The 30 Greatest Cinematographers of All Time

21. Sven Nykvist (1922 – 2006)

Cries and Whispers

Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist is mostly known for his collaboration with the director Ingmar Bergman, which lasted twenty-five years. He pioneered the use of natural light in film, and is heavily acclaimed for his ability to give it a naturalistic look; and as well for his close-up shots that emphasized the psychological movements of the characters, to which Bergman gave priority.

Sven first worked with Bergman when he shot the interior scenes of Sawdust and Tinsel (1953). Bergman is rumored to have said he wanted Sven to photograph all his following films after an impressive 180-degree pan shot he made. That was when Sven replaced the also splendid Gunnar Fischer as Bergman’s main cinematographer.

They worked together in some of the most outstanding films in history, such as the Faith Trilogy―Through a Glass Darkly (1961), The Silence (1963) and Winter Light (1963)―Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1973) and Fanny and Alexander (1982).

When Bergman stopped directing theatrical full-length movies, Sven went to the United States. There he worked with Woody Allen―an assumed Bergman fan―in Another Woman (1988), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and in his hilarious segment from New York Stories (1989).

Sven also worked with Roman Polanski and Andrei Tarkovsky. He died in 2006, after having devoted half a century of his life for filmmaking and having won uncountable prizes, including two Academy Awards (for Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander).


22. Robert Richardson (1955 – )

The Aviator (2004)

Throughout the thirty-three years he has worked as a cinematographer, Robert Richardson made remarkable partnerships with very important directors, such as Oliver Stone (Platoon, JFK, Natural Born Killers), Martin Scorsese (The Aviator, Shutter Island, Hugo) and Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained). He has won uncountable significant prizes, among them three Academy Awards for Best Cinematography: in 1991 with JFK; in 2005 with The Aviator; and in 2012 with Hugo.

The first masterpiece he shot was Platoon (1986), still considered one of the best war movies of all times. Thirty years later, he is still working greatly and introducing new technologies to his productions, and therefore it is fascinating to realize that the same man shot a phantasy 3D movie three years ago and worked with Tarantino in his most recent films. Richardson’s capacity to adapt and renew himself has certainly guaranteed his name among the most important ones in film’s history.


23. Vittorio Storaro (1940 –)

The Conformist

Storaro describes his own life as an equilibrium between the passion of red and the reason of blue, and therefore he is certain that the cinematographer should write with light and darkness; white and black; the sun and the moon. Having won three Academy Awards and many other prizes for Best Cinematography, the italian cinematographer has until this year signed fifty-eight movies.

His most impressive productions are from the time he partnered up with Bernardo Bertolucci (1970-1993), aside Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! (1979)―for which he won his first oscar. The opposing elements he talks about can be observed overall in his photography. Conflict between natural and artificial energy sources, the use of opposing colors and its correspondence to emotions of the characters create a subtle contrast that reveals the differences―and similarities―between reality and film.

Since the nineties, he also partnered up with Carlos Saura and Alfonso Arau. In 2013, he was considered to be among the ten most influential cinematographers of all times by the International Cinematographers Guild, and it is certainly a title he deserves.


24. Gregg Toland (1904 – 1948)

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (1941) has always been among the top five in all the respected Best Films of All Time lists, and usually in the first position. Toland is partly responsible for that―in the credits, Orson Welles’ own card is shared with him―due to the magnificent and innovative visual he created.

His geniality, however, dates from before Citizen Kane and transcends it. During the early 30s, he was the youngest cameraman in Hollywood, and between 1936 and 1942 he was nominated for six Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Les Misérables [1935], Dead End [1937], Intermezzo: A Love Story [1939], Wuthering Heights [1939], The Long Voyage Home [1940] and Citizen Kane). He won it in 1940 for Wuthering Heights.

He was among the first cinematographers to use the deep-focus technique, in which the front and the background are all in focus. The focus is usually what guides the viewer’s eyes through the image, and when this technique is used composition and movement will be responsible to determine where the eye looks first.

Toland is the cinematographer in this list who died at a youngest age, only forty-four, but his skills perpetuated his name among the best cinematographers of all time.


25. Sergey Urusevsky (1908 – 1974)


Sergey Urusevsky was one of the most influential soviet filmmakers. His interest for graphic design and photography started very early in his life, and before WWII he studied under many constructivism artists in Moscow. During the war, he was a combat photographer. Characteristics of constructivism would later have an important place in his production as a cinematographer.

In his first years as a Director of Photography, he worked with Yuli Raizman, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigoriy Chukhrai, among others. His most known picture from that time is Chukhrai’s The Forty-First (1956). In that same period he worked in his first collaboration with director Mikhail Kalatozov, The First Echelon (1955).

This partnership would enrich the cinematographers style and bring him international recognition. His admiration for the cinematic form would find its highest expression. In that time, he created a very innovative technique in which the camera narrates the film, which was widely used in Russian Cinematography, having its highest point in Sokurov’s The Russian Ark (2002).

The two most remarkable films from his collaboration with Kalatozov are The Letter Never Sent (1959)―which is known to have influenced Apocalypse Now! cinematography― and I am Cuba (1964), his last and probably most important work as a cinematographer.


