Battle of the titans: Top ball heads tested
FLM Centerball 58 FTR
$475 / £290 www.flm-gmbh.de
|The FLM Centerball 58 FTR with the FLM QRB-70 quick release platform|
FLM (an acronym of "Photography, Lighting, and Metrology" in German) has been making ball heads for over 20 years, and the company takes great pride in creating almost every component that goes into its products. This could explain why FLM stands behind all of its ball heads with an exceptional 10-year, worldwide warranty. Aside from its broad range of ball heads (seven different ball diameters, with a multitude of options), FLM also makes tripods, leveling bases, and quick-release platforms, and plates. The Centerball 58 FTR is the largest ball head in the FLM catalog, and we are reviewing this head with all the available factory options.
|Ball diameter||58mm (2.3")|
|Height||111mm (4.1"), or 130 mm (5.1") with QRB-70 quick release platform|
|Weight||778g (1.7 lb), or 880 g (1.95 lb) with QRB-70 quick release platform|
|Base diameter||78mm (3")|
|Maximum load||60kg (132 lb)|
|MSRP||$475, or $650 with QRB-70 quick release platform|
|Warranty||10 years (worldwide)|
Design and features
The Centerball 58 FTR is an imposing cylinder of machined aluminum containing the largest diameter ball in our testing. In addition, every control knob (and there are four on this model) is similarly made from machined aluminum, but with a matte silver finish, in contrast to the matte-black body. This profusion of control knobs can be daunting, but each one has a function that sets this "FTR" series ball head apart from other FLM heads and their competitors.
Most FLM heads come without any standard quick release system, and instead have only a small platform with a reversible 1/4" or 3/8" stud. FLM does offer many types of quick release platforms (at additional cost), and the head can accept a camera directly, or use the threaded platforms from other manufacturers. For this review, two different FLM models of Arca-Swiss compatible, dovetail-type quick release platforms were used, for reasons that will be covered further on.
Contributing to the gargantuan size of the CB58 is the equally impressive 58mm diameter hollow aluminum ball. While numerically this may not seem like a dramatic increase over 54mm, this giant ball not only permits a greater (manufacturer stated) maximum load capacity, but it should also make maneuvering heavy loads even easier.
The next size down in the FLM ball head range has a 48mm ball, which is where some reputable manufacturers top out. Even this "not-quite-the-biggest" head from FLM could probably compete quite nicely against the other heads in this review.
Lock knob with friction ring
FLM has designed an innovative system for setting the minimum friction amount of their ball heads. On most other heads, this is done via a small screw set into the main locking knob, and some heads also have a (cosmetic) numbered index ring as a reminder of the current friction amount.
On the FLM ball heads, the large, numbered ring around the main locking knob actually sets the minimum friction while still serving as a visual index. This means there is one less (difficult-to-access) screw to be turned, and that any minimum friction amount is easily and consistently repeatable.
Patented Tilt Function (PTF)
A completely unique feature available on the larger FLM ball heads (specifically the FT and FTR models) is the tilt lock function with the self-explanatory name of Patented Tilt Function, or PTF.
The knob, labeled in German and English, provides a truly useful and ingenious feature. As it is tightened, the tilt lock puts pressure on the ball across its horizontal poles, making any side-to-side tilt or rotation very difficult, while still allowing free motion in the vertical plane. It essentially turns this conventional ball head into a 2D pan/tilt head whenever precise vertical adjustments are needed.
Pan Rest System (PRS)
Not content with just two unique features on their top ball heads, FLM offers a user-installable knob (included on FTR models) that turns the normal panning base into an indexed, clicking rotator with 15° increments.
On the larger FLM heads, there is an engraved ring inside the panning base, and the PRS knob pushes a spring-loaded ball into this track. The PRS function provides tactile clicks that can be turned on for precise increments, or off for the usual smooth rotation of the panning base.
Construction and handling
|FLM Centerball 58 FTR with the FLM SRB-60 quick release platform|
With a 58mm ball, large knobs, and a thick aluminum casing, the Centerball 58 FTR almost dwarfs a 12oz (355mL) beverage can. This is not a light or compact ball head, but rather a device for those situations when really large lenses, cameras, or equipment loads need to be safely maneuvered. The matte silver finish of the ball and the all-metal knobs contrast nicely with the matte black of the casing. In addition, every knob is captive (they can't be completely unscrewed), and they all turn with a gently greased resistance, reinforcing the feel of a high-quality product.
