The 30 Greatest Cinematographers of All Time
11. Tak Fujimoto (1939 –)
Tak Fujimoto was born a japanese-american in 1939 and spent his early years interned at the Poston War Relocation Center. Later he would move to England, where he graduated from London Film School and started his career as a cinematographer.
He has worked with many famous directors, such as John Hughes and Terrence Mallick. Among the remarkable films he has shot, one will find Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the outstanding Gladiator (1992) and The Sixth Sense (1999). He also worked in the second unit of the first Star Wars film.
As many others cinematographers in this list, Tak is already in an advanced age and still working and renewing himself. In 2011, for example, he shot the pilot of the TV Show A Gifted Man. Although never having won an Academy Award, Tak got significant prizes, as the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) Award for Best Cinematography in 1995 and certainly deserves a place among the best cinematographers of all time.
12. Conrad L. Hall (1926 – 2003)
Conrad Lafcadio Hall was a polynesian named after writers Joseph Conrad and Lafcadio Hearn. Even though he attempted to start a writing career as a journalism student in the University of Southern California, he drifted to the film department of the same university, where he learned a different way of storytelling. Fifty years later, in 2003, he would be considered one of the ten most influential cinematographers of all time by the International Cinematographers Guild.
His work as a cinematographer spanned almost half a century and therefore faced uncountable changes and styles. One thing, however, can be seen in his entire production: his ability to catch unexpected magical moments.
Differently from meticulous planners, Hall had a more organic and improvised attitude behind the cameras. “I’m looking for the accident, the joyous happenstance that comes with filmmaking, rather than going through some tortured manufacturing of the image”, he declared after shooting Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993).
He had two very prosperous moments in his career: during the sixties and seventies, and then again from the nineties until his death in 2003. Some remarkable movies from the first moment are In Cold Blood (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)―for which he won his first oscar―and The Day of the Locust (1975).
In the nineties, he worked in the touching Searching for Bobby Fischer and Without Limits (1998). The two last full-length fiction movies in which he was a Director of Photography were shot in collaboration with Sam Mendes: American Beauty (1999)―which guaranteed him a second oscar―and Road to Perdition (2002).
The poetic and yet extremely real and dark atmosphere created in these two outstanding films show what Hall really mastered on doing: telling stories of life as it is, with its beauties and perditions.
13. James Wong Howe (1899 – 1976)
James Wong Howe was born in 1899 in China, but his family migrated to the United States that same year. His career as a cinematographer―which consists of more than a hundred films―began in his early twenties and lasted until his death in 1976.
He was responsible for numerous technical innovations, being the earliest one the use of black velvet in order to emphasize blue eyes in the kind of film stock mostly used in still photography until the twenties. This gave him recognition and allowed his way to cinematography.
Already in film, he was nicknamed as “Low-Key” due to his ability to use shadows―associated with film noir, of which Howe was one the main figures. In Transatlantic (1931), he was the first cinematographer to use a large depth of field (called deep-focus, in which the fore and background of the image are focused). In the early years of cinema, film stocks were not very sensitive to light, therefore these achievements were real challenges.
Howe was nominated for ten Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, having won twice: with The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963). Among other remarkable movies there are The Thin Man (1934) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938). He was considered one of the ten most influential cinematographers of all time by the International Cinematographers Guild.
14. Slawomir Idziak (1945 –)
Slawomir Idziak is a polish cinematographer. Photography ran in his blood: his grandfather was Józef Holas, a well-known photographer from before WWI, and both his parents also worked with photography. Idziak joined the Łódź Film School in 1963, when life in Poland was very hard due to the communism.
Idziak recalls the place as a way of escaping the dark atmosphere and “felt that the School was a bridge between Poland and the West”. Probably due to this background, Idziak believes film is a way of translating the world and allowing people to reflect on the realities.
In his first years as a cinematographer, Idziak collaborated with remarkable Polish directors. He considers his partnership with Krzysztof Zanussi among the most important artistic meetings of his life. They worked together in numerous films, such as The Contract (1980), From a Far Country (1981) and the touching A Year of a Quiet Sun (1984).
His most known and acclaimed partnership, however, was with Krzysztof Kieślowski, whose first movie, The Underground Passage (1973), he photographed. They also worked together in some other early films, but their reencounter years later brought some of the most outstanding visual films of all time: A Short Film About Killing (1987)―fifth episode of “The Decalogue”―The Double Life of Verónique (1991) and Three Colors: Blue (1993).
In the last twenty years, Idziak has photographed many mainstream movies, such as Gattaca (1997), Black Hawk Down (2001) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), which shows the variety of style this great cinematographer is able to work with.
15. Janusz Kaminski (1959 –)
Native from Poland, Janusz Kaminski achieved international recognition with Schindler’s List (1993), which has given him seven awards, an oscar included, for Best Cinematography. The film also marked the beginning of his ongoing partnership with Steven Spielberg, whose following fifteen movies―two yet to finish―had Kaminski as a cinematographer.
Among the masterpieces this duo has given us, one that demands special attention is Saving Private Ryan (1998). They landed once again in the subversive world of WWII, with an outstanding opening scene of the invasion in Normandy.
