Introduction to Matte Boxes for Video Beginners

Matte boxes are a handy accessory that attaches to your camera or lens that allows for you to block light that may be hitting the front of the lens. It can also be used as a filter holder where you can drop in non-screw-on filters, such as the Schneider ND 4×5.65 Filter Set, and change them out quickly. Matte boxes are used mostly to compensate for complications, such as lens flare that can cause haziness in your image. Not only does a matte box help with making sure each of your scenes are similarly lit and shot, it can help with different effects. For example, some folks like to use them for intentional vignetting.

There are different types of matte boxes but they perform similarly to a lens hood. There are usually adjustable sides called “French flags” or “barn doors”. They range in size and weight and attach to different parts of the body or the lens, depending on the support that you have for your setup. A lot of the time, they can be attached to a rod system that is attached to the underside of the camera body. The rods run the length of the unit to help support the weight that is in front. Rod systems are usually the main options when it comes to heavier-duty style matte boxes that are larger or will hold more filters. The rod system is designed to take weight off of the lens itself.

Lightweight matte boxes are recommended more for handheld shooting or for use without filters. There are matte box types that you can use with only specific types of rod sizes or proprietary camera brands. Others have moveable filter holders and bellows that let you position the sunshade at different angles if using different-sized lenses. There are some where the filter trays can be removed and stacked accordingly. There are also a few matte boxes that swing away so that it’s easier to swap out lenses. Here is a quick breakdown of what we currently offer:

Matte Box Wooden Camera UMB-1 Universal Matte Box Pro Redrock Micro microMatteBox OConnor O-Box Matte Box Letus35 AnamorphX Adapter with Built-In Matte Box ARRI LMB-25 2-Stage Clamp-On Matte Box ARRI MB-18 Studio Matte Box for 19mm Cinema Rod System
Flags 1 top French-style (folding) flag, 2 side flags, 1 bottom flag. 1 top flag, 2  expanding side flags. 1 expanding top flag, 2 side flags. Compatible but doesn’t come with rental. Included is a top flag. 1 top flag. Compatible but doesn’t come with rental. Included is a top flag.
Swing-Away Yes Yes No No No Yes
Rod Compatibility 15mm 15mm 15mm None None Comes with a 15mm to 19mm offset mount, or “studio bridge”.
Filter Trays 2 2 4 None Does up to 3 but we rent the 2 tray version. Does up to 4 but we rent the 2 tray version.
Filter Size Compatibility 4 x 5.56 4 x 5.56, 4 x 4 4 x 5.56, 4 x 4 None but includes an anamorphic effect adapter that can be used on most lenses for a 1.33 “anamorphic squeeze”. 4 x 5.56, 4 x 4 4 x 5.65, 4.5 Round, 4 x 4
Lens Opening 143mm, comes with 87mm, 95mm, 104mm, 114mm clamp adapter plates. 155mm diameter (140 with lens connector), comes with “donut” rings for lens diameters 51mm, 64mm, 76mm, 102mm. 114mm diameter, comes with 110mm clamp adapter plate. 138mm diameter, comes with 114mm clamp adapter plate. 143mm diameter, comes with 114mm clamp adapter plate. 143mm diameter.
Notable Features Includes ARRI-style rubber bellows (114 diameter) and universal cloth donut for non-standard lens diameters. Filter trays rotatable 360º Rear filter trays rotatable 360º. Adapter can be used without matte box or with a different matte box (138mm clip-on only). Clamp-on style for easy mounting but you won’t be able to rotate your filters. Comes with (2) 19″ rods for your rig.
7 Day Rental*
$90 $108 $185 $144 $200

* as of this writing

As a camera assistant, there were a few things that I kept in my bag that made matte boxes my best friend. The first item was paper tape. I’d make colored, removable tabs so I can label each filter tray with how many stops it took off (for example, “ND filter 6x”) so I would know how to compensate for exposure. Next was a neoprene mouse pad. Sometimes the matte box you use doesn’t come with bellows to block light coming from behind the camera. I would always have a mouse pad with an X sliced out the middle to throw on the lens to block out any light artifacts from behind the operator. I’d have 2-3 depending on the size of the lens.

Let’s talk about the specifics of lens-mounted matte boxes. Basically this means that the matte box is directly attached to and supported by the lens. The cool part about this is that the setup is most likely a lightweight setup. This is used more for run-and-gun filmmaking. A few disadvantages of having a lens-mounted matte box is that you have to remove it every single time you want to change lenses. Another con is that the front diameter of all the lenses in your arsenal have to be about the same to use the same matte box. An example of this type of filter is the ARRI LMB-25 2-stage Clamp on Matte Box.

Rod-mounted matte boxes simply are mounted on rods rather than directly on the lens. These rods sit usually under the camera body (depending on your rig). The full weight of the matte box is supported by the rods. These matte boxes usually offer more features, such as rotating filter trays that can hold filters like the Schneider ND 4.5.65 filter set, a higher quantity of filter trays, and sometimes a swing-away option. The ARRI MB-18 Studio Matte Box for 19mm Cinema Rod system is an example of a rod-mounted matte box. Because these matte boxes are heavier, they’re usually meant for tripod setups.

Before fully investing in one, definitely try it out with the camera body you wish to use with it first. Think of all the possible lens combinations and filters you’d like to use first. Will the matte box be able to rotate the filter holder for polarizers? How many filters can it hold? Just take note that if the matte box has more features for you to use, the more likely it will need a rod system to support it. Research and double check if the camera setup can be in combination with different matte boxes.

ARRI’s guidelines for rod placement.

Here’s a check list of what to look for in a good matte box:

• It should be able to take many thread sizes or diameters of lens fronts.

• Check to make sure all French flags/barn doors are there – you don’t want to be stuck with only 2 if you intend to use 4, for example.

• Metal construction usually lasts longer. However, plastic and other materials could be lighter. Again, depending on what you need it to do for you.

• Check all the moving parts to it (rotating filters trays, smoothness of tray pull out, swing away latch, etc). If you have to make quick changes, you need to know the parts that catch or other little characteristics of your rig.

Matte boxes will make your life on set 100 times easier if used correctly. Essentially, if you have all the check marks for the list above, you’ll be just fine. But if you are still unsure what to get, Borrowlenses has a knowledgeable team of video specialists who will be more than happy to help you navigate through the sometimes confusing process of choosing the right matte box.

Cherish received a BFA in Cinematography from the Academy of Art University. She has gone on to work as a freelance 1st camera assistant under award-winning directors of photography and continues to crew on high production films and commercials.

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BorrowLenses is an online camera gear rental service that started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007. We offer a wide selection of camera gear ranging from camera bodies, lenses, lighting and accessories. We make it easy to rent gear by shipping your order straight to you.