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The 20 Greatest Cinematographers Working Today

16 February 2016 | Features, People Lists | by Pietro Mauri

greatest cinematographers

The term “cinematography” comes from Greek “kinema” and “graphein” that means, literally, “to record movement”. So, the cinematographer (or the director of photography) is one of the most important figures in the development and in the shooting of a movie. Sometimes, this figure is far more important than the director himself.

The director of photography chooses the type of lenses, the lighting, the importance of the depth of field, almost everything someone sees in a frame and, to do this, the cinematographer works in very close contact with the director. Because of this, many of the cinematographers on this list are connected to a specific director, with whom they have given their best work.

 

20. Rodrigo Prieto

LR-Rodrigo-Prieto

Prieto’s work is extremely variable, from the type of movie to the use of lenses he makes, but every work is also extremely powerful and fascinating. He alternates his experiments with color (“The 25th Hour”) and with lenses (“Frida”) with saturated effects (“The Wolf Of Wall Street”) and naturalism (“Brokeback Mountain”).

Especially in this last type, Prieto reached his best work in Ang Lee’s movie by evoking the nature embracing the characters, but also in one of the most underrated and lesser-known movies by Tommy Lee Jones.

Signature film: “The Homesman”, directed by Tommy Lee Jones

The Horseman (2008)

This crepuscular western, in the tradition of “Unforgiven”, is almost a masterpiece of the modern genre. With a magnificent female main character, the movie brings us to another time in the far west, but thanks to Prieto, it is like we’re seeing it for the first time. The nature has, like it had in the past, its space and it (or she?) is a real character. In fact, when it disappears in the end, leaving space to the cities, it is destabilizing and strange to the spectator. And the last shot is something perfect and melancholy.

 

19. Greig Fraser

LR-Greig-Fraser

Greig Fraser started to work in 2005, but since then, he has already made at least two great films. He, like Toll, has alternated small and authorial works and big productions, exploring various possibilities of cinematography, experimenting sometimes with the colors of nature (“Bright Star”), andat other times with dark effects (Snow White And The Huntsman). In fact, his best work is the mediation between the two and also between blockbusters and authorial movies.

Signature film: “Zero Dark Thirty”, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Fraser and Bigelow want to make us live out the conflicts and the oppression of their protagonist and, along with a helpful soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, they do this by closing her in a cage made of the darkest color. The ending scene is exemplary, in which the black night is alternated with the disquieting and sick green of the night-vision cameras.

 

18. Darius Khondji

Darius Khondji

Before photographing the last few Woody Allen movies, for which he can still be praised (particularly for “Irrational Man” and “Midnight in Paris”), Iranian director of photography Darius Khondji worked with great masters of modern cinema like Roman Polanski, Jean Pierre Jeunet and David Fincher, quickly reaching the authorial acme by using to perfection the fusion between scenography, lighting (fundamental for his best work) and makeup.

Signature film: “Seven”, directed by David Fincher

Se7en (1995)

His best work is, without a doubt, the magnificent thriller that shook audiences all over the world in the mid-90s. With its constant rain, its lurid motel corridors, its final showdown reminding us (particularly thanks to the photography) of Western endings, and its pessimism oozing from every frame, in which everything is studied perfectly, almost every scene of this movie is now imprinted in the mind of its spectators. Particularly, the first encounter between Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey in the rainy alley is pure cinema.

 

17. Benoit Debie

Benoit Debie

From the acid colors of “Spring Breakers” to the drug trip of “Enter The Void”, passing through the rape of “Irreversible”, Benoit Debie’s career can be summed up like this. The majority (and the best) of his works are characterized by hallucinating narratives and images, both with a positive and negative meaning. Neon lights and the saturated disco-lights. This is his cinema.

Signature film: “Enter the Void”, directed by Gaspar Noe

Enter the Void

Although sometimes it is quite pretentious and challenging, “Enter The Void” is a visionary and sensorial experience, maybe unique in its genre. Its idea of cinema is of course extreme, but it is a real and true challenge not just for us, but also (and particularly) for the makers: Noè and Debie themselves. Everything is reduced to pure images, and they build every frame, thinking about every single source of light or camera-movement. With its flaws, Enter The Void is an experience that every movie buff should make.

