It’s almost a rite of passage. I now own a matte box, and it feels strange.
Matte boxes are exquisitely expensive for what they are. Explain to anyone the cost of this simple lens shade and slot mechanism and jaws will drop. Of course, they’re full of carefully machined parts, hand assembled to fine tolerances and built to serve for a decade or two of heavy use. But they’re still a lot of money – even the cheap ones.
On the list of ‘things to buy’, they’ve been way down on my list. Way, way down.
Seen on movie cameras and ‘portable studio cameras’, matte boxes have become an icon of ‘shooting for cinema’.
The matte box serves two main jobs: to stop stray light from hitting the lens which could cause flare and lower the contrast of a scene, and whilst doing that, holding filters in front of the lens.
As a rule, film cameras don’t have built-in filters. If you need to block the amount of light, you can’t just dial in some Neutral Density, you dig out an ND filter or two and shove it in front of the lens. If you need to correct for colour temperature, you can’t white-set film, you dig out a Colour Temperature filter (dare I mention Wrattens?). Then there’s ND Grads and polarisers which need to spin around the lens axis, and you may want a sort of contrast reducing filter to even out harsh lighting setups or flattering your interviewee with a light Pro Mist or some such.
So filters are okay, and matte boxes are required to handle all of this. But what about the video end of the market? More specifically, the folks shooting on DV and prosumer kit?
I’ve been a little suspicious of matte boxes. I’d prefer to use effects in post where there’s an undo facility. Having a huge lump of engineering at the front of an EX1 isn’t exactly going to help in hand-holding shots, and lets face it, there are times when it’s going to be nothing more than a Camera Cod Piece.
So fast forward to a couple of recent shoots. Building sites (such glamourous jobs). The EX1’s a great camera with a wide latitude, but a neutral grad would have been great to knock back the sky (overcast but vaguely interesting) whilst leaving the foreground (mostly mud) at a reasonable level. Then the sun comes out so we have glare on damp concrete, grass, you name it. Pola would have tamed it all.
I have screw-in filters, but they don’t fit wide angle adaptors, and to use a pola, I have to take the EX1 lens shade off, and suddenly sunlight hits the filter and I’m holding my hand just out of shot to shade it, and I’m left thinking… life is short. I need a matte box.
I’ve shopped around, looking at some ‘inventive’ solutions that assemble with velcro, slot together like a box, I’ve looked at cheap ones imported from India, second-hand ones that crop up from time to time, and the new ones from Vocas, Chroziel, Red Rock Micro, True Lens Systems, and had to choose between the TLS Kestrel and the Genus DV. The Kestrel was much lighter, felt better made, but didn’t play nice with the EX1. The Genus seemed to be designed around the EX1, working around the annoying Mic bridge over the lens. It fits the EX1 with Century 0.6 wide angle adaptor like a glove, and has adapted the trays so it will accommodate it. Like I say, it’s the perfect fit with the EX. I bought my Genus from TLS, who distribute it in the UK, and took up their offer of a Schneider filter starter pack which includes ND, ND Grad, Pola, Pro Mist equivalent, and a skin tone enhancer. I will probably only ever use the first three, but even then it’s cheaper to buy the set than to buy the 3 filters. Good deal.
So I’m set. I never thought I’d have to own a matte box, but now I do, ready for some more adventurous shoots coming up. It will be put to good use and improve the results of my wide angle adaptor outdoors.
Ah… But then we have a certain interviewee who shall remain nameless, who continues to be dismissive of an EX1 and has an unspoken yet obvious desire for a full on film setup rather than this guy with a little black sausage of a camera, and really wants to see a big long microphone in a furry blimp – indoors – with all the bells and whistles. And, you guessed it, a big lens shade with a bigger peak on the front (he meant the French Flag).
And therein lies the rub.
It’s not just Keifer Sutherland who can only give ‘a big performance to a big camera’. Some interviewees want it too.
As much as I hate myself for accepting this, that Matte Box is going to be used to pimp up my EX1 for certain interviewees, and it will probably do more service in that than in controlling and shaping light entering the lens. And I don’t care.