FLM CP26-L3S Tripod

Last updated November 27, 2013

Introduction

FLM (Foto Light Metrology) is a German company, located in Emmendingen, and is a family-owned and -run business. They were founded in 1993 by the main architect and mechanical engineer, Mr. Werner Bürklin. There's also FLM Canada who are their North American distributors, as well as the Hong Kong branch, FLM (HK) Limited.

The particular tripod we're reviewing here is the CP26-L3S version, which features a maximum leg tube diameter of 26mm ("26") and is the longest of the options ("L") with a maximum height of 185cm/73" and three leg-sections ("3") with a non-leveling center tube ("S" for simple). This represents an ideal configuration for most Leica camera models; simple, lightweight and travel-friendly. The longer legs in this case suit taller photographers better than the more typical CP26-S3S, upon which the Leica Travel Tripod is based. To see all of the possible configurations, reference this chart (courtesy of FLM Canada).

Specifications

Tube diameter 26mm maximum
Leg profile Large, 3-section
Center tube style Fixed, adj. height
Max. height w/center 185cm (73")
Max. height w/o center 145cm (57")
Folded length 61cm (24")
Total weight 1.2kg (2.6lbs)
Load capacity 10kg (22lbs)

Feature Summary

These carbon fiber tripods are lightweight and compact, with a high load-to-weight ratio and come in 18 different configurations to support any camera weight up to 15kg. Unique features include the Anti-Shock Lock System, and an (optional) Integrated Leveling System. The maximum tube diameters range from 26mm to 30mm, and the tripods come in 3- and 4-section configurations. An eight-layer carbon fiber tube ensures maximum stability and support yet extreme light weight. Quick-change feet (rubber or metal spike), removable/reversible center column, and 180˚ leg rotation are standard on all tripod legs.

Details and Operation

The first thing you notice when unpacking this tripod is just how light it is. If you're used to inexpensive tripods (such as Giottos) or higher quality models from the likes of Manfrotto or Gitzo which can all be rather weighty despite the use of carbon fiber - you're in for a treat. Weight and bulk are a big concern with photographers wishing to use tripods for their shooting. If they're a bear to carry in the field - they often get left at home. This shouldn't be an issue with the FLM units. The unit we're reviewing is only 1.2kg (2.6lbs), albeit without a ballhead. Consider for a moment that the Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH lens weighs 700g (1.5lbs) alone by comparison! The leg tubing is all eight-layer carbon fiber (the real deal) with most other pieces being made of aluminum. Aside from the twisting friction locks (which are silver in color) - everything is finished in black. The carbon fiber legs are their natural color, the aluminum is anodized and plastic bits (of which there are very few) are also black. Only the leg pivot bolts are chromed.

The Leica Travel Tripod by comparison, has Leica branding rather than FLM, and features black friction locks. It is otherwise the same in every other way.


Folded up, the legs are fairly compact; shorter than the length of your arm. Perhaps not the most compact "travel tripod" out there, and certainly won't fit in any bags - the extreme lightweight nature of them lends to easily being lashed to your bag, slung over your shoulder or carried in the optional bag. They also have a rather unique method of folding up for storage/transport to provide a smaller footprint. The center column is raised up to maximum height - and the legs flip up - essentially storing the center column (and ballhead, if so fitted) within. What makes this dead simple are the unique ratchet-style leg locks, called the Automatic Leg Locking System. From completely folded upwards, you can bring the legs down to one of three angles of leg spread where the lock automatically engages at each, or go completely straight down which releases them to freely swing back upwards to stowing position. No buttons, no clumsy locks. This is a really nice feature.


Deploying a tripod is another big concern among photographers. If it's too complicated and involved, it only leads to frustration. We're happy to say that the deployment of the FLM legs in this case is among the best we've seen. Simply swing the legs downwards - the aforementioned leg locks will click (and lock) at each of the available angles. Extending the legs is also very easy and very fast. You can wrap your hand around both locking collars and loosen just slightly... Which frees up the leg sections to slide out. A similarly quick turn in the opposite direction locks them securely in place. Other manufacturers use this approach as well, but none seem to have the quick throw of the FLM locks. There are also those that use clamps (which FLM does not use on any of their legs) which we don't find as easy or fast to deploy... Though it tends to be a bit of a personal preference here.


On the business end of the tripod legs, atop the center column, sits a round platform made of aluminum. The edge is ringed with scalloped rubber for a good grip and the top is covered in cork. You can fit either a 1/4" or 3/8" stud depending on your needs. In its most simple form, you can use just the 1/4" stud and screw your Leica (or other) camera directly to the platform for a really light, very rigid configuration (though granted it's not very flexible this way as you have to use the legs to adjust the camera position). The platform itself is affixed to the center tube with large diameter threads, which can be unscrewed so as to remove the center column entirely. You'll typically want to fit a ballhead (of which FLM offers a complete line) and something we'll cover in other reviews. The fact that the studs are standard sizes means that you can choose among FLM's many options, or use one you already have.

