FLM Ballheads: a rediscovery

For a few years now I’ve owned an FLM CB-58FTR ballhead. It sits on my largest series 4 tripod, and I’ve liked it up to now, and admired it’s extraordinary engineering. But I discovered something recently. I didn’t know how to use it properly. Not the fancy tilt mechanism that allows you to lock all axes but one, that was fine. Not the fancy switchable indexing on the pan mechanism, I had that down. But the simple act of setting the friction, and locking and unlocking the head.  I had that all wrong. And so did almost everyone on the web. So in the timeless style of first paragraph stings: does this mean that the head is even better than I thought? Spoiler: yes.

What I had wrong.

If you search reviews and articles, you’ll find lots of people have a complaint about these FLM ballheads (FLM stands for Film, Light, Metrology). It’s that it takes many rotations of the locking knob to lock down the ballhead. I too had this worry. Locked down it was superb; it just didn’t move. Unlike any ballhead I’ve ever used, when you set the position and lock it down IT DOESN’T MOVE AT ALL. This is why I’ve kept the CB-58 as my main ballhead – there is nothing more annoying when setting up pictures than having  to repeatedly realign the head to get the composition you want – you set the composition, lock the head, and it moves. Repeat. Of course you can guess how much “creep” there will be, and try to aim higher than you need, but this varies depending on the angle of the head and the weight of the lens, so is never reliable. But the FLM didn’t do this. And it was well worth the minor hassle of turning the main knob a few rotations to get that.

But after a while I got to wondering: I wan’t at all sure that I was able to set the friction on the head (using the unique collar around the main knob) reliably, and this is supposed to be a principal advantage of the head. So I got out the instructions. I found them almost completely incomprehensible. Perhaps the German originals are better, I haven’t seen them. But hey, working on this blog I get a lot of exposure to excellent English from native German speakers, and it’s always super clear, so unless the owners got their primary school nephew to translate it, I don’t think it’s a matter of lost in translation.

I read one review from South Africa in which the reviewer was puzzled, and finally got a tutorial from the distributor, after which he was thrilled with the heads. Other, reputable reviewers, said the heads were great but took many rotations to lock – and I discovered that this is a sure sign that someone is not using the mechanism properly.

After reading and re-reading the instructions, and watching some hokey videos by the Canadian distributor, and experimenting I figured out how to set the tension.

Doing that properly also fixed the “many rotations”: issue. The ball now locks down with maybe 180 degrees of rotation. And it locks down with absolutely no creep. I was thrilled, and went a bit wild with head purchases.

So; how do you use it?

The proper way to use an FLM head

So first my instructions, and then a few comments.

Above is a photo of the main control of the an FLM head. As you can see there is a large silver knob (always the largest knob on an FLM head) and there is a black collar around it with numbers on it.

I’ll call the silver knob the Lock Knob, and the black collar the Tension Ring.

Setting up the head.

Put a camera lens combination which is typical weight for your usage (you can set it up for other weights easily too)

First rotate the Lock Knob clockwise a bit. This will free up the Tension Ring.

Then rotate the Tension Ring anticlockwise as far as it will go. This sets the Tension Ring to a neutral position.

Now rotate the Lock Knob anticlockwise as far as it will go. This sets the fiction to minimum. Be careful not to let the camera flop around!

Your head is now in the neutral state, ready to be set up.

Now rotate the Lock Knob clockwise until you have a good friction. A good friction means that the camera and lens will not move on their own due to gravity, but can be moved by you. As much friction as possible compatible with being able to precisely set the position of the head with no sticking is the correct amount.

Now rotate the Tension Ring clockwise as far as it will go. 

Look at the number on the Tension Ring. That’s the setting in future for this type of camera and lens.

Here’s a short video in case that helps!

Locking the head

Having set up the head, it’s time to use it.

If you now  rotate the Lock Knob as far as is will go left, you will be back at your set friction. So long as you leave the Tension Ring untouched this will always be the case. Adjust your composition, and rotate the Lock Knob 180 or maybe 270 degrees to lock down. Job done.