The long-term durability of this head is backed up by FLM's 10-year, worldwide warranty. During the review period, the head survived some truly impressive (but accidental) abuse with only a few dents in the metal (at the "e" in "patented," and above the "58"), but the robust black finish was unscathed and no signs of anything loosened as a result. The only mechanical issue experienced was when the optional PRS button was unscrewed by mistake. Since this is a user-installable upgrade, unscrewing it doesn't really reflect poorly on the design or build quality of the whole unit.
A very apparent ergonomic issue with the Centerball 58 FTR is just how many knobs protrude from the case of the ball head, in order to serve every optional function. The tactile feel of each knob is very good, and the engraved ridges on the sides make them easy to grasp and turn. However, apart from the main locking knob and friction ring, every knob (including the SRB-60 quick release) shares the same size, shape, and color, with only a label on the end to indicate what each is for. This makes "blind" adjustments, with an eye to the viewfinder, rather difficult. The main locking knob also has a very fine threading, which gives very precise control over the amount of friction on the ball, but requires many turns to completely lock the ball.
When using the drop slot for portrait orientation, or an increased range of tilt either forward or back, grasping the main ball lock and pan lock knobs invariably requires taking the hand off the shutter release or camera grip to operate them. This can disrupt a fast-paced photography moment, and really begs for a remote shutter release when reaching around such a large head. In general, the placement of the knobs on the FLM head requires a bit more thought and contortions than some competing products.
The quick release story
As noted earlier, the Centerball 58 FTR head does not come with any quick release platform from the factory. To make it comparable to the other heads that do come with one, and to use the various Arca-type plates on the test equipment, a lever-action FLM QRB-70 quick release platform was added.
This 70mm wide quick release platform is robustly made from machined aluminum, with an interesting mechanical design that allows plates to "snap" into the platform. When the lever is flipped to the lock position, a cam rolls over the bevel on the plate and locks it in place. When removing the plate, a metal safety button is pressed and the action of the lever pushes the plate up and out of the platform.
While the QRB's rolling cam, snap-in/out design worked well with the included 70mm FLM plate, its complicated mechanics require a very specific bevel width and depth for plates to lock in. After discovering that many of the Arca-Swiss compatible lens and camera plates from other manufacturers (RRS, Kirk, Wimberley, Markins, and others) simply would not work with this locking mechanism, the QRB-70 was exchanged for the much simpler, SRB-60 screw clamp from FLM.
|The FLM QRB-70||The FLM SRB-60|
With the SRB-60 quick release, every tested Arca-type plate (from 10+ brands) slid smoothly and easily into the clamp and locked solidly. As a bonus, the round profile of the SRB-60 never hit any of the knobs in extreme tilt situations, unlike the larger QRB-70. Another nice touch is the offset bubble level that can be viewed with a camera locked onto the platform.
Both FLM quick release platforms have a small, spring-loaded pin to prevent plates from sliding out when the clamp is loosened, but the plate must have an opening in just the right place (following the German UniQ/C standard). Many other manufacturers carve a channel on either side of the platform, as a way to stop plates that have small safety screws on the bottom, and it would be nice if FLM used both of these safety designs for greater compatibility.
The ball motion on the Centerball 58 FTR is quite smooth, with only a hint of roughness when the Tilt-lock is engaged, and it never felt sticky or imprecise. When a 3kg lens was mounted on the head, quite surprisingly, the ball motion became even smoother. This made working with heavy loads very easy!
While many manufacturers will state an incredible "maximum load" capacity for their heads, typically the smoothness of the ball motion (and the usefulness of the head for fine positioning) decreases rapidly as even a fraction of the capacity is approached. In contrast, the Centerball-58 seems ideal for very heavy equipment, perhaps due to its larger-than-average ball diameter and the impressive precision of the friction knob.
