FLM CB38F Tripod Ballhead Review

02nd October 2012
In: Gear
This summer I found myself without a head for my 2-series Gitzo, as my DIY-customised 410 geared head now lives on a larger Gitzo systematic, and I'd outgrown my old Manfrotto 486 ballhead. I was after something that was lightweight (for both carrying and air-travel), but strong enough for medium format and a light 5x4 camera, and since it would be for occasional use more than every day use I didn't want to part with too much hard cash relatively speaking. In fact I needed to save some money after buying two Gitzos in the first place.....

I shopped around a bit for the alternatives. To cut a long story short I ended up buying a FLM CB38F ballhead from Speedgraphic in Hampshire. Its got a 38mm ball, base panning, friction control, and comes with a standard screw stub onto which you can add any clamp you want. In my case I had a spare generic Arca-type clamp which I'd used on my old ballhead, so that would be pressed into service again on my new head.


The FLM CB38F Ballhead *


Cost of the ballhead at the time of purchase was £125, which frankly seems like a total bargain for a German-made product of this quality. Its similary to what you might pay for a reputable far-east made head via ebay, only with the FLM you're getting German engineering, a lengthy warranty (5 years) and a UK dealer. The guys at Speedgraphic were very helpful answering questions about this head via email, so I can recommend them if you fancy one of these heads. FLM is a family company and have been making ballheads and photo gear for a number of years, but generally seem to be a little under most people's radar. Indeed finding decent reviews of their products online can be a problem, hence why I thought I'd write this one.

First impressions of the head were good - its got a real quality Germanic feel, seems very well made, smooth and rock solid from the outset. The design seems really well thought out too. The friction control is concentric to the large locking knob and is marked with reference numbers, so its easy to tweak when using cameras of different weights - no messing around with your fingernail or anything like that. The reference numbers makes it easy to go back to a predetermined friction setting without any bother. So for example if you're out using a large format camera and also a compact digital you might know say that the 5x4 goes at friction setting 12, nice and tight, but you back it off to 6 for the lighter weight compact. Also having the friction control ring around the main knob means its always to hand - in contrast some heads have the friction knob at the opposite side or off to one side. The concentric design keeps the head from being cluttered, and as a result there are only two controls sticking out - one is the main locking/friction knob and the other the smaller base panning lock knob. Both are totally different by feel and size, so even with your eye to the camera there's never any danger of grabbing the wrong knob (as the actress said to the bishop). The control knobs have a positive feel to them - maybe they could get a bit rough on your skin after hours of use, but the plus point of this is they are very easy to lock down nice a tight, and they seem relatively easy to use when wearing gloves.

Another nice touch is that the drop slot for vertical shooting (should you need to use it) is at 90 degrees to the locking knob - that is to say that you would use the ballhead with the knob pointing towards you so then the slot is on the left, so you are free to lock the head with either hand no matter if you're shooting horizontal or vertical. In contrast, some heads have the knob at the opposite side to the drop slot, which can cause you some problems.

One thing I did have to address upon using the head was attaching my Arca-style clamp. The cork-covered disk is removed and the thread stub and on the head unscrews and can be inverted to give you a choice of either 1/4" or 3/8" thread. I needed the latter, so inverted it and screwed my clamp straight on. The only thing to watch for is to make this solid and prevent unscrewing you need to use some kind of thread-locking glue. Speedgraphic will sell you a tube of the recommended stuff for about £8, but I found that a generous dab of clear nail varnish (my wife's, not mine I should add) works a treat to lock it solidly in place, but should remain removable if required - don't use superglue!

Not long after buying this I got the chance of a few days up in the Lakes, which was an ideal chance to test the head out in anger. I used the head and 2-series as the combination I would carry up the lakeland fells, while leaving my heavier tripod for roadside use. The CB38F is a very good size match for a 2-series Gitzo like a 2531 or an old 1228. The head weighs less than half a kilo so its pretty lightweight given the solidity. Total weight including my added clamp is 477g. The ball diameter is 38mm which you might worry was on the small size for large format use. But you needn't worry, this held my Ebony RSW45 with a heavy 90mm 5.6 lens no problem, its absolutely rock solid.



The above photo is a cameraphone shot of my Ebony on the FLM head at the summit of High Spy, overlooking Dewentwater with Keswick in the distance. I raced up the fell from Borrowdale Youth hostel that evening carrying the 2-series with the ballhead attached - and in fact I ended up using it as a walking stick when my legs started to flag towards the top. Although I'd taken a lightweight tripod I'd not thought to lighten the load in my bag, and half way up I realised I was carrying way too much gear. Upon arriving at the top drenched in sweat and short of breath I managed to get set up for this shot while the light was good. It turned out to be one of my most successful from the whole trip. Taken with the 90mm Super Angulon 5.6 its every bit as sharp as the shots I take with the heavier Gitzo systematic legs with the geared head - no problems of stability with this ballhead.



The next evening I set out from the top the Honister slate mine and headed over towards Great Gable. Taking it at a more leisurely pace this time, I had plenty of time to explore around and about and put the head through its paces. All in all it was great to use, no problems - once I got to know where the controls were you could just get on with shooting without really giving it any thought. For me this is the mark of a well thought-out piece of kit.