 

16. John Seale

John Seale

Starting in 1985 with “Witness”, John Seale’s career was not something particularly brilliant or notable, in spite of some pretty and well-done works like “Gorillas In The Mist” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. However, he was still too glazed and without a stunning personal style or visual intuitions. Until 2015.

Signature film: “Mad Max: Fury Road”, directed by George Miller

Mad Max Fury Road movie

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is simply a visual masterpiece. It is maybe the most shocking and beautiful cinematographic experience since “The Tree Of Life”, and we’re talking about an action movie with a multi-million dollar budget. Yet, every scene in this movie is astonishing; not just because of the franchise’s “mastermind” George Miller, but also (and particularly) because of John Seale.

The magnificent photography is not just in the main scenes (the chase in the sand storm, the Citadel, the first perfect shot), but also in the “normal” scenes and still scenes. Just an example: the choice of slightly distorting the image when Max and Furiosa decide to go back to the Citadel, with a smooth camera movement that shows the first signs of what can become a vertigo effect, but leaving it at the embryonic stage. It’s something that cannot be forgotten.

 

15. Larry Smith

Larry Smith

Larry Smith is not as popular as a cinematographer, because he also works especially as a cameraman or as a senior electrician. However, his work with visionary film director Nicolas Winding Refn is more than remarkable, reaching high results, even if they are not so well-known.

Signature film: “Only God Forgives”, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

only-god-forgives-ryan-gosling

More than “Bronson” (to this day, Refn’s masterpiece), “Only God Forgives” explains and reveals Smith’s talent in lighting, accentuating and intensifying the director’s vision of the world, by using an acid cinematography. It is similar to the hallucinating ones mentioned before (“Enter The Void”, “Spring Breakers”), but darker than these examples, getting closer to Lynch rather than Noè or Korine, and also acquiring a personal touch, which can be observed also in “Calvary”, despite his eclecticism.

 

 

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  • Christian Gulldén

    Robert Elswit had nothing to do with The Master. That’s Mihai Malaimare Jr’s work and I think he deserves to be in this top too.

  • Eduardo Rocha

    WTF!!! where is Vittorio Storaro, he is still working, now in a movie with Woody Allen

  • Arshad Khan

    And where in the world is Chirstopher Doyle ???

    • AGREED!

    • HindsiteGenius

      It’s an OK list but any list without a tight focused theme it always ends up leaving things out.

  • Sebastián Francisco Maydana

    for me the best is Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. Also, Wes Anderson’s best movie was Moonrise Kingdom? WTF?

  • Antonio H. Foglia

    Wally Pfister!! 🙁

    • lando

      c’mon. we’re talking about grown ups here. pfister is not known for anything special except the fact that he works with nolan.

      • Giuseppe T. Chiaramonte

        I think his best cinematography was for Moneyball

      • Antonio H. Foglia

        I don’t think the term “grown ups” is very uccurate for qualifying the expertise of a DP or the constant work with any director. In this list we have DP’s like Hoyte Van Hoytema which I think he has potential to become a better cinematographer, even if he worked in films like Interstellar, Her or Spectre, I haven’t found any particular signature o particular ability to bring the movie a plus more than just the story; if we take away space sequences in insterstellar (which are very supported on the VFX’s ) there are very few scenes which you can powerhouse their cinematography, the same happens in Spectre or Her, so I consider Hoyte Van Hoytema is cinematopher with great potential of finding an unique style to be acknowledge by his work, which at this day, it hasn’t happenned. And we have the long collaboration with some director, which the case of Janusz Kaminski has built his career being the chief cinematographer of Spielberg’s film since Schindler’s list, which if you can notice his cinematography becomes very mimetic in every film because of the story. In conlusion: It’s a NO. We don’t have to diminish a cinematographer because of his lack films or his constant work with any director. Wally Pfister has his personal flair as a cinematographer and he has contributed to mark the atmosphere and the aesthetics of Nolan’s oeuvre. Pfister has the incredible ability to shot spaces and sets in the story, he uses a great camera movements to capture the details of the story; also the outstanding visuals of deepness withing the frames (very utilized in Batman trilogy and Inception). And finally and no less important Pfister has received some accolades for his work, including Oscar in best cinematography for Inception.
        In this video they analized Nolans film through the theory of Cinematic Realism: https://vimeo.com/143509412
        In this video is an analysis to the “Hands of Nolan” as way to tell a story: https://vimeo.com/147317363
        In this video analize the meta cinematic references in Nolan films using the camera work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d46Azg3Pm4c

