If you have been involved in filmmaking, the chances are good that you’ve seen a matte box. But you may be wondering, what exactly do these contraptions do? Other than being a cool-looking headpiece for your camera rig, matte boxes have a variety of useful functions that can elevate the quality of your shooting experience and your captured imagery.
From manipulating light, adding creative flair to your visuals, and protecting your front lens element, a matte box is an invaluable filmmaking tool that makes a DP’s life easier.
Most filmmakers will tell you that the best way to create captivating imagery is by nailing your lighting. Now, there are probably about a million ways to manipulate and shape light, but who doesn’t love being able to control light (to an extent) without having to step away from the camera? Just like a stage-lighting fixture, most matte boxes will come with some form or combination of barn doors and flags to allow operators to choose how light will enter their cameras, quickly adjusting their positions and orientations to cut unwanted light and/or lens flares. With a matte box, you also won’t need to fumble around constantly with a lens cap anytime you want to cover or uncover your front element. Instead, just swing one of the flags over and your lens is covered—and you can leave your lens cap tucked away until your shoot is finished.
Now, for the fun part: filters. Matte boxes are often designed to contain a range of filters, allowing you to add stylistic flair and creative flourish to your shots. Of course, you’d have to invest in purchasing filters, as well, but once you envision your result, choosing the right filters can be a fun and eye-opening experience.
Filters for matte boxes come in a variety of sizes, such as 4 x 4", 4 x 5", 4 x 5.65", 5 x 5", 5.65 x 5.65" and a few more. 4 x 5.65" is generally the most utilized because it can cover a large range of front lens elements. For those hefty lenses that have gargantuan lens diameters, you may have to splurge on a filter like a 6.6 x 6.6". The convenience of using something like a 4 x 5.65" filter is that it can easily replace multiple screw-on filters. For different lens diameters, different filter sizes are needed, meaning that if you have multiple lenses but just one filter, you’d either have to find a way to adapt to the rest of them or purchase more to fit the diameters. Just by sliding one 4 x 5.65" into your matte box, you can avoid this nettlesome activity.
While there is a vast market of screw-on filters designed to forgo the need for a matte box, in a professional filmmaking scenario, a matte box will provide an enhanced level of multifaceted versatility and flexibility that is simply leagues above that of a screw-on. For instance, let's say you want to cut out lens flares using a lens hood. It's quite likely that if you’re using a screw-on ND or effect filter, the hood may not fit properly. This issue is non-existent with a matte box, since the flags and filter slots have no way of interfering with each other.
Matte boxes also feature a “drop-in” tray system that allows you to swap lenses in a matter of seconds. With a screw-on, anytime you want to swap filters, you’re stuck with the burdensome and time-taxing chore of unscrewing and screwing over and over again. Also, if you’re working exclusively with cinema lenses, it’s possible that you might not even have a proper front thread to place a screw-on filter; while most photographic lenses come with them, some cinema lens manufacturers don’t bother including a thread because the general practice is if you’re shooting cinema, you’re probably using a matte box.
Another convenient feature of this drop-in system is the ability to stack filters easily. Stacking a screw-on filter atop another can be tricky, unstacking them is a nightmare of its own and if you overtighten, you might strip the threads on your filters or even your lens.
There are quite a few ways to go about mounting a matte box on your camera rig. For most independent filmmakers who work with small- to medium-sized rigs, you’ll most commonly see a clamp where users attach a matte box directly to a lens via differently sized adapter rings. There are a variety of adapter rings designed to attach to a variety of lens diameters, such as 52mm, 67mm, 77mm, 82mm, 95mm, and much more. While this is an easy way of mounting a matte box, since it is attached to your lens, it can place extra strain on the lens mount due to the added weight, especially if you’re planning on using multiple filters. Although it would add some extra heft to your overall rig, the most functional way to attach a matte box and protect your lens mount would be to use a set of 15mm or 19mm rods. Not only does this allow you to mount larger matte box units and multiple filters, but you also get the added benefits of a rod system, such as lens support access, space for a focus wheel, and so many more possibilities for accessorizing.
Let’s look at some examples!
SmallRig Mini Matte Box Lite
A popular option for lightweight and minimal cinema rigs is the SmallRig Mini Matte Box Lite. For an incredibly affordable price you get a carbon fiber box and top flag that weigh only 3.8 ounces. You can fit any individual filter of your choosing with the included 4 x 5.65" filter tray. It has several adapter rings with which you can mount a wide variety of lenses, from 67mm up to 95mm. For the price, it’s hard to beat, and it can make an excellent minimalistic addition to a videographer’s rig.
Tilta Mirage VND Kit
Next up we have an excellent solution for high-speed, fast-action shooting suitable for drone work or automobile shooting: the Tilta Mirage VND Kit. Designed with aerodynamics in mind, its lightweight body has built-in air vents that minimize wind resistance while ensuring camera stability when working against the wind or in scenarios with a lot of air drag. It also features a Variable Neutral Density module that features .3 to 2.7 stops of light control. The glass utilized creates no color shift whatsoever, meaning you can shoot without having to compensate for any unwanted tinting in your footage.
SHAPE Swing-Away Matte Box
Fitting up to a large 124mm outer diameter, the SHAPE Swing-Away Matte Box is designed with cinema shooters in mind. As the name implies, this matte box has the unique ability to swing out and away from the camera body and lens once mounted. This makes changing lenses, as well as adjusting the front end of the camera exceedingly easy, since the matte box can be swung aside instead of removed entirely, which saves a great deal of time.
PolarPro Basecamp Matte Box Kit with Variable ND 2-5 & Polarizer Filters
The Basecamp Matte Box is from PolarPro, and features high-quality, lightweight, durable aluminum construction. With its versatile range of mounting tools—80, 87, 95, 100, 104, and 110mm clamp rings, as well as 77 and 82mm front thread plates—a vast number of lenses can easily be adapted to it. This bundle also includes a variable 2-5 ND filter and a polarizing filter, giving you a great range of light control straight out of the box.
What do you think of these matte boxes? Are these something that you would add to your workflow? Let us know down below!