UPDATE: PLEASE NOTE CORRECTIONS IN "NITS" SECTION AND AT BOTTOM OF THE POST
If you use your hybrid video/stills camera to make movies, at some point you will likely find the limitations of your still photography lens hoods. You may get as far as dedicated video cameras and geared cine lenses, in which case you most likely won't even have a lens hood. This is when matte boxes matter, and you can start cheap: $20 will get you one made by Neewer. But at some point, you may want more. The Sachtler Ace Matte Box is a good place to start.
The $80 I spent on a 15mm rod kit and a matte box a couple of years ago was money well spent: the flare that had killed the contrast of a shot just a couple of days earlier was gone, and that project ended up a finalist in a commercial project for a national retail chain.
So why would anyone ever want to spend more?
I asked myself that question as I opened the package containing Sachtler's Ace Matte box, a $477 device that in theory did the same thing as my $20 matte box.
Let's take a look and see.
The first and most important thing a matte box does is block extraneous light, and the Neewer combo did it for me when I used it.
The spaces between the actual box and flags were so large that I had to McGyver it for one shot by folding and shaping a black plastic garbage bag around it to prevent light from reflecting back into the camera from the rear window of the truck through which I was shooting.
The Sachtler is much better, but in that scenario I probably would have had to do the same thing.
On the other hand, the Sachtler is deeper and taller, and likely would have been that much better at preventing light coming in at an angle from the front for other shots: even with the Neewer, I didn't get the best contrast out of the lenses I used.
The Sachtler also comes with a pair of rubber donuts to block the light leakage between the lens and the lens opening, along with a clamping mechanism to keep them in place. Nice. The Neewer had no such accoutrement, but a $0.50 head bandy thingy called a scrunchie did the trick in a pinch. Would I recommend a scrunchie as part of your usual kit? No.
When you move to a higher spec matte box, the next most important thing is going to be the ability to use a single set of filters without having to worry about step-up or step-down rings, or even multiple sizes for a given type of filter.
The Neewer doesn't have this, so when I needed neutral density filters I had to screw them into the front of each lens and then unscrew them and move them to the next lens I needed. This is cumbersome, time-consuming, and more likely to result in either smudging them or dropping them.
The Sachtler, on the other hand, has a pair of filter slots (one of which rotates though not fully) and comes with four filter trays: two 4x4s and two 4x5.65s. Once you switch to this way of doing things you're unlikely to want to go back.
You get what you pay for here: the flags on the Neewer are a friction fit with no adjustment, and they loosen over time. The Sachtler is also friction fit, but it has adjustable, spring-loaded clamps to ensure they remain in place.
Of course, it's not just that Sachtler has these things -- it's that they're well thought-out and the entire kit is more more robust. I have to add, however, that the filter holders were a very tight fit, and I suspect that even with high quality plastics, there is a set of scenarios where an all metal matte box would be preferable.
I'm not likely to encounter such scenarios any time soon.
The Matte Box is designed to work specifically with Sachtler's Ace Base Plate and their manual follow focus, and they really do fit together beautifully. But with all of this written, I found two things on the Sachtler that were less than ideal:
- When used with Sony FS5, I found that the camera's lens mount is sufficiently higher than the bottom of the camera that I wasn't able to get the matte box high enough to center the lens perfectly. Sure, it's easy enough to bend the rubber donut to fit, or make do with a cloth one, but everything about Sachtler screams a higher standard than work-arounds. While Sachtler's engineers left all of the height adjustabilty to their beautifully designed and easy to adjust Base Plate, in this particular pairing even that was not enough (see photos below, added). CORRECTION: SEE NOTE 1 AT BOTTOM OF THE POST
- The single rotating filter holder appears to rotate a little less than 45° to either side (looks closer to 30°), and that means with, say, a graduated neutral density filter in the 4 x 5.65 holder, you can only use it in one orientation (this is of course not a problem with the 4 x 4 - you just take it out, rotate it 90° yourself, and slide it back in). This seems so basic -- and everything else about the Sachtler is so good -- that I'd have expected not to find this limitation. CORRECTION: SEE NOTE 2 AT BOTTOM OF THE POST
- It would have been nice if it had been designed to swing out of the way so that lens changes were easy.
As i wrote in my previous post about the rod systems being used here, this is why it makes sense to keep an eye on camera and lens costs: you're going to need more money for other things, especially when filmmaking.
At $20, the Neewer Matte Box is priced at about 5% of the Canon Rebel SL1 body with which I used it. At $477, the Sachtler Matte Box [B&H|Amazon] is a bit less than 10% of the price of the Sony FS5 with which I think it is all but ideally paired. Is that one statistic the only metric by which you should judge value?
No - value is a function of price and performance. At least in the case of these two matte boxes, you do get what you pay for.
If you invest in something like an FS5 or FS7 (or a Canon C300 Mk II, Sony a7s II, Canon 5D Mk III [B&H|Amazon], Panny GH4 [B&H|Amazon] or Fuji XT-2 [B&H|Amazon] ), you want to get the best out of them that you can. The Sachtler is a really nice complement to gear at this level -- if it fits your particular gear combination.
Again, I think height adjustability is critical. I wish both filter holders rotated a full 360° -- at least a full 90° -- and moved a little more easily. It would be nice if the matte box could pivot away from the lens making it easier to change. All metal might be nice. Interior flocking might be nice.
But I'm not complaining, and if you want to spend more money for even greater robustness and flexibililty you certainly can, all the way up to something like a high-end Chrosziel for over $5,000.
On the other hand, if you can't afford it, $20 for the matte box, $60 for the rods, regular old screw-in filters, and some McGyvering can get you footage -- all else being equal -- pretty close to indistinguishable from far more expensive solutions (as long as your lenses will fit - you'll need to check).
It ain't gonna be pretty and it ain't gonna be fun, but sometimes that's the price (inconvenience) we happily pay.
In the end, they can all do the trick.
CORRECTION 1: You can adjust the Sachtler's height in a binary way be reversing the rod bridge. I still wish it were more adjustable than that (see below)
CORRECTION 2: you can indeed rotate the filter holders 90° as long as you move rods flush with the rod bridge. See below.
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