The references for the aesthetic choices while shooting the battle were original films made by the Army during the war. Kaminski then used techniques rarely seen in film, such as having old lenses restored in order to achieve a more foggy and grainy―and therefore realistic―image.
Although his most remarkable works were shot with Spielberg, Kaminski was also in smaller productions, such as the touching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). Its dreamlike aesthetics as the audience dives into the psychological world of a man show―contrasting the realistic Saving Private Ryan―the versatility of this incredible cinematographer.
16. Robert Krasker (1913 – 1981)
Robert Krasker was an Oscar-winning Australian cinematographer. He started his career in film when he moved to London in the mid-thirties and got a job as a cameraman.
Krasker’s debut as a Director of Photography was in the epic Henry V (1944), directed by Laurence Olivier. Although he did not have a lot of experience with Technicolor, he shot stunning images which merged film and theatre and achieved very claustrophobic effects which would later be widely used by him. In the next year, he worked in the acclaimed Brief Encounter (1945).
His most important work, however, was done in his collaboration with Carol Reed. In The Third Man (1949), Krasker, highly influenced by film noir and german expressionism, used contrasted lighting and oblique camera angles to capture the decadent atmosphere in postwar Vienna, a fitting stage for a corrupt and isolated life. The effectiveness of the aesthetic choices in the film gave Krasker his Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
Other important films he was a Director of Photography for include El Cid (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and The Collector (1965). Krasker was also one of the three photographers to work with the renowned italian director Luchino Visconti in Senso (1954).
17. Ellen Kuras (1959 –)
Ellen Kuras’ place in this list represent an important change in film business: a field in which only men used to work slowly opening its doors to women.
Kuras is among the most important filmmakers of the last two decades, working as a cinematographer and a director. She has worked with numerous renowned directors and won significant awards. Her debut as a director, the documentary The Betrayal (2008) was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category.
She has worked with directors Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind , Be Kind Rewind ) and Spike Lee (4 Little Girls , Bamboozled ) many times. Gondry’s stunning The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004) might be the greatest aesthetic achievement of her career.
Kuras was also the cinematographer for important music films. The first one was Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), and she would later work in the documentaries Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006) and Lou Reed’s Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse (2007). Her entire filmography is noteworthy, but other recomendable films are the hilarious Analyse That (2002) and Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003).
Kuras’ talent should be an example for the future of film: it is very hard for a woman to get in film business, but in cinematography it is even harder. This fantastic cinematographer shows that this conception must be left behind and that each day more doors should open for talented women.
18. Emmanuel Lubeszki (1964 –)
In this decade, the mexican Emmanuel Lubeszki won two consecutive oscar for Best Cinematography (Gravity in 2014; and Birdman (Or The Virtue of Ignorance) in 2015). He is now among the biggest names among the new generation of cinematographers.
His first notorious film – for which he was also nominated for the Academy Awards – was the touching A Little Princess (1998), when his ongoing partnership with the director Alfonso Cuarón started.
He has worked with many other great directors, such as Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers and Terrence Mallick. Among his productions is the stunning The Tree of Life (2012), whose special effects supervisor was Douglas Trumbull (2001: a Space Odyssey) and aesthetics is very particular and experimental.
Until 2014, Lubeszki’s work was seen as underestimated, especially after he shot Children of Men (2006). Luckily, his recognition came soon enough and and might only grow throughout the years.
19. Kazuo Miyagawal (1908 – 1999)
Kazuo Miyagawa was Japan’s preeminent cinematographer, having started his career in the thirties. He collaborated with the country’s greatest directors, such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu.
Before he became a cinematographer, Miyagawa studied japanese ink painting. He used to say that his fundamentals in art thought him how to see and that his chemistry knowledge taught him the basics of filmmaking. From this background and his passion for expressionist german films, he inherited the subtle shadings widely used in his black-and-white films.
He is known for his long track shots, specially in Rashomon (1950), his first of three productions with Kurosawa. His delicate camera movements were very effective in creating suspenseful and dramatic atmospheres, and also widely explored by Mizoguchi in films like Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954).
Although he only worked with Ozu in the fascinating Floating Weeds (1959), this was one of the highest points of the director’s career. The striking pictorial effects and specific color tones in the film show the cinematographer’s talented mind and his technical abilities.
Miyagawa died in 1999 at ninety-one and will always be remembered among the definers of japanese films’ aesthetics which brought international recognition the country’s productions.
20. Robby Müller (1940 –)
Robby Müller is a Dutch cinematographer who is best known for his partnership with german director Wim Wenders. It started when both worked in their first feature film, Summer in the City (1970). They would later work together in many other productions, such as The American Friend (1977) and the splendidly shot Paris, Texas (1984).
Müller’s work, however, is much more extensive than what he produced with Wim Wenders. He had a preference for offbeat projects and therefore worked with directors like Lars von Trier, Pieter Bogdanovich and Jim Jarmusch, whose experimentalism would give him the opportunity to create and try new things.
A close look at his filmography will lead one to realize that Müller is one of those filmmakers who are truly passionate about film, and who had tried many different styles and travelled all over the world in order to refine his work.