11 Most Influential Cinematographers of All Time

Jul 31st, 2011

Acting is easy to appreciate in movies because the performers are right there in front of you. The same goes for special effects, sound, set design: all the stuff that’s easy to see and hear and instantly understand. But cinematography is trickier. The way a movie is filmed has everything to do with its tone and purpose, but that tone is communicated subconsciously to the viewer through clever uses of lighting, focus, framing, and a dozen other things that go into making up just one frame of thouands. Cinematography is vital to how a film will feel, but it’s also practically invisible. The best cinematographers have been able to compose images that work on viewers emotionally without calling overt attention to themselves, which makes their films feel like real experiences and not dry technical experiments. These cinematographers have earned their influential reputation not for the number of movies they’ve made but for the way they’ve made them, impacting everything from how we make genre films (sci-fi, gangster stories, whatever) to what we think movies should look like.

  1. Janusz Kaminski

    Born in Poland, Jaunsz Kaminski studied at the AFI Conservatory in the late 1980s before beginning his professional career. Some of his earlier titles are, well, a little embarrassing — Cool as Ice, anyone? — but that’s always the way it goes when you’re cutting your teeth. His break came when he shot Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in 1993, bringing a stark beauty to the horror of World War II death camps. Spielberg also opted to limit his photographic options for the film, eschewing crane shots and Steadicams in favor of handheld immediacy. Kaminski’s work with depth of field, and the clash between light and dark, made the film visually dazzling. He’s since served as cinematographer for all of Spielberg’s films, and has won Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

  2. Wally Pfister

    Another AFI grad, Wally Pfister landed a nice gig early on as a second-unit cameraman for Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88. For most of the 1990s he worked on a variety of horror and softcore porn titles that went straight to video (it’s probably safe to assume the four-volume Inside Out series from Playboy is not high on Pfister’s resume), but a meeting with Christopher Nolan at the Sundance Film Festival led to Pfister working with Nolan on the director’s 2000 hit Memento. Since then he’s worked on all of Nolan’s films, earning multiple Academy Award nominations and taking home the Oscar for Inception. He’s made standout use of color and shadow in his films, but each one’s got a different look: The Prestige has the soft edges and sepia tones of old photos, while Inception slams the viewer into disorientation with new lighting schemes around every turn.

  3. Conrad L. Hall

    The late Conrad Hall won two Oscars in his life, three decades apart: the first for 1969′s Butch Cassidy in the Sundance Kid, the second for 1999′s American Beauty. A USC grad, Hall worked in TV before transitioning to movies in the 1960s, and his gritty style perfectly encapsulated the fuzzy-around-the-edges aesthetic of a new generation of films and filmmakers. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a marvel of genuinely dirty filmmaking in the real sense of the word: Hall isn’t afraid to focus on dust in the light or let grime into the image. As he progressed, he grew more formal, still able to paint with light but now equally willing to work with cleaner palettes. His final Academy Award was a posthumous one for Road to Perdition.

  4. Jordan Cronenweth

    Jordan Cronenweth shot a number of revered films over the course of his career before his death in 1996, including Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud and Ken Russell’s Altered States. But he’s probably most known for the gorgeous noir look he brought to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The sci-fi classic is masterful in its depiction of a broken-down dystopian world that doesn’t look like our own, and it’s photographed with an emphasis on dim venues and oppressive shadows to evoke the noir era of the 1940s. Cronenweth’s work on this film contributed to a look that would pervade sci-fi and influence filmmakers for decades. (Dark City is in many ways a direct descendant of Blade Runner.)

  5. Haskell Wexler

    Haskell Wexler’s been working since the 1950s, and his credits include some of the most popular movies of the second half of the century: In the Heat of the Night, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and more. But it was his own directorial outing, Medium Cool, which he also photographed, that put his name in the history books. He shot it cinema verite style, like a boots-on-the-ground documentary, and he blended narrative footage with nonfiction images to create a new feel for movies. He would continue to switch between fictional features and documentaries for the rest of his career, earning Oscars for Virginia Woolf and Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory.

