Our Picks for the Best Cinematographers of All Time
Cinematographers control all the visual elements on screen; this includes everything from lighting, camera movement, composition, lens choice, and depth of field. It’s no wonder they have great influence over whether or not the film succeeds. That said, here are a few of the best cinematographers who are still working today — let’s analyze what makes them outstanding.
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It isn’t a list of the best cinematographers of all time without Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. He has garnered Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography eight times, winning three times for Gravity (2013), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), and The Revenant (2015).
That’s right — those are consecutive wins, the first cinematographer ever to achieve that. He is a frequent collaborator with Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Terrence Malick, together having created the most stunning images in cinema.
Lubezki’s work is most recognizable by his preference for natural light paired with his wide-angled close-ups. These two pairings work beautifully in his photography as well. He usually sticks to wide lenses, as he has a talent for creating seamless long takes. It gives the viewer an immersive experience when watching his shots.
In essence, he’s an innovative cinematographer who is willing to use new technology and techniques to get the right shot for the story. Below is an example from Cuarón’s film, Children of Men:
The crew used a special camera rig to fit within the frame of a tricked-out car. The car would unhinge itself to make room for the camera as it swerved around capturing the actors’ performances. Lubezki and the camera team could be found right above the car, controlling the action.
Roger Deakins is a household name among the film community. With an expansive filmography of over 50 films, he hasn’t had one misstep. Surprisingly, Deakins, though nominated 15 times, has only recently won Oscars for Best Cinematography: Bladerunner 2049 (2018) and 1917 (2019). His frequent collaborators include Denis Villeneuve, Sam Mendes, and the Coen Brothers.
What defines a Deakins’ shot is simple lighting. He doesn’t fuss around with too many lights, working well using a single light source. He has at least one silhouette shot in all his films, using the balance of the light and darkness to bring emphasis to the character’s inner struggle.
His photography is dramatic, gritty, or even edgy, but he keeps the shot grounded to the world of the film. That is the case in Villeneuve’s Sicario — here’s a sequence that brings all those Deakins traits together:
Hoyte Van Hoytema has recently reached wide acclaim since beginning his collaboration with Christopher Nolan in 2014 with Interstellar. Shortly after he earned his first Oscar nomination for his work in the wartime thriller, Dunkirk (2017). He’s also worked with numerous auteurs such as Spike Jonze, Sam Mendes, and James Gray.
Hoytema is more than adept at shooting with IMAX large format film, which turned out gorgeously in Dunkirk and sci-fi adventure flick Ad Astra (2019). And with the refined eye he has, it’s more than worth it to catch his work on a massive screen. According to his collaborators, he has a knack for making the lighting source so subtle that it becomes easy to forget that it’s controlled lighting.
He’s often engineering new ways to shoot scenes that are larger than life. Take a look at this scene from Ad Astra and note how they lit the scene with what appears to be the light from just the sun:
Chung-hoon Chung’s impact on Korean cinema can not be understated, especially when paired with the likes of a master like Park-Chan Wook, his frequent collaborator. Their first movie together, Oldboy (2003) became an instant classic, even inspiring an American adaptation. Recently, he’s made the move over to Hollywood, working on blockbusters like It (2017) and indie films like Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl (2015).
The movies Chung works on often deal with an unhinged character or dive into surrealism; thus, a lot of his cinematography is analyzed through the psychology of the character. His shots match the stories in levels of absurdity he’s not afraid to explore. Plus, he makes use of vibrant colors and heavy contrasts.
He will overexpose and underexpose his shots to bring a real sense of separation between the outcast characters he’s drawn to and the rest of their world. He breaks rules and creates new techniques of his own. This scene from Oldboy is considered to be one of the best fight sequences of all time. Take a look at the heavy contrast and the way the main character slips in and out of shadow:
Bradford Young is the youngest on this list but already considered one of the best cinematographers of all time — and he is just getting started. Young is the first African American to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. His nomination came after shooting sci-fi flick Arrival (2016), a film Roger Deakins couldn’t shoot due to scheduling conflicts. He’s collaborated most frequently with Ava DuVernay, both on TV projects like When They See Us and in film with Selma (2014).
Young has mentioned he likes to find himself or someone he knows in the story, then shoots from that perspective. With that empathetic approach, and since he is usually his own camera operator, this gives him the advantage of connecting with the actor in front of him.
Known for underexposing and using what light is available, he only adds light with a soft bounce to the subject’s face. You can see an example of his lighting preferences here in this scene from Arrival:
We’ve only scratched the surface
Though these cinematographers are the crème de la crème in our book, we recommend looking up other talented cinematographers, such as Rachel Morrison, Robert Elswit, Reed Morano, Wally Pfister, and Rodrigo Prieto, just to name a few. They all have their own strengths as well as their unique and experienced eyes that make them stand apart from the rest.