26. Haskell Wexler (1922–)

who's afraid of virginia woolf

The american Haskell Wexler was another one of the ten most influential cinematographers of all time judged by the International Cinematographers Guild. Although his most well known films are from the seventies, at the impressive age of ninety-three, he is still working as cinematographer, director, producer and writer.

His first big-budget production as a cinematographer was in Elia Kazan’s America, America (1963). Only three years after he would win his first Academy Award for Best Cinematography―the last one in Black&White―with the masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virgnia Woolf? (1966). Thereafter he would be responsible for acclaimed and innovative films of the New Hollywood era, such as the first one to use the newly invented Steadicam―for which he won his second oscar―Bound for Glory (1976).

Among other important films he photographed are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). His important production was not delimited to film, but also television, for which he founded a commercial production company with Conrad L. Hall, Wexler-Hall. In the 21st century, he has already photographed more than twenty documentaries (a few directed by him), being one of them yet to be released in 2015.


27. Gordon Willis (1931 – 2014)

The Godfather (1972)

Exactly one year ago, the film world lost one of its most important and influential people. Gordon Willis died of cancer in May, 2014.

Having born inside Hollywood―his father was a makeup man―Willis’ interests were always related to film. At first he wanted to be an actor. His actings in theatre led him backstage, where he learnt a lot about lighting. This would later help him become one of the responsible filmmakers for the aesthetics created on film during the 70s. What the directors from the era that immediately pop-up to mind (Francis Coppola, Woody Allen, Alan Pakula) had in common was this outstanding cinematographer behind them.

In his filmography, one will find many remarkable movies, among them The Godfather trilogy (1972, 1974 and 1990) and All the President’s Men (1976). However, his long-lasting partnership was with Woody Allen, and started with Annie Hall (1977). They would then release one film each year until 1985.

Among these are some of those considered Allen’s best films: Manhattan (1979), Zelig (1983) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). The director always says that “Gordie” taught him a lot, and that he was a true artist. A quick glance at Gordon Willis’ films’ list will confirm this assumption.


28. Freddie Young (1902 – 1998)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Freddie Young’s career as a cinematographer started in the late twenties and lasted until the eighties. During these sixty years, he worked in more than a hundred pictures and therefore achieved a huge recognition in the film area.

His most remarkable films are the ones he worked with director David Lean: Lawrence of Arabia (1963), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970), all three of which guaranteed him an Academy Awards. He was also responsible for the cinematography of Lord Jim (1965)―an outstanding adaptation from Joseph Conrad’s books―and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971).

Freddie was the first British cinematographer to shoot in CinemaScope―anamorphic lenses spreadly used in the fifties and sixties to create a widescreen image. He was another one of the ten chosen by the International Cinematographers Guild as most influential cinematographers of all time. He died in 1998, with ninety-six years old.


29. Vadim Yusov (1929 – 2013)


Soviet Vadim Yusov might be the most poetic cinematographer of all time. He was the Director of Photography of four out of the most remarkable Tarkovsky’s films and is known to have had a big influence in the director’s style.

Yusov’s partnership with Tarkovsky started when he was only thirty years old. Twenty-nine years old Tarkovsky, still a student in the Russian leading film school (All-Union State Institute of Cinematography), approached him to shoot The Steamroller and the Violin (1960), his diploma film.

They would then collaborate in the director’s next three movies: Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966) and Solaris (1972). They would spend a couple of days preparing for a long shot that would usually be shot in only one take.

After style disagreements brought his collaboration with Tarkovsky to an end, Yusov started another fruitful partnership with Russian director and actor Sergey Bondarchuk.

Having already shot the successful film adaptation (1966) of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the director’s style was epic and objective, which diverged from the world Yusov had emerged in with Tarkovsky. He once declared that “Tarkovsky and Bondarchuk were worlds apart and it was [his] job to enter both their worlds.” Among his productions with Bondarchuk are the great They Fought Their Country (1975) and Boris Godunov (1986).


30. Vilmos Zsigmond (1930 –)

heaven's gate pic

With more than one hundred films in his filmography, the hungarian Vilmos Zsigmond was also considered by the International Cinematographers Guild to be one of the ten most influential cinematographers of all time.

When the Hungarian Revolution took place in 1956, Vilmos and his friend Lázlo Kovács―also an incredible cinematographer―recorded images of it in thirty thousand feet of film and ran away to Austria (part of this footage is used in the documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos). This story of Vilmos’ youth reveals how important it was to that young passionate filmmaker to produce something meaningful.

And so he did. Vilmos arrived in the USA in the early 60s, right before the “American New Wave” started, and he would be one of its main representative figures. Some of his most significant productions of that time were The Sugarland Express (1974), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Blow Out (1981).

Today, at eighty-five years old, Vilmos is still going. Since the 00s, he partnered up with Woody Allen in Melinda, Melinda (2004), Cassandra’s Dream (2007) and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). 2015 will bring four movies by this outstanding cinematographer as he makes his way into being one of the filmmakers who more produced in film’s history.

Author Bio: Carolina Starzynski just graduated from film school in Brazil. She worked mostly in small projects as a cinematographer, but intends to study creative writing from now on.