  6. Charles Rosher

    Charles Rosher is a name from another era — he was born in London in 1885 — but his work still matters today. In 1929, he won the first Oscar for cinematography, which he shared with Karl Struss for F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. His work was, simply, revolutionary. The film featured a number of tracking shots that changed people’s ideas of what movies could do, including a four-minute, one-take tracking shot that was the longest ever made at that point. Rosher gave us the basic building blocks of camera work, and everything that’s come after owes a debt to him.

  7. Gordon Willis

    Gordon Willis worked on a string of ridiculously good movies in the 1970s but didn’t take home a single Academy Award for his work. (He finally nabbed a lifetime achievement trophy in 2009.) When you look at his c.v., you realize he owned the decade: The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, The Paper Chase, and many of Woody Allen’s best films (including Annie Hall, Interiors, and Manhattan). Willis, in other words, is responsible for the burned-out look of some of the decade’s most memorable and challenging films, from the shadowy recesses of the Corleone mansion to the dull light banks of the Washington Post newsroom. His movies were landmarks in using dramatic photography to convey complex moods, and his work on Godfather alone redefined what viewers expect in mob movies.

  8. Vilmos Zsigmond

    Born in Hungary, Vilmos Zsigmond worked on some truly forgettable films in the 1960s that let him build the skills he’d use later. A big fan of naturalistic lighting and strong colors, Zsigmond stepped it up a notch on Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye, after which he went on to shoot some of the biggest films of the 1970s. He worked on Deliverance, bringing a stark realism to the horrific events of the film, and also collaborated with Steven Spielberg on The Sugarland Express and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which won an Oscar). He partnered with Michael Cimino on The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, too. Zsigmond was also a fan of a photographic known as "flashing," in which the film is exposed to a low level of light before processing, which keeps mid-level tones the same but brings out detail in the shadows.

  9. Gregg Toland

    Gregg Toland didn’t live long — he died in 1948 at the age of 44 — but he worked on an impressive roster of films in his brief career, including Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Best Years of Our Lives. Yet one title towers above the rest: Citizen Kane. Orson Welles’ dynamic first film was a milestone in movie production thanks in large part to its inventive and arresting camera work. Toland deserves just as much credit as Welles for the film. Although Toland wasn’t the first photographer to work on deep-focus issues, he took the field in new directions with Citizen Kane, composing frames that allowed for crisp images that extended much farther from the lens than viewers were used to seeing. He also made dazzling use of oblique angles and deep shadows to create a very specific style for the film. Trivia: Toland’s only Technicolor film was the last one he ever shot, Disney’s 1946 Song of the South.

  10. Sven Nykvist

    Praised for his minimalism, Sven Nykvist spent his life and career crafting simple film set-ups that rely on light and beauty to capture realistic images and natural flesh tones. He’s best remembered for his work with Ingmar Bergman, with whom Nykvist worked for more than two decades. He won Academy Awards for photographing the director’s Fanny and Alexander and Cries and Whispers, and he was nominated again for The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Yet he was also able to bring his down-to-earth approach to more mainstream films, most notably 1993′s Sleepless in Seattle, which is gorgeous and natural compared with the over-produced sheen of latter-day romantic comedies.

  11. Kazuo Miyagawa

    Regarded as one of the best cinematographers in the history of Japanese film, Kazuo Miyagawa worked on several films with the legendary Akira Kurosawa, including the wildly influential Rashomon. For that film, Miyagawa made great advances in tracking shots to convey a new filmic experience, and he also played bravely with blunt lighting and multiple camera angles to highlight the film’s inherently rocky ride and shifting perspectives. He also pioneered a film technique known as "bleach bypassing," which involves eliminating certain bleaching steps in the development process that leaves a layer of silver on the film emulsion. What this means for the viewer is a black and white image layed on top of a color one, resulting in grainy and slightly washed-out images. (A great modern example of this is Saving Private Ryan.) Miyagawa died in 1999, but the work he did to change film photography will always be around.