and silky, and lock the legs very securely. Plus they are designed to protect against dirt and accidental opening – which has been a problem for me in the past.
The legs have 180° of movement which means the tripod can be folded in the smaller position for travel. The locking mechanisms are smooth and easy to use, and don’t require super human strength to release. Metal edges are rounded off for smoother operation – no sharp edges to get your skin pinched.
The bottom of the legs also have quick change tips, only requiring a minor twist to go from rubber feet to steel tips. Let me clarify, you only have to twist them about a 1/4 turn to go from rubber to steel—not 20 or more like on other tripods—nice.
Ari recommended I pair the CP26-M3S with the CB-43FTR ballhead.
Talk about a piece of precision machinery – craftsmanship is everywhere, from the design of the knobs to the cork/rubber blend material used at every limit to prevent vibration and ensure weather resistance. And the operation is smooth and silky.
The main locking mechanism has a dual ring that adjusts the locking of the ball, and a friction adjustment that remembers its setting for future use. Once locked, the camera is as stable as a rock, and does not move at all. There are three more knobs which control the following:
- A knob to lock the panning of the head
- A knob that engages a 15° notch with a clicking sound while rotating the camera for easy panoramas. This knob also has a button that locks the rotation to make it easier to tighten the head onto the tripod.
- A final “tilt knob” with a very unique feature – it locks the ball so it can only be tilted or swiveled at 90° to the knob. This limits the axis of the head to two dimensions instead of three as normal. This has some interesting uses, for example vertical panoramas when you want to tilt the camera forwards and backward, but not left and right.
There are several options for attaching your camera, including a quick connect system using a locking lever with a security feature that prevents the camera from accidentally disconnecting. There is also a standard clamp that is compatible with most camera plates, and that’s what I got. Once again the knob is well designed and easy to tighten and loosen without losing any skin. They also have matching camera plates including L brackets. While not custom designed for specific cameras, they are adaptable for any camera which does increase their long-term usefulness.
Details like these show a commitment to design and an understanding of how a tripod and ballhead are normally used and abused in the field.
So often I feel that products are never tested where we use them – in real world situations where subtle or minor design flaws become significant issues, like a tiny pebble in your boot. And that’s where I really appreciated the FLM gear, when it came time to take it out into nature.
In The Field
The tripod and ballhead with attachment plate weighs 1.62kg or 3.58lbs, the lightest tripod I have every used. In fact every time I pick it up I’m pleasantly surprised by its nimble quality. I’m used to carrying heavier tripods on the trail, so this was a welcome change.
I have to admit the knobs were disorienting at first, partly because the included instruction manual needs a little more clarity. I’ve already mentioned this to FLM and they are aware of the need for improvement. There’s also the disorienting learning curve that comes with any new piece of gear, especially one that becomes muscle memory over time. But after the second outing with the FLM tripod and ballhead, I felt right at home.
Opening and closing the legs and selecting the leg angle is easy thanks to the spring loaded adjustment. Extending the legs is also easy, but what really impressed me is how they lock easily at the desired height without any drift – and without tightening them with super human force.
Attaching the camera is also uneventful, and once attached, the tripod just works. The ballhead is extremely secure, and I never had any problems with either my Olympus E-M1 or Canon DSLR setups. The tripod does include a center column, but I remove that from all my tripods right away so that I can get my camera as low to the ground as possible for dramatic perspectives. Even so, the hook to attach a bag for extra stability is still available.
My only criticisms are as follows:
- The included manual can be improved for clarity (how about making it a little bigger.) In all fairness the FLM Canada website has a bunch of videos to explain the operation of the tripod ballhead, but when you want to get up and running right away, a simple visual guide to the ballhead would be ideal.
- The operation of the friction knob can be confusing until you learn how it interacts with the main tightening knob. Because I don’t use the friction feature at all on any ballhead, I simply screwed it all the way out as far as it would go (as per the manual), and never had any issues again. I think more clarity in the manual would have prevented a few moments of frustration when I first started using the ballhead.
The Value of Peace of Mind
The trust we put in our gear is directly proportional with how comfortable and confident we feel in the field, and ultimately how easily we can get into the flow – so critical for creativity.
I know that for me, when my gear works as expected, that is to say, performs without getting in the way, and better still, elevates my practice of the craft of photography, I make better images. Are there other good tripods on the market? Sure, and I always say if what you have is working for you, than focus on your art, not the gear.
Yes, tools are just tools, and they should function to support our creative goals. Given that definition, the FLM tripod and ballhead are my new trusted companions on that journey.