Here’s what’s counterintuitive: you could rotate the knob further, but the ball won’t be usefully tighter. This is because of an awesome gearing mechanism that makes tightening the ball easy and precise. Most other ballheads require a lot of force – you turn the locking know hard until it feels tight. And in some cases that’s not tight enough, hence the oversize flaps on some RRS heads that overcome this problem by giving you more leverage. This is one source of the illusion that FLM heads require an annoying amount of rotation to lock. You don’t need to go all the way to the Lock Knob feeling tight.  The second source of the illusion is that most people haven’t set the friction correctly, or have set it too low. In that case, it really will require many turns to be secure.

And here is another short video!

Changing to a previously recorded tension

To switch from one tension setting to another, unlock the Tension Ring by turning the Lock Knob clockwise, set the number you want on the Collar, and turn the Knob back anticlockwise as far as it will go.

And here is yet another short video:

Some remarks

It may sound fiddly, but once you get the hang of it, it’s quick and easy. And much much easier to use than those heads that have the tiny friction wheel inside the knob.

I have now replaced almost all my ballheads with FLM ones.

I won’t say much about the tilt and clicked rotation features of the heads since they are well enough explained in the manual.

The one thing I felt I might be losing is to do with panoramas. The pan mechanism on the FLM is, as is usual on ballheads, on the base below the ball. If you are shooting single row panoramas this means you need to either have a levelling base, and level the tripod that way before using the pan mechanism, or else level the tripod by adjusting the legs. I have used the Arca P-0 for a lot of things before, which is an upside down design with the pan mechanism above the ball, not below it. This means you can level with the ball, and then pan freely. But there is an easy solution with the FLM. If you don’t have a levelling base on your tripod, install a panning clamp. You can then level with the ball first just like on the Arca-Swiss. Leofoto make a range of much better than most Chinese made clamps with a pan mechanism, and it so happens the knobs match the aesthetics of the FLM perfectly. You can buy the FLM heads without a clamp, so there’s no problem (I recommend watching this video about how to remove and install clamps onto an FLM head before you do this; it’s by the Canadian distributor).

The heads come in 32mm, 38mm, 43mm, 48mm and 58mm. They also come in a plain F version without the tilt or the click option for the panning, an FT version which adds the function of locking the head in most axes so you can tilt it without affecting anything else, and FTR which adds in addition the clicking pan base. Unless you use a levelling base, there is likely little  need to get the clicking base, as you will me more likely to pan with a panning clamp or pano accessory.

Which size do you want? personally I am a fan of slightly heavier duty heads than needed. A bigger head is easier to operate, and reassuringly solid. So I have the 32mm on series 0, 38mm on series 1, 43mm on series 2/3 (an RRS tripod that is between 2 and 3 sizes) and on my ground tripod,  and a big 58mm on my series 4. But I’m sure this is slight overkill, and you could easily go one size smaller with no ill effect, and put a 32 mm on a series 1 tripod, and so on. The 32mm does not come in the FT (tilt) and FTR (tilt and clicking base) versions because the head is too small to fit the extra knobs, but all the rest do.

Conclusion

good

  • does not shift after ball locked down. It’s the most stable ballhead you can buy.
  • can set a tension with no movement before locking down
  • beautiful pieces of solid engineering
  • lock knob can be turned to securely lock without too much torque applied
average

  • price, for what it is.
  • Height: a little higher than some (e.g. RRS) heads which may matter to some in specialised use – e.g with ground tripod for macro.
  • Installing and removing clamps requires following the instructions closely
not good

  • Instructions!  You need to read this article.

 

I’ve spend an unreasonable amount of cash replacing my Arca-Swiss, Markins, RRS and Photoclam heads with FLM ones. These are all great ballheads, and the fact that I replaced them  tells you how keen I am. So I’m happy. I expect them to be the last heads I buy. And every time I use them there is a pleasure you get when operating precision machinery that is very enjoyable, and for that alone I think I’d be tempted. But the lack of creep – the change in position after you have locked the heads – in all the models is the best I’ve ever seen. It’s also true that as someone with a lot of tripods, there is a real benefit to having all the heads operate the same way! But if and when you get one,  follow my instructions!

