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In-depth tripod review: FLM CP34-L4 II: Digital Photography Review

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FLM’s CP34-L4 II tripod at full height, almost towering over your 1.83 meter (6 foot) tall reviewer.

FLM is well-known for German ingenuity and superb construction in the tripod and ball head realm, starting with their incredibly stable CB-58FTR ball head which was this reviewer’s introduction to the brand. Since that review, the company was bought by MK Messtechnik, who continue to design and build the FLM heads and plates at their factory in Stuttgart, Germany. In 2019, their tripods were redesigned (hence the ‘II’ suffix) and production of these new models was transferred to FLM’s Chinese subsidiary. Given FLM’s reputation for stability and uncompromising engineering, bringing one of their tripods to this group comes with pretty big expectations.

With the CP34-L4 II, those expectations are initially met by the tremendous stature of this ‘long leg’ type of ‘series -3 systematic’ tripod. FLM produces tripods in ‘S’ (small), ‘M’ (medium) and ‘L’ (large) dimensions by using longer or shorter leg sections between each lock, similar to the choices offered by other manufacturers. However, without a special order, the CP34 model is only stocked and available as the ‘L4,’ or large, four-section model, in the North American market.



Specs and what’s included

  • Max. height 173.5 cm (68.3″)
  • Minimum height of 11.3 cm (4.5″)
  • Folds to 60 cm (23.6″) with 14 cm (5.5″) diameter
  • Weighs 1.95 kg (4.3 lbs) with flat platform
  • 33kg (72.7 lbs) load limit
  • Three leg angles (25° / 54° / 84° )
  • Four leg sections (34mm top leg diameter / 30 / 26/ 22mm)
  • 78mm platform secured with three hex bolts
  • Integrated 75mm video bowl
  • Bubble level included on apex
  • Removable 44mm mushroom feet on standard 3/8″ thread
  • Includes tools, instructions and 40mm steel spikes

With the update of the entire tripod line to Series II in 2019, FLM not only moved tripod production from Germany to China, but the new series now all use 10-layer carbon fiber tubes, a slick black finish, wider leg angles, and no center columns on any tripod. These models range from the CP26 Travel tripods and CP30 series with compact apexes, to the larger CP34 and CP38, with 34mm and 38mm top tubes respectively, which have integrated video bowls as part of their column-free apexes.

The integrated 75mm bowl sets the apex of the CP34 series apart from their own, smaller CP30 series, as well as many other tripods.

FLM offers the HB-75 leveling half ball to pair with this included feature, adding 15° tilt in any direction and a short handle for low setups. Additionally, there are FLM leveling solutions for the 100mm bowl in the CP38, as well as a standalone leveling base, LB-15, for the smaller tripods in range. These are in addition to the collection of extremely solid ball heads that FLM is famous for.

Compared to others

This tripod was tested and compared with its modular apex peers. Left to right; ProMediaGear TR344, Really Right Stuff TVC-34, Sirui SR-3204, FLM CP34-L4 II, Leofoto LM-364C, Gitzo GT3543LS.

The FLM CP34-L4 was tested and compared alongside tripods in the same class of ‘Series 3′ (33-36mm top leg tube diameter) “Systematic’ (modular apex with removable platform) type, including products from Gitzo, Really Right Stuff, ProMediaGear, Leofoto and Sirui. Considering how all of the other manufacturers in this group, except Sirui, also offer longer versions of their tripods under review, this giant FLM provides a nice example of those taller options, in terms of packed size and ultimate height

All of these tripods were used in four seasons of sand, snow, mud, rain, and saltwater; set up in the bog-like Atlantic salt marshes and the wind-swept Appalachian mountains. They have been loaded with gimbal heads, ball heads, geared and pano-heads, and up to 4kg (8.8lb) lenses attached to cameras ranging from APS-C to medium-format, shooting anything from long-exposure landscapes to extreme telephoto birds-in-flight. The only test they did not go through was being rough-handled at the airport, thanks to pandemic travel restrictions. We’re publishing these reviews sequentially over the coming days, with a final roundup to come shortly.

