Matte box: what is it and when do you need one
Matte boxes are fantastic filmmaking tools for several reasons. This allows you to fine-tune the amount of light hitting your lens (which is a must for discerning cinematographers).
They make the process of incorporating optical filters into your setup so much easier and more practical than ever before with screw-on filters.
So why aren’t matte boxes more common in low-budget movies?
In this post we'll cover:
Everything about Matte boxes
If you still want to learn everything about Matte boxes, I would like to take you through what a matte box is, why a matte box is the way it is and what you should pay attention to in a good matte box.
What is a Matte Box?
A matte box is basically a rectangular frame (a matte) that you attach to 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 filter size (rectangular in shape) and use it on different types of lenses.
You can easily stack multiple filters in and out without unscrewing them all to take out the bottom one.
The frame itself allows you to fasten things like flaps. Flaps have their own uses.
Here’s a video showing how mat boxes work:
These are the two main functions of a matte box:
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- It reduces glow
- It helps to mount filters
If you want to learn more about filters, read my review of the best filters here.
What are the parts of a Matte Box?
When people use the word “matte box”, they can be talking about different things. A matte box can contain the following parts:
- Top and bottom flags or flaps, also known as French flags.
- Side flags or flaps. Together, the four flaps can also be called barn doors.
- The frame, the matte box itself.
- Extra mattes on the front and back of the box.
- Filter compartment holders, attached to the back of the box. These contain the following item.
- Filter drawers, which contain rectangular filters. They are kept separate from the holders for easy exchange.
- System or bracket to swing open. This allows the matte box to be opened (like a door), allowing you to replace lenses.
- Support for rail or rod.
- Donuts, nuns kickers or other clamps to block light leaks.
- Bellows, if you want to extend the flaps further.
Every system is different, but at least you now know which parts to choose. You can divide 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. Obviously, the matte box should be light enough not to strain the lens or lens mount.
The benefits of lens mounted mat boxes are that you don’t need heavy rods or rigs with your camera system. This is really beneficial for making run-and-gun style movies.
Lens-mounted matte boxes are also lightweight. The disadvantages of lens-mounted boxes are that if you want to replace a lens, you have to remove the matte box as well. In addition, all your lenses must have roughly the same diameter at the front, otherwise the system will not be able to be attached.
To avoid this second problem, some kits include adapter rings for different lens diameters. If you have a limited number of lenses and your rig isn’t assembled with rods and supports and you don’t want to put an extra strain on it, a lens-mounted matte box could be perfect.
Rod Mounted Matte Boxes
A rod-mounted matte box is one that rests on rods and not the lens. Light-lens mounted frosted boxes can also be equipped with rod support, as shown above.
Rod-mounted matte boxes have the advantage of attaching to the rig, so if you want to change lenses, all you need to do is move the box around a bit.
The second advantage is that of weight. Weight can be an advantage, as we’ll see later. The drawbacks of the bar-mount 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 types of matte boxes. If your camera system is on a tripod, on rods, a rod-mounted system is a good idea.
Examples of Matte Based Matte Boxes Matte Mounted Matte Boxes come with fixings on the bottom (or on each side depending on the direction of your rig) to take two rods. The weight of the matte box must be fully supported by the bars. Here are two great but expensive options:
The ‘disadvantages’ of Matte boxes
There are three main drawbacks to matte boxes:
- Changing filters is fast, but setting up the system on the rig is slower initially.
- Matte boxes are heavy.
- Good, well-finished systems are expensive.
One of the reasons matte boxes are large and heavy is that they have to hold a large piece of glass, sometimes for a wide-angle lens. To hold this glass, it must be of a sturdy construction (think of a photo frame).
The second reason is that matte boxes have flaps to control flare, and these flaps need to be sturdy to withstand daily abuse.
The third and final reason is that if you’re going to stack filters or move the filters in and out, the matte box ‘nuts and bolts’ are also more durable.
The use of good materials makes such matte boxes heavy. This weight is a good thing because it makes your system durable and likely to last a lifetime. But harder and lighter materials, such as metal and carbon fiber, are difficult to machine and refine.
So when a manufacturer designs and builds them, a lot goes into it. This makes matte boxes expensive.
Systems made of plastic have two serious drawbacks:
- The flaps may break or warp, or may even come off completely with regular use.
- The matte itself can warp, putting pressure on your expensive filters and causing them to break or pop out.
Hi, I'm Kim, a mom and a stop-motion enthusiast with a background in media creation and web development. I've got a huge passion for drawing and animation, and now I'm diving headfirst into the stop-motion world. With my blog, I'm sharing my learnings with you guys.