Ask Cinevate Episode 5 – Why a Mattebox?

It’s back! We’re seeing the return of our semi-neglected Cinevate series this week in the 5th installment of Ask Cinevate. Part of the blame lies on the fact that we were on the road a few times these past weeks attending trade shows. Out of that comes a great topic and a reoccurring question we get from DSLR video newcomers – Why would I need a mattebox?

It all boils down to control – control over your image by manipulating the light coming into the lens. Now, we’re certainly not the first to write on the subject but what we’ve collected here is a sample platter of video and stills to show images with and without control methods the Mattebox provides. Naturally, we’re using our Titan Swing Away Mattebox and our DSLR Core Package in the video. And, free hugs to anyone who catches our attempt to reference (parody?) a recent car film… So without further ado;

I didn’t talk specifically to the filters, so to clarify, we used the following in the video; Tiffen Ultra Linear 4×4 Polarizer, Tiffen Clear/ND.6 Soft Edge 4×4 Gradient, and Tiffen ND.9 Neutral Density 4×4.  So to recap, here’s a breakdown of the methods used to control and/or manipulate light (thus controlling your image.)

Flags – Flags will allow you to block direct light sources that may cause undesired effects. Of course, a lens flare can be a desired effect but we’re talking about having complete control over you image, so in cases when this is unwanted flags allow you to correct as such.

Flags not doing their job

A lens flare can be used effectively but it's nice to have the choice.

Flags eliminate unwanted flares

The same shot with the top flag in play, eliminating the unwanted flare.

Neutral Density or ND Filters – These guys are used to cut down on light coming into the lens. They don’t otherwise change the look of the image. They commonly come in 3,6, and 9 and block 1, 2, and 3 stops of light respectively, so you’d use these filters if you wanted to shoot at a lower f-stop and have shallower depth of field.

CORRECTION* – At 1:41 in the video I put in an ND 9 and said it gives more depth of field, when I actually meant ‘shallower depth of field’

Shooting with and without ND filters

In this shot I exposed at f/11. There was still considerable depth of field as I was shooting at approximately 65mm on my zoom lens.

Shooting with a Neutral Density .9 filter

Here's the same shot but with an ND 9 in play (which brought my exposure down to f/4). Note the shallower depth of field.

Gradient Filters – Gradients come in the Hard edge and Soft edge variety. Basically half of the filter is of neutral density (in the common 3,6,9 values) while the rest of the filter is just clear glass. In most cases you’d see these used on exterior shots on bright sunny days when your sky would be blown out. The gradient blocks light only from the sky, bringing it into a range that you can exposure properly for while still properly exposing your subject(s) on the ground (in your mids and shadows). In my samples we didn’t have bright sun but you can see how it brings out detail in my clouds while leaving the city exposure unchanged.

Thunder Bay scenic without filtration

In this Thunder Bay scenic there is some overexposed areas in the clouds - without using filters.

Thunder Bay scenic with some contrasty clouds, thanks to an Gradient

Here's the same shot with a Soft Edge Gradient filter with ND.6. Notice how the city is exposed the same while the clouds have more contrast.

Polarizer – This filter is a common favourite among exterior shooters. Without getting too technical, a polarizer allows some waves of light through the filter while blocking waves of other polarizations. Because you can rotate your polarizer you control which polarized waves of light you’re letting through the lens. You’ll see these filters used to cut down on glare (or glares as I refer to them for some reason…lol) and reflections.

No filter for this sky shot

For this shot there was no filtration. Disregard my under-exposed tree.

Sky shot with Polarizer filter, rotated to shooter's liking.

The polarizer rotated to my liking, bringing out deeper blues. You can see the difference in the video as I rotate the filter while recording.

So there you have it. Hopefully if you came into this pondering the titular topic you have left with a better understanding of how or why you would use a mattebox. Did you learn anything, or think it was too straightforward? – Let us know! Or, if you have a question you’d like to see answered send us an email at or via twitter @cinevateinc or comment below.

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20 Responses to Ask Cinevate Episode 5 – Why a Mattebox?

  1. Dave Rilstone (@DRils on Twitter) says:

    Great video on “Why a Matte Box?”, Luke. What are your thoughts on 4×4 vario-ND filters in your matte box to control exposure (allow wider aperture)?