Height comparison

Below is a relative height comparison between the FLM CP34-L4 II and a 6 foot (1.83m) photographer.

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First impressions

The glossy black finish of the FLM CP34-L4 II is consistent throughout, as is the tight construction.

The FLM CP34-L4 II literally sticks out from the rest of the tripods it was compared to by virtue of its longer leg tubes, which add an impressive 23cm (9″) in height over the next tallest when fully extended, but only 5cm (2″) more when packed away. Gitzo, RRS, PMG and Leofoto all offer longer-legged versions of their tripods in this group, but not all achieve the same height with such a small penalty in folded length.

Earlier model tripods from FLM had the distinctive bright aluminum finish to their machined leg locks, in step with the various ball heads they make, but now those same parts are finished in a consistent, smooth black. The use of all-metal leg locks continues to be unusual when compared to the rubber-wrapped locks on almost every competitor, and while they are not difficult to grasp in good weather with bare hands, we had some difficulties in the cold.

Following an FLM tradition, there is a distinctive cork/ rubber composite pad on the systematic platform, which provides both some vibration damping and a firm grip on whatever head is installed.

To make mounted devices even more secure, there are 3 plastic-headed retention screws that can be tightened from below with a hex wrench, through holes in the integrated video bowl. Why three screws? They keep things symmetrical on the aluminum platform.

We’re not fans of the ‘carbon-fiber look’ stickers around each leg clevis. This kind of ‘bling’ on metal parts is usually seen on lower-end tripods, and since the sticker’s weave pattern doesn’t even match the rather high-end ‘mountain’ pattern of the real carbon fiber legs right beneath them, they are even more out of place. A silly thing to pick on, for sure, but at least one easy area for improvement on a tripod of this price.

The angle locks for each leg are thick metal with a generous indent on the back, under the apex, allowing them to easily be pushed out to adjust each leg. Pulling them from the front requires more dexterity due to a smaller indent on the sides, but they also click back and forth with a nice ratcheting action, so it is always easy to tell when the angle is locked or ready to be adjusted.

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Use in the field

Sometimes the FLM CP34-L4’s impressive height is not needed, but the stability of using just the top two sections in some situations is appreciated.

Even if you are not particularly tall, one of the great advantages of this kind of a ‘supersized’ tripod over the more typical heights is when setting up on a downslope; with one or two legs fully extended, it can still retain an eye-level view to a camera. Or, as demonstrated in the first photo of this review, shooting overhead with a long lens, and not needing to crouch down to see a viewfinder or non-tilting back screen. The minor annoyance that comes with this is that, for some people, the various heights of fully extended or closed legs may not meet their needs without adjustment.

When the leg locks are grasped with a wide hand and given a quarter turn to unlock them all, the leg tubes slide out in a fast and fluid cascade of carbon fiber that is almost disconcerting. No need to pull on the ends to extend them, as they will fly to full extension without even a shake. Unlike the Leofoto, the tubes themselves do not wiggle or wobble on the way out, or even when extended and still unlocked. This says the leg tubes are precisely mated to each other, but the combination of metal locks and polished tubes is almost slick. This makes setup very quick, as well as adjusting the height of each leg quite easy, but takes some getting used to.

The FLM leg locks have vertical indents machined into them, and they have the same slick black finish as the rest of the aluminum parts.

We wish these locks were easier to grab and turn, especially with gloves on. While not a big deal indoors or in kinder weather, once it got cold, the CP34 became a test of hand strength to grasp the locks with gloved hands. Taking off gloves to grab bare metal in some temperatures is not advisable.

Removing the flat, systematic platform to reveal the nicely integral video bowl requires a hex wrench and a place for 3 long bolts, so this is best done before heading out into the wilderness. What the bowl provides is a nice place for a leveling half ball, like FLM’s own affordable unit, or one from another manufacturer in the 75mm size. There is no provision for a center column to be added to the CP-series, and the opening at the base of the bowl would restrict the size of the column anyhow.

