First, matte boxes look cool. When you show up for a shoot with a DSLR that’s all tricked out with a matte box, rails and clamps for attaching different items, people take you seriously. Perception matters, and although the look isn’t even close to the most important thing about a matte box, it certainly makes an impression on a client.
Functionally, a matte box serves a key purpose of preventing extraneous light from hitting the lens and creating flare. There are two categories of flare. One is when you see ghosting or the "starburst effect," which happens when a harsh light source is in the frame. The second is much less obvious. When light from an oblique angle hits the front element of the lens, even if it’s not pointing directly at the lens, there’s an overall loss of contrast and color. As still photographers, we’re used to the shades, or "tulips," that many lenses come with to reduce flare. These are favored because they’re small and easy to use. A proper matte box does a much better job, but the trade-off is that it’s large and ungainly, and not a good option for situations when you want the camera to be mobile. When you’re shooting motion and your camera is firmly anchored to a tripod, however, the matte box is ideal.
A good matte box has a highly unreflective interior to prevent any light that may be bouncing around from reflecting back onto the lens where it will rob the image of contrast. Many matte boxes also allow you to attach flags to them to further narrow the light path. If you’re shooting with a lot of lights set up, these flags can be lifesavers. The matte box is supported by rails that attach to a sturdy baseplate. This gives the whole rig a firm structure and makes it adjustable as you change lenses or focal lengths on a zoom.
There are many good matte boxes on the market. The Redrock Micro unit we’ve pictured here is particularly popular with DSLR shooters for its combination of performance and price.
If you’re planning to use your DSLR for any serious video work, you’ll probably need an external microphone. True, a video-equipped DSLR will have a built-in mic of some sort, but these aren’t of great quality. To make matters worse, onboard DSLR mics are typically placed on the front of the camera body—and your hand often will block the sound from reaching the mic when you’re focusing or zooming.
Mics are a lot like lenses in that you get what you pay for, yet you don’t have to spend thousands on a high-end studio model to get great results. For all-purpose sound pickup using an on-camera mic, a highly directional shotgun model is best, and units such as the Azden SGM-X, Que Audio DSLR Video Kit, RØDE VideoMic Pro and Sennheiser MKE-400 are lightweight, compact choices that are ideal for DSLR applications. For general handheld/interview-style shooting, a small stereo mic, such as the Audio-Technica Pro-24, works well and doesn’t take much room in your camera bag. But whatever you choose, you’ll note a significant increase in sound quality using an external microphone with your DSLR rig.