Photography & Cinematography Equipment 101 - Matte Box or Lens Hood - Which is Best for Me?
I see young photographers and filmmakers running around with a lot of equipment in various situations and often wonder why they've chosen to equip their camera with said equipment. The big quandary for me is that often they are carrying around a lot of gear that only gets in the way and works against them. I think many younger photogs and filmmakers feel that big fancy looking rigs make them look more legitimate and make them feel better about how others perceive them.
The reality is that the only concern any new or established photographer or filmmaker should be worried about is "did I get the shot and does it express my aesthetic viewpoint?
Let's talk about one of the most widely misused pieces of cinema equipment available, the Matte Box system.
Matte Boxes provide several important functions -
1) They are designed to allow the insertion of a "Matte" template in front of the lens element to frame the correct aspect ratio of the footage being shot. This feature was important with film cameras but not needed for digital systems. Matte boxes are used for blocking off part of the frame for special-effects shots.
2) They provide a "shield" for the lens element - preventing stray or unwanted light from the various light sources in any given shot - from hitting the lens element and causing what is commonly referred to as a "Lens Flare". Lens flares are bad for several reasons the most important of which is they can undermine your film's narrative by reminding the audience that they are not watching what is being presented but they are watching something that has been filmed - it is a breaking of a set of rules which when obeyed create a phenomenon called "Suspension of Disbelief" - which is a key psychological element in the creation of an emotional response in the audience.
I'll talk more about lens flares later in this article.
3) They provide the ability to mount large optical glass filters in front of the lens - many cinema lenses have diameters which are too great to accommodate screw-on type photography filters. This means that there has to be another mechanism for placing filters in front of the lens.
I'll talk more about filters later in this article.
4) Matte Boxes can provide some protection against sand, dirt, and other debris if filming in a location where these issues are present.
In all - the functions of a matte box are very similar to that of a lens hood barring two very important differences - the ability to place matte templates in the frame and the ability to place filters in front of the lens.
NEXT - The Lens Hood -
The Lens Hood is a device that attaches to the end of a lens - either by a thread or using a clamp mechanism of some sort - that shades the main element of the lens from stray light.
The longer the lens - the deeper the hood will be. The 300mm lens above is 12 inches long and 18 inches long with the hood attached.
Lens hoods are light, easy to put on and take off, and VERY effective at preventing stray light sources from flaring the lens. In still photography lens flares can and often will affect the detail and quality of the final image. Lens flares are basically a reflection of the lens element groups inside the lens - depending on the design they can be small or quite large. In all, saturation, detail, and contrast can be greatly affected by a lens flare.
Lens hoods are usually provided with or offered as an accessory to photography lenses. They are the perfect tool for both photographers AND cinematographers who do not need to mount filters to the end of a lens (if the lens has other filter mounting options that do not require a matte box filter tray).
I see so many young filmmakers struggling with heavy camera rigs that include a matte box (which can weigh up to 10x more than a simple lens hood) and most of the equipment they have mounted is not being used or is necessary. It confuses me - both photography and cinematography should be about efficiency and removing/neutralizing the obstacles in the path between them and their desired shot - the addition of equipment to a rig just to have it there is a waste of time, energy, and it ultimately creates additional challenges in acquiring your shots.
NEXT - The Dreaded Lens Flare
The image above is an extreme example and given the framing a lens hood or matte box could have prevented it completely.
Why are lens flares bad? They are not necessarily - they can be a creative choice in both photography and cinematography, but generally in cinematography they are considered a negative for they remind the audience about the "Fourth Wall" - a theater reference that is often borrowed in cinema that refers to the separation of the audience from the events unfolding on the screen and visa-versa.
There has been a great relaxing of this once strict cinematography rule - mostly due to newer entertainment media formats such as video games. Lens flares have moved from being a reminder of the camera between the audience and the events of the screen to being a device that illustrates a memory, dream, or different time (past and/or future).
JJ Abrams used multiple, deliberate lens flares in nearly every shot of the 2009 Star Trek reboot. He was heavily criticized for it and their use has been parodied in other media, but he stands by his assertion that they added a unique visual style to the film, adding to its futuristic theme. What is important to me as a cinematographer is that about 20 minutes into the movie I stopped noticing the flares because I had been drawn into the story and was paying more attention to what was unfolding and less on how it had been filmed.
And ultimately that is what matters most. As a deliberate creative choice if the effect chosen doesn't undermine the narrative and viewing experience it is difficult to criticize the choice as a bad one.
NEXT - About Filters & Color Temperature
Filters originated as a means to correct limitations experienced with shooting on film.
