If you’re looking to capture clear, properly exposed video footage, try adding a matte box to your camera rig. These lens accessories are essential for adding creative control to your image (filters) and subtracting unwanted visual elements (flare, glare, and schmutz). Read on for the top three reasons using a matte box will improve your footage and discover why they’re called “matte” boxes.
Above photograph: Matte box with top and side flags
Blocks Unwanted Light
A matte box can block flares and glare from reaching your lens and wreaking havoc on your image; this alone is an excellent reason to add one to your kit.
FLARE vs. GLARE: These two types of unwanted light produce different but equally annoying or ruinous effects on your image.
Flare: When a beam of light strikes the front element of your lens, it can produce a hard sunburst effect that flares out into overexposing your image.
Glare: Can be produced by a scene that has an excessively bright look overall, like a beach location or a backlit background. Glare results in an overall washed-out look with subdued colors and lowered contrast.
“Unwanted light; how is it unwanted if I want a brightly lit scene?” you might ask. A quick way to visualize unwanted light is to picture the view through your car’s windshield when driving into the opposing rays of the sun. If you lower the visor, you can often block the rays that are striking your eyes directly. You then can still see almost your entire image and what you do see isn’t washed out. A matte box serves the same purpose for your image with the integrated shade and a top and/or side flags all helping to block light. And as with the car windshield example, sometimes the angle of the light is such that it cannot be blocked directly without seeing the lowered flag in your image. In this case you may have to change the angle of your camera or wait for the angle of the sun to change over the course of the day.
Matte boxes are commonly referred to by the maximum size filter they will hold, with “4 x 5” and “6 x 6” being shorthand for professional 4 x 5.65" and 6.6 x 6.6" filter options, respectively. “Single-stage” options like the 4 x 5.65" Tiltaing Mini Matte Box, from Tilta, hold one filter. “Dual-stage” designs hold up to two filters; Redrock Micro’s microMatteBox Standard Bundle features filter trays that can hold both 4 x 4" and 4 x 5.65" filters and stages that rotate to provide the best angle for polarizing and grad filters. While more elaborate matte box systems offer multiple add-on stages for stacking filters, even simple matte boxes like Wooden Camera’s 2-Stage Clamp-On 4 x 5.65" Zip Box can hold up to two filters.
For some background on why optical (physical) filters work better in many situations than post-production tweaking, see my article, When You Don't Want to “Add it in Post,” An Intro to Optical Filters and Steve Gladstone’s article, Optical Filters in a Digital World, with Ira Tiffen.
Protects Your Lens
Aside from blocking light, a matte box excels at protecting your valuable lens from dirt and dust. The shade part of the matte box and any add-on flags or mattes help to block airborne matter physically and prevent people from brushing up against the lens itself. Turn to an “optical flat” (clear) filter to add another layer of protection when shooting near water spray, in light rain, or when using exploding or otherwise risky special effects.
So where does the “matte” in matte box come from? These accessories were originally designed to hold mattes that would physically block light from exposing parts of the film as it ran in the camera gate, creating a hard choice of aspect ratio or creating a vignette effect when desired. “Mattes” now refer to hard plastic frames like this 5-Matte Set from ARRI that snap onto the front of some matte boxes for a quick light-blocking solution sized to fit different lens focal lengths.
Whatever your budget, once you see the difference after you start using one, you’ll find that a matte box is a worthy addition to your filmmaking rig.
Are you a matte box user? Do you have any tips to share or questions to ask? Use the Comments section, below, to talk to us!