This guide shows you:
- What a matte box is,
- Why a matte box is what it is,
- The different types of matte boxes,
- What to look for in a good matte box, and
- Some options.
What is a Matte Box?
This is what a matte box looks like:
A matte box is basically a rectangular frame (called a matte) that you attach at the front of your lens.
Why would anyone want to attach a frame to the front of the lens? Here are some good reasons:
- You can buy one size of filter (rectangular in shape) and use it on different kinds of lenses.
- You can ‘stack’ multiple filters in and out with ease, without having to unscrew all of them to get the bottom-most one out.
- The frame itself lets you attach stuff, like flaps. Flaps have uses of their own.
Here’s a video that shows you how matte boxes work:
Here are the two most important functions of a matte box:
- It cuts flare
- It helps mount filters
To know more about filters, read The Complete Lens Filter Guide.
What are the parts of a Matte Box?
When people use the word ‘matte box’, they might be speaking about different things. A matte box can have the following parts:
- Top and bottom flags or flaps, also called French flags.
- Side flags or flaps. Together, the four flaps can also be called barn doors.
- The frame, the matte box itself.
- Additional mattes on the front and back of the box.
- Filter tray holders, fixed at the back of the box. These hold the next item.
- Filter trays, which hold rectangular filters. They are kept separate from the holders so they can be swapped out easily.
- Swing away system or bracket. This allows the matte box to be opened (like a door) so you can replace lenses.
- Rail or rod support bracket.
- Donuts, nuns knickers or other clamps to block light leaks.
- Bellows, if you want to extend the flaps out further.
Each system is different, but at least you know which parts to pick. You can classify matte boxes into two broad groups:
- Lens mounted
- Rod mounted
Lens mounted Matte Boxes
In lens mounted matte boxes, the frame (and everything else) is supported by the lens. Needless to say, the matte box must be light enough to not stress the lens or the lens mount.
The advantages of lens mounted matte boxes are that you don’t need heavy rods or rigs with your camera system. This truly benefits run-and-gun style filmmaking. Lens mounted matte boxes are also light-weight.
The disadvantages of lens mounted matte boxes are that if you want to change a lens, you’ll have to remove the matte box. Furthermore, all your lenses must roughly have the same front diameter, or the matte box won’t attach. To avoid this second problem, some kits come with adapter rings for various lens diameters.
If you have limited lenses, and don’t want to burden your rig with rods and supports, etc., a lens mounted matte box might be perfect.
Examples of Lens mounted Matte boxes
For simple no-frills use, look at the Genus GL GWMC Wide Angle Matte Box.
For ‘flagging’, you’ll need the Genus GL GFFW French Flag Assembly.
If you know the filter size of your lens, you could use Lens Adapter Rings corresponding to the filter thread diameter of your lens.
If you have lenses with varying filter thread sizes, you could also use Genus GL GARD-NK Lens Adaptor Ring with Nuns Knickers – these are like bellows that can take any filter size 72mm and up:
By wrapping around the lens nuns knickers also prevent light from leaking into the lens. Beware: Nuns knickers can’t be used in lens mounted mode, unless you want a droopy matte box.
Here’s a video from Genus with a brief introduction to this system:
Want something more versatile? Take a look at the Manfrotto MVA512W Sympla Flexible Mattebox.
Both these hold rotatable 4×4″ sized filters and can also be adapted to rods.
As a general rule of thumb: Always mount a matte box on rods unless there is no alternative.
Round mounted Matte Boxes
A rod mounted matte box is one that rests on rods and not on the lens. Light lens mounted matte boxes can also be fitted with rod support, as shown above.
Rod mounted matte boxes have the advantage of being fixed on the rig, so if you want to change lenses, all you have to do is move the matte box a little. The second advantage is that of weight. Weight can be an advantage, as we will see later.
The disadvantages of the rod mounted system are that it adds to the weight. Not a good thing if you’re trying to keep things light. They are also the most expensive kinds of matte boxes.
If your camera system is on a tripod rig, on rods, then a rod mounted matte box is a good idea.
Examples of Rod mounted Matte boxes
Rod mounted matte boxes come with attachments at the bottom (or any side depending on the orientation of your rig) to take two rods. The weight of the matte box should be entirely supported by the rods.
Here are two great but expensive options:
The MMB-2 matte box has a 114mm filter thread size – which fits perfectly to a Zeiss CP.2 lens. If you’re using other filter sizes, you’ll need adapters.
Here’s an excellent video by AbelCine on the Arri MMB-2:
The ‘disadvantages’ of Matte boxes
There are three main disadvantages to matte boxes:
- Swapping filters is fast, but setting up the matte box on the rig initially is slower.
- Matte boxes are heavy.
- Good, well-machined matte boxes are expensive.
One of the reasons matte boxes are big and heavy is that they have to hold a large piece of glass, sometimes in front of a wide angle lens. To hold this glass it must be of sturdy construction (think picture frame). The second reason is that matte boxes have flaps to control flare, and these flaps have to be sturdy to withstand daily abuse. The third and final reason is that if you’re going to stack filters, or keep moving filters in and out, the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the matte box better be durable as well.
The use of good materials make such matte boxes heavy. This weight is a good thing, because your matte box is durable and will likely last through your entire career.
But, tougher materials, like metal and carbon fiber, are difficult to machine and refine. So, when a manufacturer designs and builds them, a lot of thought goes into it. This makes matte boxes expensive.
Matte boxes made of plastic have two serious disadvantages:
- The flaps can break or get warped; or might even come off entirely with regular use.
- The matte itself might warp, putting your expensive filters under strain, and they might decide to jump ship.
Do you need a Matte Box?
Not all video applications need a matte box. When in doubt, decide if your rig is going to be mainly handheld or on a tripod. If there’s a lot of camera motion, the flare-cutting abilities of the matte box are reduced, since you can’t move the flaps continuously.
Also, if you are in control of your lighting situation, or don’t need any filter other than an ND or a UV, etc, a matte box might be more trouble than it is worth.
Don’t forget to take into account your lens choices, too. If the filter threads of your lenses vary, you’ll need different adapter rings for lens-mounted matte boxes. If you’re going to be using many lenses, get a rod-mounted matte box instead.
Still confused on whether you need a matte box?
Rule of thumb: Ultimately, most people avoid matte boxes for reasons of size, weight and cost. If none of these bother you, use a matte box. It’s worth it.
But whatever you do, don’t cheapen out on a matte box just to show off. A plastic poorly-made and impractical matte box will not fool anyone. Here’s a video from Cinevate explaining why you need a matte box:
What to look for in a good Matte Box
Here’s a checklist of things you need to watch out for:
- Build quality, preferably of metal construction.
- Quality of the ‘moving parts’. If you can, test the hell out of them.
- As light-weight as possible.
- It should have movable flaps (barn doors) – on all four sides.
- It should have the provision to hold multiple filters, rotatable if possible.
- It should be able to take many thread sizes.
If you have a matte box that ticks all of the above boxes, it’s a winner. Contrary to popular belief, run-and-gun shooting also means the system will take a lot of abuse, so going cheap isn’t a good idea, period!
If you don’t have the money for a good matte box, you can always make do with a folded newspaper, but don’t buy cheap systems. In my opinion, it’s a waste of money if you do. Here’s a DIY video if that’s the route you want to take:
Matte boxes might look like complicated pieces of gear but there’s nothing to them, really. Once you know which filters you need, how many of them you’ll be stacking, and what lenses you’ll be using, you can narrow down your choices quite easily.