The evening ended up being a bit too clear at sunset for my liking, too much blue sky and not enough clouds, but I was at least thankful it wasn't throwing it down. I was surprised that despite being a fair evening in high summer I still had the place to myself and could relax in pleasant temperatures and take some photos without fighting for space. Below is one of the best from that session which I am quite happy with given the lighting conditions.



All in all I can find very little to complain about with this head. The build quality is formidable, the operation smooth and precise. If I was going to be critical, I would say that it probably is possible to get a bit greedy with the locking knob and accidentally move the friction control ring at the same time. However this hasn't yet happened to me, so I'm not worried about it. With the numeric markings on the ring it would be obvious if you had moved it by accident, and there's enough travel in the ring that nudging it a number or two one way or the other is unlikely to be disastrous.

Subsequent to my Lakes trip I've also used this a few times locally in the Peak, and I've continued to enjoy using it and bringing home sharp shots. I'll have no hesitation in taking this head on a 2-series tripod when travelling abroad by air instead of my larger and heavier tripod.


Stanage Edge, late August


One final comment on this head regards the advertised load/strength. If you're ever researched ballheads or shopped for a tripod head in general you will know that there's no real correlation between manufacturers' stated maximum load figures and real-life capacity of any tripod head. What worse, there's not even a standard way of measuring max load, so different brands of head could be advertising different loads for heads of comparable strength. With that in mind the FLM quotes official max load for the CB38F is 25kg. This information is fairly meaningless to you - I don't know if this means it will slip under 25kg of load (in which direction?) or that it will explode into a shower of shrapnel if you put a 25kg camera on it. But suffice to say in terms of real-life loading you are not likely to have a problem using this head with a light to middling 5x4 or medium format camera, or any DSLR as long as you're not using massive heavy long lenses. Also as with any ballhead it will be able to support more weight when the camera is in a position over the body of the head. So if you use a 5x4 or medium format camera with a rotating back, or a DSLR with an L-bracket you can get away with more load than if you're hanging your camera off the side of the head for shooting verticals.

So all in all I'm impressed with the quality of this head and the ease of use. It seems like a very good choice for the landscape or travel photographer, its solid, smooth, not too heavy and its very well made. For the price I think this must be hard to beat in terms of value. I do intend to update this review after the winter when I've used it in winder conditions to give a clearer picture of long-term use. Feel free to remind me if I forget to update it.

* Note: The model of ballhead being reviewed is the recent version as pictured here. However until recently (2011?) there was a previous version that had a separate friction control knob. I have no idea if the previous version of this ballhead is as good, better or worse than the current one, although I would assume the change in the friction control on the new model was made to improve performance. But bear this in mind as there are some online reviews which clearly relate to older models, so if you're doing online research about these ballheads its worth being aware of this difference.

Comments

Photo comment By Jay: Thank you Dave for the taking the trouble to make this informative and helpful review. I'm currently on the look out for a decent ball head and the information here will definitely give me something to go on with regards FLM. Jay
Photo comment By Michael Henke: Thanks for the great review
Photo comment By IGNACIO TORRES MARTINEZ: Hello Dave. I've enjoyed a lot your pictures. I have just one question for you. I'm thinking to buy an Ebony RSW45 on Robert White's shop. Is that camera nice for you? Do you recommend me? Now I have one lens for this camera, the super-angulon 90/8 linhof. Is too different from your 90/5.6? Thanks in advance for your help and congratulations for your photography work!
Photo comment By Dave: The RSW45 is a great camera, and a pleasure to use. Its only drawback is the obvious one - that it can't eaily use long lenses. But for wide angle or normal lenses it is great. The 90/8 super angulon will be a good match for it, I used a Fuji 90/8 for a while.
Photo comment By Ross: I've been searching through the vast, and at times, overwhelming array of ball heads from Arca Swiss, Gitzo, Kirk, Benro, etc and I finally arrived at FLM which I'm happy to say looks like a proper solid quality piece of kit. Thanks for the review it's cemented the idea of getting one. All the best.
Photo comment By Carlos C: Hi, thanks for this review, great information about this head. How would you compare it versus 410 geared head?
Photo comment By Dave: To be honest there's not a lot you can compare with the 410 head meaningfully - ones a light ballhead, the other is a heavy geared pan&tilt head. They fulfil different niches for me. My FLM head stays on a gitzo 2531 legs, for use with 5x4 or smaller when tripod weight or portability is a concern. The 410 is used on a set of bigger gitzo 1325 legs for anything not too far from the car. They're both great heads.
Photo comment By Rob: I have been searching diligently for a tripod to hold firm a Canon 5D MkIII camera and a Canon 300mm f28L IS USM combination when I found your article. It would appear from the information you provided that the FLM CB38F would be perfect. I have a Manfrotto 055MF3 Magfiber tripod. I began researching FLM's products after seeing a video by David Noton in which he was using an FLM head on a Gitzo tripod. In your opinion, do you think my tripod and the FLM CB38F would be adequate? Thanks for such an in-depth and informative article in which you did not just skim over the parts that are critical for potential purchasers.
Photo comment By Dave: Hi Rob, I'm not familiar with your Canon 300mm combo, and not being a DSLR user it's hard to say if it would be sufficient. Depends a lot on what you're using it for (landscape, wildlife, etc), if you're using a tripod collar on the lens, how far you're intending to walk with it, and other factors. I suspect it would be fine, although as always with tripods if weight and cost isn't a consideration then a bigger head will always be better.

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