On the other end, the legs have sizable rubber tips for smooth surfaces - for use indoors and in studios. When the going gets rough, a quick twist and you can slide up the rubber tips, followed by a twist in the opposite direction to lock them in place (just like extending the legs), revealing a metal-tipped spike. Perfect for when you're out in the field and the terrain is soft or uneven. What is interesting about the FLM approach is the twist-lock action. Many other manufacturers take a simpler (and perhaps cheaper) approach by screwing the rubber nub down (over threads) to cover the spike. This takes longer to accomplish, whereas with the FLM it's very quick.

In Practice

All the features in the world won't help if the tripod legs, in the end, are not stable. This is the single most important function of any tripod. The FLM legs deliver, and it's a bit surprising just how stable the legs are considering the light weight and relatively thin legs... But when fully extended and the leg spread set at the steepest angle, the tripod legs hold firm without flex. To get closer to the ground, you can adjust the spread angle of the legs and retract the bottom, thinnest section and the tripod maintains its rigidity with aplomb. Spreading the legs further and retracting the middle leg sections gets you even closer to the ground. In this configuration you do start to see some flex; in part because the legs themselves are nearly horizontal - and the center column is forced to full extension. You'll likely remove the center column in such a configuration, though both are possible.

It's worth noting that in actual use, you won't be pushing down on the tripod as we did to test, where this flex would be an issue. From a shooting standpoint, the tripod itself is still remarkably stable even with the center column in place. To be sure, you can get more solid tripods that won't have any flex whatsoever - but at a marked increase in bulk, weight and very likely expense. For their specifications and cost, the FLM tripods are outstanding performers. Both Manfrotto and Gitzo offer somewhat similar tripods, but generally have more leg sections (less stable, take longer to deploy/stow, though collapse smaller), weigh more (by at least .45kg/1lb if not more) and also cost more.

Two options will net you increased stability. As mentioned, the center column can be removed entirely, relocating the platform by directly attaching it to the legs. Not only does this make for an even lighter tripod, it adds some (albeit minor) stability in more vertical positions. Where you'll really see the increased stability is when the legs are spread the most and you now have the camera hovering just inches over the ground. This is the lowest possible configuration with your camera right-side up... And quite low indeed. Fantastic for those long super-telephotos as when birding, but not something most Leica shooters will be doing. The second option is a retractable hook that drops out of the bottom of the center section of the tripod (either with or without the center column) from which you can hang some weight, such as your camera bag. This serves to pull the tripod to the ground solidly and so it won't tip over and also dampen vibrations further.

A little more on removing the center column. It's not as quick as you might think; there is a little bit of disassembly required (and consequent reassembly). The platform itself is screwed off of the center column, and the lowest part of the center column (containing the retractable hook) is also unscrewed. You can then slide the center column out from between the legs and screw these two parts together. This can be done in the field, without tools. Though if we had to point out a somewhat negative aspect of the tripod, it would be the center column mechanics. It would be far simpler and easier if the platform and the piece it mounts to came off the center column which could then be inserted into the friction lock - and done. The downside of this approach is that you would lose the retractable hook feature.

One issue with just leaving the center section removed permanently is that the tripod was designed to stow with it in place - as it locates the platform (and ballhead) extended farther out, allowing the legs to collapse completely. Without the center column, the platform and ballhead is located right at the intersection of the legs and is too large in diameter to allow this. Not a showstopper by any means, but something to keep in mind. Finally, you can use this method to also reverse the center column (to be upside down). This is the lowest possible configuration, with the caveat that your camera is also upside down. But if you're working with a short focal length macro setup, you can shoot anything on the ground - provided you can get enough light on your subject!

All controls and actions of the tripod legs are solid, secure and smooth. The leg pivots are tight, the section locks quick in action and secure in grip. The leg spread angle is quickly set with the ratcheting locks. Even the spikes at the bottom are quickly set. There are no complex or fussy controls to contend with, ensuring rapid deployment and stowing. The extreme light weight of the legs goes a long way in this regard as well.

Conclusion

As we mentioned at the start of this review, the weight (or rather lack thereof) of these legs is impressive - as is the rigidity they exhibit. The materials and workmanship are of a very high quality and all FLM products carry a 10-year warranty on same. The parts are solid, tight and operate smoothly. There are no sharp edges or corners anywhere that might mar you, your equipment or snag on gloves - including the controls, which are dead simple and quick to operate with or without. This tripod is all-business, and a joy to take into the field and use. By varying the extension of the leg sections and spread angle, as well as orientation (or complete removal) of the center column - this tripod can pretty much handle any task you can throw at it. From up close macro photography to birding with super tele-photos or just positioning your camera at eye-level, you're covered.

This model, along with the shorter ones - are the lightest of the options available from FLM. While the higher-end models are truly bombproof, they're seriously overkill for most Leica shooters aside from S-System users. We would highly recommend FLM tripods (especially these) as we doubt you'll find a better price/performance ratio.

The CP26-L3S tripod is available at B&H, Adorama or Amazon for $613 USD.

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