Friday, May 4, 2012

My 11 Favorite Cinematographers

There’s nothing I don’t love or admire or respect or appreciate about the filmmaking process. I’m fascinated by it all. If I was to crudely rank each part of the process strictly based on personal inspiration, then cinematography would rank extremely high for me.

I’m a complete and utter film addict, there’s no question. And for me to try and articulate how completely taken I can be by a camera angle or tracking shot, or how inexplicably moved I can become based on lighting and shadows, would be to fail my loyal readers. I simply can’t explain the full impact that cinematography has over me.

Superb cinematography makes great films masterful, and bad films bearable. Here is a list of my favorite directors of photography – men who have moved me to tears, based simply on what they can do with a lens.

Roger Deakins
If you’ve enjoyed the look of most any Coen brothers film since 1991, Roger Deakins is largely to thank. The richness of the monochrome in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the rising vanilla sky behind Josh Brolin running for his life in No Country for Old Men, the sepia-infused warms of O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Deakins is an utter master of color and mood.

Take, for instance, the shot of Andy Dufresne walking into Shawshank State Penitentiary for the first time. He looks up as the camera tracks his point of view, catching the dark, imposing tower entrance of the prison. There’s nothing good behind those doors, and Deakins’ eye makes us acutely aware of that.

Notable Credits
The Man Who Wasn't There
Barton Fink (1991)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Fargo (1996)
The Hurricane (1999)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2001)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Jarhead (2005)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Revolutionary Road (2008)
A Serious Man (2009)

Robert Elswit
Really, who doesn’t love a good Paul Thomas Anderson tracking shot? Following Luis Guzmán through his club in the opening of Boogie Nights, tracking Michael Bowen as he walks through the hallways of a news studio in Magnolia, running with Ciarán Hinds as he rescues little H.W. in There Will Be Blood – the man has a steady hand that can work cinematic wonders.

In addition to his tracking shots, Elswit can be gritty (Syriana), smooth (Good Night, and Good Luck, Michael Clayton) and ballsy (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) with equal amounts of ingenuity.

Notable Credits
There Will Be Blood
Boogie Nights (1997)
Magnolia (1999)
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
Syriana (2005)
Michael Clayton (2007)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Redbelt (2008)
The Town (2010)
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Conrad L. Hall
Hall was a huge presence in the emergence of America’s cinematic freedom in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, capturing the inhumane heat endured by the prisoners in Cool Hand Luke, winning an Oscar for shooting Newman and Redford jumping off a cliff in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, having rain reflect off glass to make it look like Robert Blake is crying in In Cold Blood, and so on.

And although he largely vanished in the ‘80s, Hall proved that he had no intention of going out quietly, lensing the one-two punch of American Beauty and Road to Perdition. Both films are shot to perfection, the former a lesson in minimalist resourcefulness, the latter a perfect example of period shooting. He justly won Oscars for both, the second posthumously. That’s one hell of a swan song.

Notable Credits
Road to Perdition
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
In Cold Blood (1967)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Day of the Locust (1975)
Marathon Man (1976)
A Civil Action (1998)
American Beauty (1999)
Road to Perdition (2002)

Janusz Kaminski
By now, the name Steven Spielberg is so synonymous with Janusz Kaminski that it’s impossible to imagine what a current Spielberg film would look like if shot through other eyes.

Kaminski is the modern master of light. He uses lights, smoke, and shadows to propel the story, occasionally drowning a scene completely out in bright, white light. It shouldn’t work, but when you watch certain sequences from Minority Report, Munich, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and so on, it’s impossible to envision the scenes shot any other way. While Schindler’s List represents arguably the most well known black and white style of contemporary cinema, and Saving Private Ryan redefined the use of Steadicam, Kaminski deserves to be remembered for his entire body of impressive work. Which, I suspect, he will be.

Notable Credits
Saving Private Ryan
Schindler’s List (1993)
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Minority Report (2002)
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Munich (2005)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Emmanuel Lubezki
My favorite living cinematographer has got to be Emmanuel Lubezki. And am justifying that label based on four films he’s shot: Ali, Children and Men, The New World and The Tree of Life.

In Ali, Lubezki switched from 35MM to digital seamlessly, going as far as to invent a tiny digital camera for the close-ups during the fight scenes. The result is the best-looking boxing film since Raging Bull. The cinematography in Children of Men speaks for itself, boasting a handful of the best extended takes ever put on film (which admittedly are achieved through sneaky digital editing). But it is his collaborations with Terrence Malick that make Lubezki so invaluable. In The New World, the fluid camera feels almost like its own character, in The Tree of Life, the camera is its own character.