Tilt lock (PTF) in use
The unique Tilt Lock function of the FLM head works quite well, and can restrict the motion of the ball to a single axis no matter where the ball is positioned. In this sense, it works better than a conventional pan and tilt head (also called "3-way" or "video" head), while also providing all the motion of a full ball head. A camera can be leveled with the free motion of the ball in all axes, then restricted to a single plane of motion for fine elevation adjustments. Using this function in concert with the drop slot is also an easy way to ensure that the ball is re-centered on the head at any time. The only negative part of the function is that it increases the friction against the ball, making the vertical movement a bit stiffer than the usual ball motion.
Panning base with PRS
The panning base of the Centerball 58 FTR is smooth and easy to rotate, which is great for tracking subjects in motion, but not as useful for very precise pans. The PRS knob helps by providing incremental "clicks" like many professional panoramic heads. However, for multi-image panoramas, everything should be level when panning across a scene, or else the horizon will appear "wavy" in the final, stitched image. Alas, when the camera is made level by adjusting the ball, the PRS panning base below the ball will not be leveled. This is why many manufacturers (but not FLM) offer a second panning base as a replacement for the typical quick release platform above the ball. The PRS system is a good idea, with some limits to practical use.
Stress test results
Sag and lock test
With a 3.1kg, 500mm lens loaded on the Centerball 58 FTR, the friction was set just high enough to keep the front-heavy lens stationary at a 45° angle above the drop slot. Once in place with proper friction, moving the lens to frame the target was just as smooth and easy as with a much lighter camera and lens.
|Starting point||30 sec. sag result||Post-lock result|
While shooting the test images, the Centerball 58 FTR exhibited almost no sag between shots while under tension (but not locked down), with just an average of 0.12% difference in the framing between images taken 30 seconds apart. This is low enough to be the margin of error, and not even mechanical sag. Once the locking knob was fully tightened, there was an equally negligible amount of shift due to the locking action, with a total of just 0.18%! The Centerball 58 FTR handled these stress tests easily, and earns a place as the most stable ball head in the group.
Pan lock test
Next, the panning base knob was unlocked, and then re-locked to "hand tightness." The tripod was braced, and using a long lens plate as a lever, the panning base showed no movement at all, despite a great deal of torque. In fact, it was the Gitzo Safe-Lock platform beneath the head that started to move first!
Cold weather* test
|*It should be noted that although the head was tested in Canada, it was during the summer. To compensate for this, the head was placed in a sealed bag with a desiccant for 2 weeks, then put in an industrial freezer at 14 F (-10° C) for 8 hours. The head was re-evaluated for ball and pan motion while cold, and for control use with heavy winter gloves on.|
During the "freezer test" to simulate wintry conditions, the Centerball 58 FTR performed with almost the same ease as when it was warmer. The two major differences were that the optional tilt-lock became stiffer, and increased the ball friction more than usual, and the panning base lock knob had a tendency to "stick" when fully locked. Otherwise, the ball motion and panning base motion were as smooth as when warm, and all of the knobs and controls could easily be manipulated with thick gloves on.
The Centerball 58 FTR is a bit like ordering everything on the menu for lunch; you won't be left wanting for more, but most of us don't need that much. This really isn't a criticism of FLM, since they offer many smaller ball heads of presumably the same high quality, and many features like the PRS knob and Tilt Function are entirely optional. The unfortunate result of having so many features on the test head was a confusing multitude of similar knobs. Finally, this feature-richness combined with even a basic Arca-compatible quick release as an optional extra, pushes the total price up into the highest bracket.
Even with these considerations, the Centerball 58 FTR is a tremendously solid and refined ball head in both build and function, and would be a good choice for medium and large-format photographers, or anyone who puts very large amounts of gear on their tripods. With unique features like the 2D tilt lock, 15° panning click-stops, and the easy-to-set minimum friction ring, the Centerball 58, and its smaller siblings, show that FLM can definitely compete with any of the larger or better-known brands.
What we like:
- Best-in-class stability
- Easily repeatable friction settings
- Tilt function for precise composition
- Easy-to-read panning index
- 10 year warranty
What we don't like:
- Enormous size in all dimensions
- Profusion of nearly identical knobs
- Quick-release sold separately