FLM CB38-FTR Ballhead Review - The All-Rounder?

 

FLM CB38-FTRAlong with the CP26-S4S that I reviewed recently, I also used several different ballheads on offer by FLM. Accompanying the CP26-S4S when I was using my Nikon equipment was the compact but surprisingly sturdy CB38-FTR.


The nomenclature of FLM’s equipment is fairly easy to understand. CB stands for Centre-Ball, while the 38 is indicative of the ball’s diameter, in this case 38mm. ‘F’ indicates that there is a friction control to the main lock, ’T’ that there is a separate Tilt/Neigen control, and ‘R’ that there is a click-stop panning base. The FTR’s are FLM’s creme de la creme of ball heads with all the bells and whistles essentially. The CB-38FTR is the baby brother to the larger 48mm diameter ballhead, the CB48-FTR that I reviewed last year. There is another 43mm diameter ballhead between the two, and now, a much larger 58mm at the top of FLM’s tripod head range.


Build Quality


Like everything that FLM produces there is a definite sense of quality to the ballhead. The ball and casing are made from a sturdy but light aluminium alloy with the casing finished in a satin-touch finish. The ball and unpainted bare aluminium components are all anodised and have a smooth matt finish to them. Suffice to say, I think these units can withstand a fair amount of abuse. FLM want their equipment to last, evidenced by the fact that they cite rubber as ultimately perishable and therefore a reason for not including it on their tripod legs. I assume the same goes for the controls on their ballheads.


The ballhead is certainly lightweight, weighing in at 410g but having the ability to hold 25kg in place! This seems almost overkill when you consider that the tripod you are likely to mate the head to probably won’t be able to hold anywhere near that weight. So, if you need to lock a large child to the top of your tripod, but can’t be bothered to carry a larger head, this ballhead is an option.


Controls


If you like plenty of control options then the CB-38FTR has them in spades, for a ballhead that is. I have only come across more controls on a geared head before. Herein lies a clue as to the kind of photographer who is likely to fall in love with an FLM friction ballhead: Control freaks. With 4 individual controls and friction control on the largest, the CB-38FTR is extraordinarily customisable. There are so many things you can do with the head that it actually takes some getting used to.


The largest knob is the locking knob with a thin black ring on the casing side of the knob, this being the friction control. The ring is marked with the numerals 1 through to 12 in etched lettering. The locking knob is unpainted duraluminium. As I have mentioned before, I am not sold by the look of the silver knobs, but they stand up to abuse and don’t hinder the operation of the head in any way.


FLM heads, and the CB-38FTR is no exception here, have a defining feature related to the friction dial. This is a feature you will either love and not believe you could ever have lived without, or it will drive you slowly insane and you will throw the ballhead out of a window. The majority of ballheads on the market work with the main locking knob rotating and either locking the clamp round the ball to hold the camera in place or allowing it to move freely in its seat. The friction control essentially adds drag to the movement so that heavy camera rigs don’t suddenly flop to the side on unlocking and are easier to move in small increments. Most of the ballheads on the market also offer a very simple throw, about a turn, maybe two. Not so the FLMs which seem to be able to turn and turn and turn seemingly without ever getting tighter (although trying to move the ball proves otherwise - the control has a dampened feel that just keeps on tightening).

CB38-FTR-controlsWith an FLM you have to first set it up correctly for the rig you are using. You do this by unlocking the main ring as far as possible and then unlocking the friction as far as it will go. After this you will find that you can unlock the main ring a little more. Keep fiddling until you absolutely cannot turn the main knob nor the friction ring any more in an anti-clockwise direction. With the camera attached now dial the main knob in a clockwise direction until it just catches and doesn’t slide about. Now turn the friction ring until the clamp feels like the unit is locked down. Although the controls don’t feel as definite as other competing brands, what you essentially now have is the closest thing to a ballhead version of a geared head. Let me elaborate:


One of the biggest problems of a ballhead is the sag that occurs just after locking down the clamp. It’s easy to spot; carefully compose, lock the unit, and while locking look through the viewfinder watch how the composition alters ever so slightly as the weight of the camera causes the image to shift downwards slightly. This is a persistent problem in all but the most expensive, large and heavy ballheads (and even here only a few of them). FLM’s unique friction system allows the ball to hang suspended even without being locked down! This blew me away when I first discovered this. You can tighten the main knob so that there is slow movement to the ball. Then when you release the camera, it stays in place without any noticeable sag. Subtle changes in the composition can be made, then when everything looks good lock the unit down and there’s still no sag. Far and away this is the most effective ballhead I have used for small adjustments.


