What photographer doesn’t need a travel tripod? There are times when lugging an 11-pound monster tripod just doesn’t cut it, as in touring the crowded streets of Rome or photographing a spelunking trip or trekking for two weeks in Nepal. But the field of travel tripods today is so vast, how does one choose?
I’ve owned a few different travel tripods over the years. Since 2013 I’ve been using a MeFoto travel tripod (Model C2350) and, by and large, I have been very satisfied with it, as you can see from my initial review. But a fellow photographer recently suggested in an email to me that I should look into the German-made FLM travel tripod, which has been praised by some photographers recently. In this review, I’ll contrast the FLM with the MeFoto to hopefully give you a more informed perspective.
FLM sent me their CP-26 Travel Tripod to field test, which I did over a series of frigid Maryland days in January, 2018. We’re talking below zero degrees outside, with a wind chill factor thrown in for spite. I mention this so you can take this into account in judging whether the FLM is for you.
One thing I feel obliged to say before getting into specifics; a travel tripod is always a compromise between performance and size/weight. None are perfect solutions for rock-solid, stable platform performance.
First off, this is one beautifully engineered tool. The tolerances are ridiculously tight, a tribute to classic German engineering. When extending or collapsing the legs, for example, I merely had to turn the knurled, rubberized collars maybe 1⁄8 turn to get them to release or tighten, even in bitter cold.
The FLM weighs in at about 4 pounds and at a folded length of about 21” (with ball head). The legs fold tightly for easy backpacking. The tripod comes with a sturdy carry bag with strap and rubber leg tips, but interchangeable metal spikes are also available as an option.
Setup is extremely easy, with solid, ratcheting leg stops that prevent the legs from backing up as you set up. The SRB 40 manual clamp that came with the test tripod was also precision engineered.
The FLM has a nifty built-in feature that some photographers may find useful. There is a knob on the tripod head that, when engaged, allows for precise 15-degree click-stops as you rotate the head. That could be useful in certain single-row pano situations. However, please note that, while potentially useful, this feature does not take into account the nodal point of the lens you are using. Still, with the continuing advances in stitching software, this feature would be good for a quick 3-shot or perhaps even a 5-shot stitched image.
Another feature sure to please travelers is that the FLM allows you to fold down the tripod with the ball head inside the legs, creating a rather small footprint.
Finally, the FLM comes with an unprecendented 10-year warranty.
Unfortunately, the minuses for me outweighed the pluses. There is a noticeable difference between solid engineering and design/function. I never base my reviews on engineering alone. Whether a piece of equipment works for me in the field is the deciding factor. But, again, your style of shooting may be different enough from mine that the FLM would be a perfect choice.
Height. First, as you can see in these iPhone images, the tripod is short… as in unworkably short for a pro or advanced amateur that is over five-and-a-half feet tall. At 47” without the center column (55” with it fully extended), I had to bend over uncomfortably while using my Nikon D850. With my Fuji GFX the articulating eyepiece saved me some backache, but I still had to bend to use the FLM. I prefer not to use the center column because all such columns introduce camera shake, but if you find you like to use one, then the FLM CP-26 may work well for you. In contrast, the MeFoto sits higher, as you can see below. BTW, the monster tripod you see sheltering the travel babies is my go-to Gitzo 3541 with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head. Some difference, eh? That is why I prefer my Gitzo over any travel tripod. Like I said earlier, travel tripods are compromises.
Stability. Another significant downside is the stability of the tripod. My camera/lens combinations are quite heavy. Using my medium format Fuji GFX with a 120mm Fujinon lens under slightly windy conditions caused the tripod to visibly shake.
The same held true with my Nikon D850 with an 80-400 Nikkor lens. My MeFoto did not experience that shake, in part because of the factors I discuss next.
Leg Diameter. I think the basic instability fault can be laid to the diameters of the legs, particularly the lowest section. I found significant leg flex at the fully extended and spread position. In the following image, compare the lowest leg section of the FLM (on the right) with the meatier MeFoto.
Both tripods have the same folded 21” length with attached ball head, although if you collapse the FLM with the ball head inside the legs, it reduces its footprint to only 15 inches. But, the FLM is a tad heavy for a travel tripod. Despite its thicker legs, the MeFoto clocks in at half-pound lighter than the FLM. One could argue that this extra mass is good, but I would rather add mass via my backpack attached to the center column loop than carry that extra weight around all day.
I did notice a significant improvement in camera shake with the FLM when I collapsed the lower section and even better performance when I collapsed the bottom two sections. In addition, looking at the image (above) of the three tripods compared, the MeFoto has a wider leg spread than the FLM, adding a bit more stability.
One important item to me that I’ll mention. The MeFoto tripod, but not the FLM, has one detachable leg that, when screwed together with the center column, creates a monopod. That feature has come in handy for me several times over the years.
Knobs. Those pesky control knobs in most travel tripod are obviously designed for dainty fingers. Now add a pair of gloves or mittens in cold weather and you will find new and creative combinations of nasty language. That was certainly true for the FLM. I regularly shoot in cold weather environments so knob design and function are critical to me. I found the knobs to be difficult to use, necessitating the removal of my gloves every time I needed to make an adjustment. And, in below zero weather, with added wind, fiddling with the metal knobs was not fun at all.
Rubber Feet. In the image above, take a look at the difference in rubber foot design, hence stability, between the FLM and the MeFoto. The smaller rubber footprint of the FLM also contributes to instability, even if only slightly.
Clamp. If your general trend is towards smaller, lighter camera systems the FLM head/clamp should be adequate. I am trending towards larger medium format systems, as are many pros and advanced amateurs. FLM’s choice to use such a narrow clamp to hold down the camera is certainly not aimed at photographers going down the road of larger systems. The MeFoto has a wider clamping base (see below).
FLM does offer a quick release clamp, but that was not available for my testing.
Price. Okay, now we get to the penultimate decision point in your quest for a good travel tripod. The FLM unit, as sent to me for testing, costs $876 ($474 for the tripod, $398 for the ball head, $54 for the clamp… the quick release clamp costs more). The MeFoto costs $299, all in. ‘Nuf said.
While the FLM may not be suited to my specific needs, it does not mean that others would not enjoy owning it. The feel of the components are very precise and on smaller camera systems might be perfect. The fact that it’s heavier than the MeFoto might indicate a longer service life. I’ve been using the MeFoto four years and there’s no sign of it giving up, but who knows what things will look like in ten. I mean, lots of people drive Mercedes Benz vehicles. I drive a Toyota.