To be concise, The Tree of Life is one of the very best films ever shot. Period. The fact that Lubezki didn’t win an Oscar for his work on that film is inexcusable. 

Notable Credits
The Tree of Life
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Ali (2001)
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
The New World (2005)
Children of Men (2006)
The Tree of Life (2011)

Sven Nykvist
Without hesitation, Sven Nykvist is my favorite cinematographer of all time. His frequent collaborations with Ingmar Bergman mark one of the most fruitful cinematic working relationships in the history of the medium. Thank God these two were inseparable, because we have a lifetime to reap the benefits.

For Winter Light, Nykvist and Bergman sat in a church for days, keeping detailed track of how the sun lit the church during every minute of every day. He lit an entire scene in The Passion of Anna using just one candle, he made shadows sensual with Persona, and captured the color red in a way that’s impossible to shake in Cries and Whispers. I could go on (and on, and on) about the correlation of my love for film and Nykvist’s work, but I don’t want to take away from the other masters on this list.

Let me just say, I believe Sven Nykvist to be the very best at what he did. All things considered, he’s the most skilled man to ever step behind a camera.

Notable Credits
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Winter Light (1963)
The Silence (1963)
Persona (1966)
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
The Passion of Anna (1969)
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
Face to Face (1976)
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Another Woman (1988)
Celebrity (1998)

Rodrigo Prieto
There are really two facets to Rodrigo Prieto’s work: the gritty, unshakable side (notably in the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu) and the lush, crisp side (evident in Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution and Broken Embraces).

No matter what kind of style he’s imploring, Prieto has a way of making the viewer feel like they’re in the setting of the film. Can’t you just smell that shitty prison Benicio Del Toro is stuck in in 21 Grams? Or the sweatiness of the club in Babel? Or the dampness of the dew-covered mountains in Brokeback?

I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but the fact that this man hasn’t won an Oscar is deplorable.

Notable Credits
25th Hour
Amores Perros (2001)
8 Mile (2002)
25th Hour (2002)
Frida (2002)
21 Grams (2003)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Babel (2006)
Lust, Caution (2007)
Broken Embraces (2008)
Biutiful (2010)

Robert Richardson
Robert Richardson has got one hell of an impressive Rolodex, collaborating frequently with Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. And if you look at the films he’s shot for those directors, you’ll see that there’s nothing really random going on here.

JFK, Natural Born Killers, Casino, Kill Bill, and others, all use a wide variety of colors, film stock, lenses, and so on, to tell their story. Hell, any guy who can pull off what Richardson did with Natural Born Killers deserves to be on this list. (Let’s also give credit to the fact that Richardson pulled off one of the very rare examples of non-flashy, gorgeous 3D with last year’s Hugo. Did it deserve to win the Oscar over The Tree of Life? No, don’t be silly… but it was still pretty to look at.)

Notable Credits
Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Platoon (1986)
JFK (1991)
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Casino (1995)
Nixon (1995)
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)
The Aviator (2004)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Hugo (2011)

Steven Soderbergh
The most unconventional choice on my list is director Steven Soderbergh, whose been shooting most (but not all) of his films under the pseudonym Peter Andrews since Traffic.

One of the reasons I love Soderbergh so much, and why I will see anything he directs, no matter what it’s about, is because his command over the cinematic medium is so clearly evident, especially when he’s holding the camera. And believe you me, I love it all. I love the varied hues of Traffic, the stillness of Ocean’s Eleven, the dizziness of Ocean’s Twelve, the nostalgia of The Good German, the coldness of The Girlfriend Experience – everything. Let me put it this way: based on Traffic alone, I feel confident in listing Soderbergh here.

Notable Credits
Traffic (2000)
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Solaris (2002)
K Street (2003)
Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
The Good German (2006)
Che (2008)
The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
The Informant! (2009)
Haywire (2012)

Gregg Toland
You cannot draft a list of the best cinematographers of all time without having Gregg Toland’s name on it. Why? Because Citizen Kane is the best-shot film of all time. This point can be argued, certainly, but at the end of the day, I’m unable to say that any film matches the aesthetic bravado of Orson Welles’ masterpiece. Essays have been written about Toland’s work on the film, documentaries have been dedicated to it, and films have been ripping from it for decades

I’ve always been marveled by Toland’s work on Citizen Kane, but I didn’t become enamored with it until I listened to Roger Ebert’s commentary on the Citizen Kane DVD. If you are a film fan of any regard, this is a commentary that should in no way go unheard.