What the human eye perceives as white light is actually made up of a spectrum of colored light (which can be broken into its color components with a prism). Our eyes adjust automatically to the various spectrum colors of light automatically. This is a complex bio-chemical ability that our brains have developed during our evolution. Our eyes adjust quickly to different environments and our brains compensate for small color differences without us being aware it happens.
Film does not have this ability - Film is color calibrated for one of two environments - indoor lighting (tungsten) and outdoor lighting (sunlight).
Light color is calculated using temperature; the Kelvin Temperature Scale. Any temperature presented as "Degrees Kelvin" is not a physical temperature and does not denote heat or cold - it is a determination of COLOR and provides a scale for color warmth (reds, oranges, yellows) or coolness (greens, blues, greys).
Normal incandescent light bulbs are generally accepted as 3200K in temperature. They shift the color spectrum to the warm side of the Kelvin scale - reds, oranges, yellows.
The sun at noon is generally accepted as 5600K in temperature. This is just slightly on the cool side of the Kelvin scale and is a whitish/blue color.
A foggy or overcast day registers around 7000-9000K and is blue-grey in color. This is considered cool/cold.
Here's a funny bit of trivia - in the 1984 motion picture adaptation of Frank Herbert's science fiction masterpiece "Dune" - there is a scene when Duke Leto Atreites is flown into the desert to observe "Spice production". Listen carefully to the chatter on the radio as the pilot flies the craft over the shield wall. They will give a temperature of the desert. The chatter states, "Ambient temperature 350 degrees kelvin... Airspeed-one-three-zero."
It's always been very amusing to me that the temperature given is meaningless. It was provided in degrees Kelvin - thus the desert was incredibly red that day.
Filters were created to allow certain light temperatures to be modified or selected for removal from the image.
A prime example is florescent light. Normal "unbalanced" florescent bulbs have a color temperature of around 4200K. This is deep inside the green spectrum of color. They cast a greenish, sickly hue and are generally considered very difficult lights to shoot with because they produce ugly light (they also flicker badly, but that's a whole different issue in itself).
If you want to adjust for green light you could place a magenta filter in front of the lens.
There are two other technical issues with film that required/requires the use of filters. Film grain between tungsten balanced stock (film stock designed to see light from tungsten filament bulbs as white) and outdoor balanced stock (sees sunlight as white light) can be drastic and noticeable. Color saturation and contrast can also vary greatly between the two.
The solution to addressing what could be a very different set of images when film on the different stocks is to simply choose one or the other and film everything with it.
This gives way to the second issue - tungsten balanced film sees sunlight as a bright monochromatic blue and daylight balanced film shifts orange/red indoors.
The solution to this issue is the use of filters. A number 85B filter used with Tungsten film will allow you to shoot outdoors without a blue color shift.
For this reason matte boxes with filter trays quickly became an indispensable tool to cinematographers.
NEXT - ND Filters
A VERY important category of filters are NEUTRAL DENSITY - or ND filters. ND filters cut light without affecting color temperature. This is extremely helpful if you want to shoot a long/fast lens in bright light (such as daylight) and not need to stop your lens down (choose an f-stop such as f/16, f/22, or f/32) - thus you can shoot with the aperture wide-open - allowing you to better control DOF without over-exposing the image.
MATTE BOX or LENS HOOD?
Use these simple guidelines to help make the best choice for your shooting conditions -
USE A MATTE BOX IF -
1) The end lens element is too large for a lens mounted hood.
2) If you require filters (single or multiple) and your lens doesn't accommodate screw-on or insert style filters.
3) If you want to place a matte in frame to block off part of the frame (for SFX shots, etc...)
4) If weight is not a consideration.
USE A LENS HOOD IF -
1) The lens is designed to accommodate one or if a screw-on style hood is available that is compatible with your lens.
2) If your lens accepts screw-on filters or insert style filters (see below).
3) If you do not need to place a matte in frame for SFX shots, etc...
4) If weight IS a consideration and you need to keep your camera/rig as light as possible.
Insert style filter mounts are used with long lenses. They usually conform to a standard sized filter such as 52mm screw-in style. The filter is placed into the holder - which is inserted in the lens just in front of the aperture. This is a popular filter mount solution designed to minimize weight considerations for large photographic lenses.
Insert style filters are typically not included in cinematography lens systems - because the matte box is the tried and true method of filter placement in cinematography.
ABOUT ME - I've been a professional photographer for over 20 years. I have a Bachelor's Degree in Film Production, specifically I studied narrative/feature film production and cinematography.
I worked as a commercial cinematographer/photographer on the East Coast of the United States before relocating to the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles/Hollywood. For the past decade I've worked in and around Hollywood as a cinematographer, photographer, and consultant.