When stability is the prime concern, the CP34-L4 rests easily on its 34mm top tubes, but the lack of a center weight hook was a genuine pain. The tiny 6.25mm (1/4″) weight hole under the platform was taunting the heavy bags and strap handles; effectively saying “find a small enough carabiner and then I’ll hold you.” A small enough carabiner was not supplied in the box.

Also visible here are the well-shaped leg angle locks, the platform securing bolts, and the 1/4″ threaded accessory attachment points.

Aside from the extra height, the CP34-L4 was not too different from other tripods in this class when it comes to packing it up and transporting it. The addition of a few extra centimeters of carbon-fiber tubing adds very little to the weight, and the extra packed length would only be an issue when trying to fit this into a carry-on bag for air travel. Overall, this ‘large’ type tripod from FLM indicates that any of the various sizes in the CP34-series will be more than stable enough for heavy gear, yet light enough for longer hikes. With only a few areas for improvement, FLM has created a very nice set of legs for any of their ultra-stable ball heads to rest on.

Maintenance

FLM places a high priority on the maintenance of their tripods and has videos and instructions on their international websites, as well as in the included instructions sheet. FLM offers replacement shims, locks and grease for only the price of shipping, as well. The use of a one-piece shim makes disassembly easy, and the machined locks are easy to clean.

It is during this maintenance that you’ll notice the precision of the fit of the legs.

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Test results

Vibrations can make even the sharpest lens turn out mushy, blurred photos, and can ruin long exposures. In the typical use cases for this class of tripod, reducing the effects of vibration becomes extremely important, since longer focal lengths and higher resolutions magnify the effects of any movement, and environmental vibrations like wind and water will have an increasing effect on larger legs and gear. Camera vibration can be mechanically minimized with mirror lockup, electronic shutters, and a remote shutter release, while adding weight to the bottom of the tripod (with a carabiner or a tripod stone bag) can help stabilize the whole setup. However, not all sources of vibration can be eliminated, so we tested whether the tripod will dampen them or transmit and reflect them to the camera.

The tripod legs were fully extended, and our vibration analyzer for heavy-duty tripods (an iPad on a 3.2 kg (7 lb) cantilevered weight) was mounted directly to the flat platform’s 3/8″ threaded bolt with a long lens plate. An industrial solenoid valve with a plastic hammer was used as a source of vibration (a knock to the bottom of one leg). The resulting graph of all three accelerometers shows both the resistance of the tripod to the initial shock, as well as the rate of decay for residual vibration within the tripod.

FLM CP34-L4 II vibration resistance test results – click for larger graph

*Note that this graph is relative only to this class of tripods. The weight and test equipment was adjusted to provide a conclusive result for this size of tripod.

During the vibration tests, the FLM CP34-L4 was at a slight disadvantage by having longer leg tubes than shorter tripods, but still performed admirably. The initial shock was transmitted fairly immediately, but then quickly dampened to a low level, and reduced to almost nothing in a few seconds. While this is not in the top of this class, it is very good for the size and length of this FLM tripod at full extension.

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Conclusion

FLM has built its reputation on the rock-solid stability of its various heads, as well as standing behind its products. While these new tripods are made in China, the same durable engineering and tight construction is carried over, making the CP34-L4 II a very tall component in a highly stable system. Only a few missteps in the design are evident, such as the missing weight hook and lack of even an optional column, but these are offset by the reasonable price and integrated video bowl. The end result is an easily recommended alternative to the top-end tripods from any other manufacturer, and well worth the special order in some markets if something less than the tested ‘large’ tripod is needed.

What we like

  • Reasonable price for excellent quality and nice features
  • Very good vibration resistance for the size
  • Integrated video bowl is one less item to buy
  • Accessories are also reasonably priced
  • Spare parts are easy to obtain

What we don’t like

  • Non-long legs are special order in North America
  • Center column not available as accessory
  • Leg locks hard to use in extreme cold
  • No weight hook – only a 1/4″ hole

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