In 1941, Citizen Kane changed the game. In 2012, it’s more impactful than ever. Toland is much to thank for this.

Notable Credits
Citizen Kane
Wuthering Heights (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Gordon Willis
Gordon Willis, the master of the dark. When studio heads saw the first rushes of The Godfather, they took immediate action to have Francis Ford Coppola replaced as the film’s director, largely because they thought the film was too dark. Not tonally, literally dark. They were furious that half of Marlon Brando’s face was in silhouette, or that characters would go unseen for entire sequences of the film. Coppola stuck to his guns, and the result was some of the most revelatory work of cinematography ever put on film. After that, Willis became a household name. No wonder.

Frequent collaborator Woody Allen has said that Willis’ mantra was that it didn’t matter if you couldn’t see a face, it didn’t matter if half the room was pitch black, or if an actor was off camera. What mattered was the mood, the look and feel. Watch Allen’s Manhattan for evidence. It’s one of the finest-looking black and white films ever.

Notable Credits
Klute (1971)
The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
All the President’s Men (1976)
Interiors (1978)
Manhattan (1979)
Stardust Memories (1980)
Zelig (1983)

A Few More I Love:
The Third Man
John Alcott (A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining)

Michael Ballhaus (The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Sleepers, The Departed)

Robert Burks (To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds)

Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull)

Robert Krasker (Brief Encounter, The Third Man)

Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, Tigerland, She Hate Me, Inside Man, The Fountain, Black Swan)

Asakazu Nakai (Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, High and Low, Ran)

Wally Pfister (Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception)

Harris Savides (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Zodiac, Margot at the Wedding, Somewhere)

Dante Spinotti (Heat, The Insider, Public Enemies)

Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, Dick Tracey)

Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter)


  1. James Wong Howe for yours truly. He was the one responsible for capturing that gorgeous sleaziness in Sweet Smell of Success. And the way he shot Seconds is stunning.

    1. Oooh good choice, Hud and Yankee Doodle Dandy are gorgeous as well.

  2. Brilliant list. Chivo is my favorite DP working today. His work with Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuaron alone makes him the best right now.

    I would also to mention Harris Savides for his work with Gus Van Sant, David Fincher's Zodiac, and Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. He's someone I truly love.

    I also like that you mention Storaro, Zsigmond, Pfister, Ballhaus, and Libatique.

    I would also mention Tim Orr for his early work with David Gordon Green. The stuff he did is just beautiful.

    1. Fuck man, I completely forgot about Savides, which is criminal of me, because I love his work to death. The Game, Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Zodiac, Margot at the Wedding, Somewhere, Milk... love him. In fact, screw it, I'm adding him to the list.

      Also, Tim Orr is fantastic as well. George Washington is simply gorgeous.

  3. Awesome piece, Alex! I think Elswit is my favorite -- his films always look so crisp and pristine. Unbelievably cinematic. But I cannot deny my love for those other guys (I notice an odd lack of female DP's -- what's up with that?).

    I did a piece on Roger Deakins on my blog not long ago -- he deserves so much credit for making the Coens' movies look as good as they do.

    You said it best: it's amazing what these guys can do with a lens. Abso-fucking-lutely amazing.

    1. Couldn't agree more about the lack of female DPs, it's fucking inexcusable. I just saw your Deakins piece, that's so cool... love seeing love for DPs.

  4. Holy hell this is a fantastic list. I'm in complete awe.

    Nykvist is my favourite too but the other ten are equally game-changing. That shot in Citizen Kane with the mirrors is perhaps my favourite shot in a movie from the first half of the twentieth century (with the exception of the camera swinging from a chandelier in Abel Gance's fucking genius masterpiece Napoleon).

    I might actually do a list of my favourite shots or images in movies, because I could name quite a few. And it'd be fun. Thanks for the inspiration man, I'm gonna do that!

    1. Thanks man! Napoleon is fucking remarkable, and remarkable looking, totally agree.

      Do your list buddy, can't wait to see it!

  5. That is a massively impressive list!! It must have taken ages to put together!!
    I've seen at least one or two films from most of the cinematographers here - I loved Elswit's work in Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood! Tracking shots blew me away! And Tree of Life is one of the most beautiful films I've seen :)

  6. Great article Alex, you gave me yet another lesson in film studies. I can completely see why you chose Roger Deakins (Coens movies and Revolutionary Road), Robert Elswit (There will be blood), Emmanuel Lubezki(Tree of Life), Sven Nykvist (Persona), Robert Richardson (Hugo) to be there- all are fantastic films with outstanding cinematography. I didn't knew Soderbergh did both direction and cinematography for his movies, interesting!

