Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

The Letus or OConnor: Which Matte Box Is Better?

If you are in the market for an affordably priced, lightweight matte box, chances are that you have taken a look at the Letus Matte Box and the OConnor Matte box. Both matte boxes are similarly priced and built, which can make the choice difficult. Fortunately for you, I've shot a feature film with the O-Box, and many commercials with the LTMB. Here are my recommendations based off of my real world, long-term use of each of these products.

Comparing Feature Set:
Each of these matte boxes can be accessorized to suit your specific shooting style. To keep this comparison simple, I am sticking to their standard kits.

Letus Matte Box (LTMB-1)
  • 4 "Stages" (1x Large 4x5.65 tray that fits 3 filters & 1x 138mm)
  • 3 Official Stages (2x 4x5.65 tray slots & 1x 138mm)
  • 138mm Stage Rotates via an included wheel
  • Anti-Reflection Tray
  • Marking window for 138mm Filters
  • Clip On
  • Top Flag
OConnor Matte Box (O-Box)
  • 3 Stages (2x 4x5.65 & 1x 138mm)
  • Supplied 4x4 filter trays can be used in place of the 4x5.65 trays
  • 138mm Stage rotates
  • 1/4" & 3/8" Tapped mounting points
  • Clip On
  • Top Flag
In their most basic configuration, I prefer the LTMB-1 over the O-Box purely due to the fact that I can stack up to four filters and it has built in anti-reflection right out of the box. However, in practice, my tendency is to keep the number of filters down to a minimum in order to prevent reflections and to keep the resolution at its highest. So, while I like the ability to use four filters at any time, I typically only have one or two in use at any time. (Diffusion, ND, or IR + ND). When I am using less than three 4x5.65 filters I have found the extra wide 4x5.65 tray to be a bit cumbersome, which is why I opt for two individual 4x5.65 trays.

The ability to tilt the filters and thus avoid reflections in the LTMB-1 is another feature that has been a bigger benefit on paper than in practice. Due to my style of lighting and moving the camera, I haven't found the need to use the Anti-Reflection Tray very often. Over the last year, I have needed it only three times. (Granted, at those three times it was crucial to have this tray in my tool kit).

When it comes to the O-Box, there are three features that stand out to me. The first is the 1/4" and 3/8" tapped holes. I have used these holes for a number of practical purposes, like mounting a small obie light, or as an additional rigging point for a car mount. Having these extra mounting points at the front of the camera can come in handy when you would least expect it.

The second feature that I like about the O-Box over the LTMB-1 is how the top flag connects to the matte box. The two large thumbscrews on the top of the box make it easy and quick to remove and attach at any time. It only takes a small turn to detach or re-attach the flag. In contrast, the thumbscrews on the side of LTMB-1 are more cumbersome to access, and take longer to thread. While this may seem like a small issue, every little thing adds up on set. (With the release of the new version of the Letus Matte Box (LTMB-2) Letus has taken my advice and fixed how their flag attaches to the top of the matte box).

The last feature that I like about the O-Box is the way the 4x5.65 tray slots are designed. Each 4x5.65 tray can slide up and down within the slot. When it is centered the tray clicks into place. I like this option as it allows me to precisely position graduated filters in the frame. But this flexibility is a mixed blessing. Since the tray can go all the way through the matte box, it does mean that filters can fall out of the matte box. This has happened to me several times. Fortunately, I was lucky and the filter didn't break. As cameras continue to improve their dynamic range and how they handle highlights, I am finding I use graduated filters less and less these days. Therefore, this flexibility may not be worth the cost of the real potential of a broken filter.

The LTMB-1 in use on an Adidas Commercial

Comparing Build Quality/Design:
I have found both the O-Box and the LTMB-1 to be built tough enough for real production use. They have both performed well over the long haul. Nothing sets either of these choices apart in that regard.  There are two design issues that do separate the matte boxes from each other:

Design Issue 01: Knob Access

The O-Box has chosen to use small red and silver locking knobs to secure the filter trays. In addition to being small, they are somewhat recessed in the side of the matte box. This can make accessing them difficult, and I have found tightening them to be cumbersome as well. The results are that is it possible to not fully secure the filters into place and they can fall out. (Yep, I've done that too...). Letus, on the other hand, allows for easy access to the locking knobs, and their bigger size allows for easy turning. I have never had a problem securing the filter tray on the LTMB.

Design Issue 02: Choice Of Materials

The LTMB-1 (and LTMB-2) use a high quality resin polymer for their sunshade, while the O-Box uses  a harder proprietary composite material. Both materials are tough and durable, but they do not feel the same when it comes time to operate off the matte box. When I have a camera resting on my shoulder, my preference is to operate off of the matte box. With one hand on each side of the matte box I feel more connected to the camera. I've also found that operating this way is much easier as my arms will be closer to my body. As I hold the LTMB in my hands the flexible resin material does not feel as comforting or as ridged as the O-Box does. The thinner walls of the LTMB make it more difficult to grasp with your hands. If you use rod mounted hand grips, then this will be a non-issue for you. Otherwise, if you do a lot of operating off of the matte box sunshade, then the O-Box will be a better fit.

UPDATE 09/04/2013 - Comparing Build Quality/Design:
I've been using the LTMB-2 for about 9 months now, and for the most part it is still performing. I have run into one notable problem - the eyebrow locking mechanism no longer holds the eyebrow in place at intermediate angles. And this can be a serious deal breaker. After all, the whole point of a matte box is to block unintended light from striking the lens. Letus has been notified of the problem. (I never experienced this problem with the OConnor Matte Box.)

O-Box in use on a car rig.

Comparing The REAL Price:
When you go to B&H and take a look at the matte boxes it is easy to think that each matte box only costs around $1,000. And there is only a $200 price differential. Unfortunately, it isn't as easy as that- there are a lot of hidden additional expenses. I am going to compare the real price of each matte box in a configuration that I use: 4 Stages (3x 4x5.65, 1x 138mm), 15mm Rail Mount, Clip on to 80mm & 110mm lenses, a universal donut, and the ability to adjust the height for non-standard cameras.

(I have also chosen not to include the side flags for either matte box because I do not care for the side flags on the LTMB-1 and there are no other options as of this writing)

Letus LTMB-1 TOTAL PRICE: $1,550.30*

*It is my understanding that the pricing for the LTMB-2 will remain the same.

OConnor O-Box TOTAL PRICE: $1,773.55

*OConnor doesn't offer a matte box riser for use with non-standard cameras. So to even the comparison, I have used the same riser in both comparisons.
** OConnor doesn't make a universal donut, so rubber donuts have to be used instead.

After kitting both of these matte boxes out, their price has jumped considerably, and to my surprise, they still retain about a $200 difference.

So Who Wins?
The only thing that is clear to me about these matte boxes is that your choice is going to depend on your own style of working and what options matter most to you, as $200 is not enough to tip the scales in either direction. If you do a lot of handheld work and operate off of the sunshade, then the O-Box will be a better fit. If you use a lot of filtration in your matte box, and reflections are an issue for you, then the LTMB-1 (or LTMB-2) will be a better fit for you. If you want/need additional mounting points on your matte box, then go with the O-Box. And if you are concerned about potentially dropping and breaking your $300 4x5.65 filter, then I'd go with the LTMB-1 or LTMB-2.

What do you think? Are you using either of these matte boxes? If so what has your experience been like? Do you have any recommendations of quality matte boxes at affordable prices?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!

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