If you want to buy one or more then in most countries using our affiliate link to BHPhotoVideo may be the best bet. B&H are very reliable, and ship at remarkably reasonable cost to most countries, and even collect tax and deal with customs for many countries. In Europe you can find a local store that stocks them by looking on FLM’s own website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David Braddon-Mitchell

David Braddon-Mitchell is a keen landscape and environmental portrait photographer. In the last decade of film he was a darkroom practitioner and worked with Olympus OM SLRs and various medium format cameras. He switched to Canon DSLRs when digital imaging improved, and made a move to Sony bodies as soon as the A7 series was born. He enjoys using a mixture of legacy manual lenses, modern manual lenses, and E mount AF lenses.

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17 thoughts on “FLM Ballheads: a rediscovery”

  1. I have the 48mm FT head, and can’t even remember whether I got the friction to work when I experimented with it right after buying, or not. Regardless of the type of ballhead, I find that I can’t be bothered with adjusting the friction each time I change from a light to a heavy lens. I just use the locking screw. I guess that friction gets more important with heavier lenses (2.8/300 and up?), but my heaviest lens is a 4/200 macro.
    These days I’m using a tripod with an integrated leveling base + geared leveling head and found that to be my dream combo. Only ± 25° of movement, but I can live with that restriction.

    1. There’s no need to adjust the friction whenever you change camera lenses. Set the friction at the highest level that works for your lightest combination while still allowing you to frame comfortably. That is, of course, also the safest friction. This should work for much heavier lenses too. You only need to change when the difference is quite large but actually it’s easier on the FLM than on most other ballheads, especially the ones with the little inset wheel! If you follow the instructions in video three you’ll soon find it easier.

      But of course if you have moved to a geared head with base you must have very particular needs – the FLM while come close with more convenience when you master it, but it’s not a geared head. I too use a geared head sometimes. But much less often now I have FLMs because the smooth but high friction without sag means you can make fine adjustments the way you usually can’t with ballheads.

  2. I’m also a FLM fan and currently have the 32 & 58 OLD series heads, having separate pre-tensioning knobs.

    David’s very good article refers to the second(?) or, in any case, newer series. I had a couple of those too and got rid of them for exactly the reason that it took too many turns to tighten them up. My remaining doubt, though, is that I might have also tried David’s “proper” way of setting them up as well…
    In any case, they’re lovely heads, with the 58 F living on the studio pod and the 32 FB on my travel pod.
    They’re practically unmatched for their stability (in proportion to their size), with a Novoflex CB 5 coming very close. I also have a relatively cheap Tiltall BH-10 that comes close to that (proportional to size) rock steady stability, but without quite reaching the exceptionally smooth operation of the FLMs. The Arca Swiss P0 is another favorite of mine.
    I have to say that I wasn’t that impressed with a RRS BH-55: a nice design object, but it’s smoothness and solidity didn’t match the FLM & Novoflex’s.

    1. Hi Roi
      I think if you had done it the way I describe it with the Mk II heads you would have only required 180-270 degrees turn to lock. Perhaps one aspect I didn’t emphasise enough is that the correct friction/tension is quite high, higher than most use. The aim is not to have a feely moving ball, but one which can be moved without sticking, but will not move by itself at any angle. This allows you to make small adjustments to the composition, and preview them without locking. It’s not as good as a geared head in this respect, but it’s close. At these higher levels of friction, the 180 degrees locks fine. Many turns being required suggests that, even if all the other directions were followed, maybe the friction level was a little bit too low. Remember also that you should not keep turning the ball until the knob is tight. Just the 180-270 degrees. This is another way their mechanism differs from many, which makes it easy to lock without applying force.

      1. Hi David,
        On my old series (separate pre-tensioning knob) FLM heads, I’ll typically go from “adjusting” postiton to “tight” in about 45° turn or less.
        I don’t remember how much force I used to tighten the new series ones (probably less). Since they’re obviously a very serious manufacturer, they must have had a reason for changing how pre-tensioning is implemented.