    1. Thanks Diana! Yeah I love what Soderbergh does with the camera. Another cool fact: he edits some of his movies as well, under his mom's name, Mary Ann Bernard.

  7. I really like the work of Roger Deakins, Emmanuel lubezki, Rodrigo Prietom and Matthew Libatique. Not going to act as if I knew their names before reading this, but nevertheless I have always appreciated cinematography - really liked what you wrote at the beginning about your love for cinematography.
    Another cinematographer I admire is the Indian Santosh Sivan.
    Wonderful post!
    By the way, it strikes me that there are almost no famous female cinematographers...

    1. Glad you liked the intro, it really is difficult to fully explain how impactful good cinematography can be to me.

      Sivan appears to have a huge body of work, none of which I have seen, unfortunately.

      Female DPs are very very hard to come by and that is extremely unfortunate.

    2. Must see: ASOKA(2001) and Dilse..(1998)

  8. That's a stunning post! I love Soderbergh's cinematography, because of how he shoots his movies not only they have their very own style but also there is this lovely sense of elegance to them. My current favorites are Seamus McGarvey, Matthew Libatique and Philippe Rousselot.

    1. I agree that there is some sort of odd elegance to Soderbergh's photography, it just astounds me.

      Loved McGarvey's work on Atonement and We Need To Talk About Kevin. For Rousselot, I think A River Runs Through It and Big Fish are my faves.

  9. The one notable female DP that I know whose work is superb is Ellen Kuras. She shot some material for Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life but is most famous for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as well as a few films for Rebecca Miller like Personal Velocity and The Ballad of Jack & Rose. She also shot Spike Lee's The Summer of Sam and Be Kind Rewind.

    There's a few DPs I want to add, Jack Cardiff who shot some Powell/Pressburger films like Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and A Matter of Life & Death. Nestor Almendros for his work with Francois Truffaut like The Wild Child and The Last Metro and was most famous for his work in Days of Heaven (though additional credit should go to Haskell Wexler since he did shoot nearly half of the film). Slawomir Idziak for a couple of Kieslowski films in The Double of Life of Veronique and Trois Couleurs: Bleu. Robby Muller for his work with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch plus a couple of Lars von Trier films in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark.

    1. Kuras is definitely a superb DP, just a shame there aren't more females in that profession (or in the movie business in general, I suppose). Of the ones you mentioned, I love Idziak's work, but Muller's fearlessness is something I'm really drawn to. Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, in particular, are gorgeous in their grittiness.

  10. Hmmm well i liked the visuals in Let the Right One in and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy so i guess Hoyte van Hoytema would be my choice

    1. Ah great choice, I personally thought the look of The Fighter was one of the best aspects of the movie. The fighting scenes were remarkably uninventive, but I'm not sure that's Hoytema's fault.

  11. Fantastic List! I'm really interested in Cinematography and I'm not familiar with some of these big names. I'll know them now.

    and this is so true: "To be concise, The Tree of Life is one of the very best films ever shot. Period. The fact that Lubezki didn’t win an Oscar for his work on that film is inexcusable."

    1. Thanks Max! The Tree of Life is so goddamn insanely gorgeous... I'll just never understand that loss. Malick is too polarizing for his films to win anything, I suppose.

  12. Awesome post! I may not know their names but I certainly appreciate their work. Cinematographers are definitely the 'unsung heroes' of cinema as without them films would've looked so dull!

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the cinematography of 'Road to Perdition' it's absolutely breathtaking.

    1. Ahh I couldn't agree more with you... unsung heroes indeed. Hall did such good work on Road to Perdition, that was one justified Oscar win right there.

      Thanks for reading/commenting!

  13. sweet list. i'm only familiar with a few of their names but i recognize all of them.

    christopher doyle - wong kar wai's cinematographer. is probably the only one i'd add off the top of my head.

    1. Man I almost listed Doyle here based off of In the Mood for Love alone, and Hero has obvious visual feats as well. Great choice.

  14. This is a pretty rad list! You've been super prolific in my few days away from my Google Reader, and all of these cinematographers are really phenomenal choices. I'd second Evan, though, Doyle's work with Wong Kar Wai is some achingly gorgeous stuff.