        • lando

          you’re right in the way that I shouldn’t diminish a cinematographer because his constant work with any director.
          I must say that I’ve never felt touched by the “cinematic realism” of pfister. For example, in the video pfister talks about the sensation of “feel grounded” in the batcave. I didn’t have that sense nor I think it was a real place and this happens me with most of his work.
          I love Nolan’s work but I don’t think pfister standouts on his films (maybe inception because of the freedom and the context of it script). It’s a good collaboration. In that way maybe that’s what Nolan needs for his films. For the people to be focused on the story and in the editing and not in the excess of beauty of lightning. But this is just one man’s opinion.
          The video of the hands is great. I never realised about those details.

          • lando

            acabo de notar que hablas español también XD. hubiese sido más fácil saberlo antes de escribir eso.

          • Antonio H. Foglia

            En términos de entendernos el uno al otro, definitivamente. Pero ya que el inglés es neutral y hay gente de muchos países leyendo, es mejor que la discusión se haga en inglés. 🙂

          • Antonio H. Foglia

            Thanks for your comment. Yeah, there’s some low points about the cinematic realism wich I am not very into it. I think what I praise this technique is maybe the spontaneity that filmmakers give to the actors so they can be immerse on their roles. At the end is true to say that we need to see future works by Pfister so we can put him on the spotlight without any doubts. Greetings!

  • Lucas Augusto

    Where is Chris Menges? And Remi Adefarasin? And Darius Wolszki? And Christopher Doyle?

  • T Brown

    The image used for The Homesman (2014) is taken from The Horseman (2008)

  • Brandon Thompson

    I don’t think Roger Deakins signature movie is Sicario but rather No Country for Old Men and as for Emaneul Lubezki I think his signature movie would be Gravity or Children of Men. Any good DoP could’ve made The Revenant work but even fewer could’ve made gravity work.

    • Oscar Stegland

      While I agree that The Revenant shouldn’t be his signature movie (I thought the cinematography called too much attention to itself too many times), I don’t think any other cinematographer could’ve made it the way he did. He is without a doubt the master camera-dancer in the business atm. His signature film for me would be either Children of Men or Tree of Life.

      • Brandon Thompson

        I forgot about his work with Malick, Knight of Cups is no exception in the quality of work you would expect from both Malick and Lubezki.

  • Chrisychipz

    Manuel Alberto Claro? Christopher Doyle?

  • Sean Bobbitt is a notable omission, otherwise good list. I also second Christian’s comment below, Elswit didn’t shoot “The Master.”

  • andyklimactic

    Hoyte Van Hoyteme’s cinematography in Her was better than in Interstellar, IMHO

  • Tadhg Conway

    Chris Doyle surely??

  • Will Ross

    “The Master” Robert Elswit’s ‘signature film’ when he didn’t shoot it? And calling Elswit “the best cinematographer working today in film,” when four DoPs ranked above him have worked in 35mm film within the past two years?

    That does not bespeak much familiarity or real expertise in the subject, nor much care put into the list in general.

  • Lou Zanine

    Hard to take any such list seriously that does not include Christopher Doyle, the master behind the phenomenal look of Wong Kar Wai’s films. He has also worked with Philip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence) and Zhang Yimou (Hero). Did you forget him because he hasn’t been seduced by Hollywood?

  • Nikos Bogadakis

    I believe it is a huge mistake not to include Vittorio Storaro and Christopher Doyle in this list. These two geniuses are responsible for some stylistically exceptional films of modern cinema and they both still working today. And, by the way, Roger Deakins’s signature film is NOT Sicario by any means.

  • charlyaz

    The Debonnel’s signature is Amelie, not Llewyn… And of course, where is Storaro, Doyle…

  • corlius

    What about Robby Muller and his work with Wenders, Jarmusch, Von Trier?

  • Ruchit Negotia

    sigh…no surprise seeing chivo here. look i get it. he is great cinematographer and great camera work, but the style almost always ends up clouding the story and becomes superficial. Good cinematography should always follow story first. Roger deakins perfects this, that’s why any of his shots aren’t unmotivated camera movements and don’t distract you from whats important. the story!