  3. Thank you for the explication.
    There is still one thing I do not understand.
    Is it possible to level your camera first and have then only pan en tilt left like the double ballhead like Flexshooter?
    I have seen a video where they show that the tilt mechanism can be a overruled by force though…?

    1. Hi

      Yes there is a tilt feature in the FT and FTR versions of these heads (there are less expensive versions called just F that do not have this feature)

      The way it works is that you tighten the Tilt knob, and this constrains the ball to only tilt in the vertical axis.

      Yes you can override this by force: the mechanism works by applying pressure to prevent movement in the other plane. I do no think this is any problem whatsoever though: you would have to apply a lot of force in the wrong way to get it to move, and it has never happened to me in practice.

  4. Thanks for pointing that out.

    So you can level first with the ball, and then tighten the tilt knob, and have only tilt and pan.
    That’s great!

    1. Yes, but if you level with the ball, then you probably want to pan with a panning clamp rather than the base of the head, because of course the base won’t be level. But that’s true of all ballheads, and it’s why we have panning clamps!

  5. OK…, that brings me back to the Flexshooter double ball head.
    With the big ball leveled, I can pan and tilt and I stay level.

    1. Sure, or a panning clamp, or a levelling base. All will achieve the same result. A panning clamp is probably the simplest solution, and lighter than a double ball or a levelling base (which sort of is a double ball).

  6. I am not a fan of ball heads. I use a leveling base and a simple two way head. – Much better and simpler control.

    1. Ah well, a review of a ball head will be of little interest to you! But it should be said for those who are on the fence, that the FLM’s tension control (and tilt) give you much more control than many ballheads, coupled with the speed that ballheads have over other kinds…

  7. I’ve owned 4 FLM ball heads. I’ve also owned many others. FLM heads are not as rugged as some, and tend to either lock up or fail.

    Now my preferred ball heads are “Tiltall” ball heads. A study a few years ago in Germany found that Titlall ball heads hold tighter than any of the other brands tested. And isn’t that the most important feature of ball heads?

    1. Perhaps yours have locked up in a permanent way: but many people who have complained of lockup in an FLM head have had this happen just by not following the instructions. When it happens it’s easy to undo the lockup with two twists (couter-intuitively by trying to TIGHTEN the main knob and then turning the tension knob counterclockwise. RRS has a video about how to undo lockup on their heads, after many perfectly good heads were returned as a result of (different) user errors. Perhaps FLM should too!

      Of course I don’t blame these users. The one big failing of FLM is, I think, their instructions.

      But is the most important feature of ballheads holding tight? I don’t think so. It doesn’t help if a head holds higher than needed to prevent gravity plus a degree of pressure from moving the head. What REALLY matters is that (a) when you are adjusting the head, before it’s locked tight, gravity doesn’t move it and it’s still smooth enough to adjust and (b) when you lock it down, it doesn’t move from the pre lockdown position. Heads which have a tremendous amount of tightness (in some cases more than needed) AFTER they are locked down can fail on these more important tests. But I’n not claiming to know this is true about Tiltall.

  8. Thank you for this nice article. I used to be a photographer, but now I am mainly a rifle shooter and hunter. The Arca Swiss standard has taken the precision rifle shooting community by storm.

    I use my old Arca B-1 head atop a very stout wooden Ries tripod or light CF RRS. I have decided to use the B-1 exclusively on the RRS tripod and to get a stout ball head that ideally locks off lateral movement like the FLM 58 does, as that can be a problem, called rifle cant, when panning after an animal with the B-1.

    One question to you is have you ever used an older discontinued Arca B1g or Z2/Z2+? The first was a ball-within-a-ball design, and the last two used some other mysterious mechanism to act like a two-way head.

    Another question is how you think the tilt function of the CB-58 FTR would resist canting/tilting with an 18 pound rifle levering upon it while I pan? The good thing is that I attach the rifle in the middle-ish area and not on some extreme end, which reduces the leverage upon the head.

    In the above scenario with my B-1, the aspherical ball provides some increasing resistance to canting, but it does happen.

    Anyway, thank you for basically the only good article on the internet about the FLM 58!

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