There’s a downside to the friction control setup. It’s fiddly. Get it wrong and you fight the ballhead. Get it right and you are in composition nirvana. When I first started using the CB48-FTR (see the review) I didn’t ‘get’ the friction control setup, and it frustrated me. I finally got it with some coaching from the folks at Sunshineco. and suddenly the ballhead worked, like a dream.


A great addition to the ballhead is the panoramic click stop, which I found myself using fairly regularly for panoramics. Simply lock in the dial marked PRS and there is a tangible click every 10 degrees while panning. One small caveat to the PRS knob is that it is not exactly built to the same demanding levels as the rest of the ballhead. I suspected that the small spring-loaded button on the knob looked a little delicate, and did indeed lose one of them on a shoot (picked up the tripod afterwards to discover that the little button had disappeared).


The Tilt/Neigen knob is another useful feature, particularly for such a small head. What it does is transform the head into a two way head so that you have tilt and pan, but nothing else. This is fantastic if you are using a heavy lens with it’s own lens collar (say a 70-200mm f2.8 or even a 300mm f2.8). Usually trying to manhandle the lens on a conventional ballhead becomes a chore and often one with blood-blisters caused by the ballhead flopping to one side and catching the skin on one’s hand. It’s not quite the same as a gimbal, but the Tilt/Neigen knob actually allows for controlled and precise movement using a lens which by all rights shouldn’t be on this size ballhead (possibly hinting at why FLM rates the CB38-FTR as being able to handle loads of 25kg).

CB38-FTR in use
The CB38-FTR in use in the Drakensberg mated to a CP26-S4S. The lightness of the rig and the ability to handle a pro-sized DSLR means for an extremely portable and competent setup.


Conclusion


There are two things holding me back from saying that the CB38-FTR is the perfect ballhead. One, the friction control takes some time to get used to, and not everyone is patient enough to master it. Those who do (I’m looking at landscape photographers and some studio photographers) will love it. Those who don’t will probably sell the head and move on to something else. Personally, after returning my loan units and going back to my equipment, I found myself sorely missing the control and precision matched to the lightness of the CB38-FTR. The second bugbear is also a bit personal. I don’t like the configuration of the controls. If I were designing this sized head I would switch the placement of the pan and PRS knobs. Because the head is physically quite small, someone with largish hands will find themselves catching their hands against the Tilt/Neigen knob when they reach for the pan control. To me, the main control and pan control should be completely separate to everything else. This is less of a problem with the bigger CB48-FTR as there is enough ‘real estate’ to place the knobs in the current configuration. This is not the case with the smaller CB38-FTR.


FLMs brochure labels the CB-38FTR as their top-seller, and there’s good reason for that. The small size, light weight, but impressive holding ability mean for an extremely versatile ballhead. Due to it’s size, it also means that it is considerably cheaper than FLM’s larger ballheads. In South Africa it has a recommended retail price of around R4 000 including VAT. When considered against the competition (Kirk, Arca-Swiss, Really Right Stuff), this is indeed a good buy. If you can live with the control placement and enjoy having a ballhead with the extraordinary precision of a geared head, then the CB38-FTR is an excellent buy.

 

CB48FTR Specs

Ball Diameter 38 mm
Camera Thread 1/4 Zoll
Head attachment thread 3/8 Zoll
Dimensions 55 x 90 mm
(Diameter x Height)
Weight 436 g

Max. Load

Controls

25 kg

Pan, Tilt, Pan Click Stop, Full Ball Movement, Friction Control