    1. Thanks! And yeah, Doyle knows his shit. For. Sure.

  15. Fabulous post, Alex! I'm a huge fan of cinematography, though I admit I too frequently let myself fall prey to the shorthand of crediting the director with everything, even though I know better. I'm glad for the reminder not to do that. Except in the case of Soderbergh, where I apparently can (I actually didn't realize he does his own cinematography, but that kind of makes sense).

    Skimming through the comments, Cardiff and Doyle are definitely two more whose work I greatly appreciate. Then I had to go look up who did The Night of the Hunter, since that's one of the most gorgeously-shot films I've ever seen - Stanley Cortez, who also did Samuel Fuller's one-two shot of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. Then I had to go look up who did the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur films, and looks like that's Nicholas Musuraca, who also did Tourneur's quintessential noir Out of the Past.

    I can see this is definitely an area I'll have to research further.

    1. Nice, so glad to find other people interested in cinematography. All of your choices are top notch, especially your shout out to Musuraca's work in Out of the Past, which is indeed epically noir.

  16. Great choice, all of them masters in their own right. By the way, just would like to mention a name of Nestor Almendros, I mean, you have to see Days of Heaven. Masterpiece. He was truly a master in capturing the essence of natural light.

    1. Oh yeah, Almendros was a hell of a DP. I actually put Days of Heaven on my list of best looking color films of all time... there's no arguing the beauty of that movie.

      Thanks for reading!

  17. Superb list!!..Although I think Storaro could have made it into the top 10..He is a wizard..!!..Lubezki is a legend in the making..He's going to surprise us even more in the years to come.!!..And I love Kaminski's versatility..It's hard to believe that 'Schindler's List' and 'A.I. Artificial Intelligence' were photographed by the same person!

    1. Thanks! Oh, Storaro is a goddamn genius, no question. And I agree, Kaminski's versatility is just remarkable. Although I don't think I've really enjoyed anything he's shot since Munich. Hmmm...

      Thanks again for stopping by and commenting!

  18. Replies
    1. Movies don't get much better looking than The Thin Red Line.

  19. Here one that I FEEL is missing. Anthony Dod Mantle.

    1. He's great. Definitely nothing against him. Love that guy.

  20. Replies
    1. Good body of work, but nothing very striking for me.

  21. Replies
    1. Love him. Hunger, Shame, Pines, Byzantium, 12 Years... hell, even Spike's Oldboy... all look amazing.

  22. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself) What about Haskell Wexler?

    1. He's great, very natural photography. But not one of my all-time favorites.

  23. All great cinematographers. My personal favorites are Deakins (those opening landscape shots in No Country for Old Men, you could just feel the heat of the Texan desert coming through the screen), Alcott (Alcott/Kubrick, the finest director-cinematographer collaboration ever?), and, one that you didn't mention, Hoyte van Hoytema. His cinematography on Her is gorgeous (how could Oscar possibly have snubbed him?) and Interstellar, I think, is Nolan's best-looking film.

    1. Oh I love Hoyte Van Hoytema as well, but when I wrote this, his two visual masterpieces (Her and Interstellar) hadn't come out yet. Can't wait to see what he does with Spectre.

  24. I originally read this a while back but it's never too late to comment about the legit picks/taste listed above. As a filmmaker I hope you know how badass Deakins is offscreen? I.e. his website that is so much more than a site with credentials and what not: .. Discovering this had me enamored for hours at the time & I don't even make films!!

    On a different note(obv I realize this is an article about your favorites) I dont recall you covering anything in the past about French New Wave so I don't know if you're all that much of a fan or not. But if you are, I would -love- to see and/or know your two cents on the now late Raoul Coutard. News of his passing was easily overshadowed to many by the election results. It would be impossible to overstate his contribution to cinema, but I did attempt to write a pen to paper journal entry yesterday. After a few minutes I found my eyes tearing up. When they fell from their springs, I realized that I was smiling the biggest smile. "oh hell Liz, don't try to put all this into words right now." I raised my glass of peach oolong tea and thanked him for having altered so many teenage dreams.

    And after aren't proofreading that, briefly correcting typos only, I feel I should say sorry to ramble especially via comment. *shrug* we do love film tho and would hope you don't mind that sort of thing.

    Ps, my eyes didn't fall from or spring out of their sockets XD

  25. Wow. I had no idea that site existed. Thank you such much for linking to it here.

    I love all comments on this site - the longer the better! Thanks so much for leaving this one. I love the French New Wave and Coutard's contribution to it. And you're right, a post about him would be a lot of fun to do.