The Matte Box Light Shade
by Nigel Cooper
The Matte Box Light Shade is probably the most overlooked or ignored camera accessory that the independent filmmaker or video producer could buy; yet it is the one accessory that (if used correctly) will increase the image quality of your footage no end.
The matte box is quite often overlooked by many digital filmmakers, who think the lens hood that came with their camcorder does the same thing; this couldnít be further from the truth, the sorry attempt for a lens shade that accompanied your camcorder doesnít really count. To be effective, the shade needs to extend some distance from the front element of the lens and have a fully adjustable French Flag along the top.
The matte box should be very high up on your list of priorities for the following reasons: your camcorder is designed to collect and control the reflected light entering the lens, and the matte box is probably the most practical and significant step towards controlling that light, not only does the matte box shade the front element from stray shafts of light, it also has a mechanism for attaching a variety of filters such as natural density, polarizer and many other various special effects filters. A good matte box will be an indispensable addition to your camera system and will go a long way to improving the image quality, contrast, colour saturation and even the definition of your images.
Just visit any professional film set or TV studio and you will be hard pressed to find a professional video or film camera that doesnít have one of these most basic tools of the trade attached to the lens. Whether you make one yourself out of a stiff piece of matt black cardboard from an art shop, or buy a fancy after market affair custom made just for your camcorder, there is little you can do that will improve and enhance the quality of your footage more.
If youíve never heard of a matte box, or are not really familiar with what they do, hereís a brief explanation. You could see the matte box as being a kind of baseball cap for your camcorderís lens. Okay, letís pretend for the sake of this explanation that sunglasses havenít been invented yet. Now, imagine you are walking down the high street on a blisteringly bright mid summerís day, if you didnít have a baseball cap you would find yourself squinting and if you try and look straight ahead at the horizon your eyeís would struggle to pick up all the detail in the distance. Now, imagine the same scenario wearing a baseball cap, suddenly you can pull the visor down to the point that you can no longer see the bright sun in the sky, but you can still see the various objects and scenery straight ahead Ė only this time with a degree more detail and definition Ė Voilŗ! The matte box's French flag does just that. However the matte box and it's flag must be used correctly or it might as well not be fitted to your camcorder at all.
For the matte box to be effective, the shade needs to extend at least six inches from the front element of the lens and have a French flag that is rugged enough so that it doesnít flap around in the wind outdoors ó the last thing you want is for the French flag to keep flapping into shot at the top of the viewfinder.
Okay, so hereís how it works. The idea is to get the French flag on top of the matte box as close to the top edge of the image frame as possible, without it coming into shot. To do this, put your index finger against the edge of the center of the flag (shown in picture on left) so that it touches just short of the first joint (about a centimetre from the tip), then move the flag down until the tip of your finger shows up in the top of the frame in your viewfinder. Itís vital that your finger is just short of the first joint, any less and you run the risk of the French flag cutting into view at the top edge of the frame, any more, and you wonít get the full light shading benefits it was designed to offer.
You will need to carry out this flag-setting procedure every single (and I do mean EVERY) time you adjust the focal length of your zoom lens for another shot. Quite often amateur filmmakers will set the flag, then zoom out for another shot and forget to re-adjust it, then in the final shot they end up with the flag coming into frame which looks kind of like a letterbox effect across the top of the screen.
If you want to buy an after market matte box there are several manufacturers who make them for the most popular camcorders such as the Sony VX2100 & PD170, the Canon XL2, Panasonics AG-DVX100 and of course shoulder mounted camcorders such as Sonyís DSR400 and DSR450. Formatte and Chrosziel are the two makers who spring to mind. Personally I prefer the Chrosziel models as these are the ones they use in Hollywood, and if itís good enough for them itís good enough for me, also I found that the Formatte model has a serious design flaw in that it has two small areas across the top at either side of the filter hinge that let stray light in; this is the equivalent to owning a baseball cap with two small holes in the sun visor. A Chrosziel matte box for a standard DV camcorder will set you back around £275.
If £275 is too rich for your blood then you could always opt for a DIY job. Simply visit your local art shop and buy a stiff piece of matte black cardboard. It is vital that it has a matt surface and not gloss as the latter (although black) can still reflect light, which is a bad thing. Cut out a rectangular piece 7 inches by 10 inches and simply tape it to the top of your existing lens shade using a piece of black gaffer tape. Although this method might not have the credibility of a Chrosziel, it will do the job quite well, though adjusting it precisely might prove a tad more difficult and on very windy days it might blow downwards and into shot.
Another good DIY French flag can be made from one of those stiff matt vinyl coated ring binder folders that you can buy in any office supply store. The one pictured above/left was bought from my local office supply store second hand for 25P. These are good because they are thick and usually quite rigid. I actually cheated a little by using my Chrosziel flag for a template, and then I simply cut it out with a Stanley knife. The chances are that you will be able to make a much more functional one than my example here, by creating some kind of DIY adjustable mechanism so that you can move it up and down and it will stay in that position Ė good luck!
So, if you donít have a matte box might I suggest that you either go out and buy one or make your own without delay. As for myself, I never shoot a single fame without one. A decent matte box is an indispensable addition to any quality acquisition system.
©2005 Nigel Cooper