  2. Luke says:

    Hey Dave,
    Glad you enjoyed! I’ve only briefly looked into the Vario-ND filters in the past for personal projects as their variable ND seems like an easier solution (3 or more ND filters in one). I’m only familiar with the circular, threaded Varios that come in a variety of thread sizes, but even then haven’t had a chance to do much testing.

    I’ll pose the question to our readers – Any experience with the Vario NDs you care to share?

  3. Luke,

    Awesome job! The video looks great and really helps to clarify the various ways to control light. Regarding ND filters, I have used the Fader (8 stops of Neutral Density, aprox $300). Genus has a similar one for $200, as well as Heliopan, which is about $450. Great seeing you at PhotoPlus!

  4. Dennis Wood says:

    Freaking brilliant boys. Maybe the best little clip explaining basic mattebox and filter use I’ve every seen. As usual you made me laugh out loud with your end credit antics 🙂 Great work.

  5. Dave Rilstone (@DRils on Twitter) says:

    Thanks, everyone. I have two circular vario-ND’s (77 mm) which I use with inexpensive step down rings for the smaller lenses. The Singh-Ray (~ $450) is very sharp and OK for moderate (200 mm) telephoto, and a much cheaper (~ $99) Nature Mark 1 which is fine for wider lenses if knife-edge sharpness isn’t a must.

    However….they’re a bit of a nuisance when using a matte box — even the beautiful swing-out design of the Titan — when light conditions tend to change rapidly. I really want to try a 4×4 Vario-ND in the Titan to allow easier on-the-fly adjustments as camera angles change or the sun ducks behind a cloud. They ain’t cheap, but I’m hoping @Cinevateinc will consider carrying them! 🙂

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  8. Christoph Werner says:

    I ask myself the whole time since I own your DSLR Core Package including the mattebox:

    When do you produce a mattebox where I can use a FADER ND from e.g.lightcraft workshop?

    Please cinevate I need a mattebox where I can fix one filter while turning the other!!!

    • Luke says:

      Hey Christoph,
      We hear ya! The product development team definitely has this on their plate for updating our Mattebox. It’s a big plate though, so no time frame as of yet. We’ll keep ya posted!

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  10. Josue says:

    I definitely need to get me a matte box.

  11. Justin Pamenter says:

    Hi, earlier this year we purchased the full CanonXF305 Cinevate Rig for our new 305. I currently have the 16:9 plate on the Matte Box and we have a couple of problems…if I use a wide angle lens setting we can see the edges of the Matte Box recorded onto our frame. We can’t push the lens deeper into the Matte Box either as the Follow focus is already tight up against the Matte Box rails.

    I would welcome some advice here or direction to where I can find where I am going wrong here.


    • Luke says:

      Hey Justin,

      We recently did some more testing on this and found it acceptable to approximately 24mm if I recall correctly. We then did some testing on other matteboxes at comparable focal lengths and found that they too had vignetting issues at wider lengths – so currently it seems to be a common issue, but our Dev. team is aware and will try to address in a future mattebox update. Which means in the mean time the only option at the widest focal length is too swing-away the mattebox to prevent vignetting unfortuntely. I’ll definitely update you though if we find other solutions.


      • Hi Luke, thankyou for your response. It is really disappointing to discover this now after having already purchased this rig specifically for the XF305, as it was promoted. When a solution is found or an update released for this MatteBox issue, will current owners be offered this solution free of charge and how long do you anticipate a solution being offered to current customers?

        • Luke says:

          I can’t speak to specific dates, though I know there is a always lot of stuff on the go here. I can say that we’re hoping to have some new and updated products at NAB in April. We’ll definitely keep you posted as info becomes available.


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  14. Clarke says:

    Hi there, on the B&H website it says that it’s no longer available… is this item being discontinued or replaced?

  15. Raul Almaguer K. says:

    Is there any way to use wide angle lens with this matte box? I love to use my 17-40mm in my steadycam rig, but I cant use it with cinevate matte box. A huge vignette is present… the problem is I cant use my filters neither… so I was wondering if there is a wide angle accessory.