“People confuse ‘pretty’ with good cinematography.” – Roger Deakins
Cinematography has always been the language of cinema and cinematographers have been the unsung poets to have elevated the visual medium. They are the artists who figure out innovative ways to make the visual narrative interact with unique stories to create moments of pure magic. As a tribute to these champions of cinema, we have listed pioneering figures who have revolutionised the art form since its conception.
Some notable figures that are missing from the list but deserve honourable mentions are James Wong Howe, Gordon Willis and Vilmos Zsigmond among several others. However, the names listed below are undoubtedly some of the best cinematographers of all time. They have inspired millions of people to pick up a camera and capture the beauty of the world.
Acclaimed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa wrote, “During the Showa era, when there were no specialized, technical documents to study, there was no other way for a camera operator to learn but to steal techniques from the older generation. But I wanted to develop my own shooting techniques, my own style that only I as Miyagawa possessed. The only way to acquire something like that was to watch and study films. I went and analysed countless foreign films.”
He added, “Though systems of technology may change, visual expression will not. A mechanical action cannot create something, especially an image in cinema. A human must create it with heart. Each frame of film has the ingenuity of the crew who poured love and passion into it. The relationship of the crew, who devote themselves to every single frame, is what has supported the artistic nature of cinema until now.”
In order to understand the glorious art of cinematography a little better, we take a look at 10 cinematographers who revolutionised the field with their respective achievements.
10 of the greatest cinematographers of all time:
Billy Bitzer (1872 – 1944)
American cinematographer Billy Bitzer will always remain one of the pioneering figures in the evolution of cinematography. His collaboration with the D.W. Griffith on films like The Birth of a Nation (which was partly funded by Bitzer’s life savings) and Intolerance has been recognised as examples of cinematic brilliance during the infancy of cinema as an art form.
Over the course of his illustrious career, Bitzer continued to experiment and innovate with the medium. The camera techniques that he championed were used as guidelines for future feature films. His innovations included the fade-out, the iris shot and the perfection of matte photography among several others.
Gregg Toland (1904 – 1948)
With a stellar filmography that includes masterpieces like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives and John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, it is safe to say that Gregg Toland has secured his spot in the pantheon of great cinematographers of all time. He revolutionised the art form by experimenting with light and shadow to create space within a two-dimensional frame in order to present a vision that is closer to how our own eyes perceive the world around us.
Toland explained, “I enjoy being a motion picture cameraman. Of all the people who make up a movie production unit, the cameraman is the only one who can call himself a free soul. He is certainly the least inhibited. The producer, director, film editor, the players, all act as checks upon the creative impulses of one another.
“But the cameraman may do exactly what he wants to do, for the simple reason that while the work of the others is visually obvious at the time it is being performed, the work of the cameraman is not revealed until twenty-four hours later when the film which has passed through his camera is flashed upon the screen in a projection room.”
Freddie Young (1902 – 1998)
British cinematographer Freddie Young is most famous for his work on David Lean’s masterpieces like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, winning Academy Awards for his cinematography on all three films. The first British cinematographer to film in CinemaScope, Young worked on more than 130 projects in his life and influenced several generations of filmmakers. At one screening, Steven Spielberg came up to him and told him that his work on Lawrence of Arabia inspired him to venture into the world of cinema.
Sir Sydney Samuelson recalled: “The first technical marvel for which he was responsible, and which held me in awe of his genius, was as far back as 1938 on Sixty Glorious Years. I remember two technical aspects quite clearly. One sequence was an early example of British Technicolor three-strip.
There was a remarkable ballroom scene, which was achieved by means of an early matte shot. Called something like the ‘Shufton process’. There was a glorious wide-angle shot of an elegant ballroom. Freddie once told me that as clever as Shufton was, the most stunning effect was actually brought about by him, pricking holes in the top part of the back of the matte then shining through each chandelier painted on its front. Amazing!”
Kazuo Miyagawa (1908 – 1999)
Japanese cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa is fondly remembered for his collaborations with the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. The tracking shots he employed in Rashomon are studied by film students to this day; Miyagawa also worked with other Japanese visionaries like Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujirō Ozu. Inspired by German Expressionism, Miyagawa decided to pursue a career in filmmaking and ended up as a vastly influential artist. He is also considered to be the inventor of the revolutionary technique known as bleach bypass.
Miyagawa wrote, “I have spent 60 years shooting because I love movies so much. However, the job of the cameraman is to become one with the camera and dance with it to capture the subject. In other words, the job requires physical strength. Of course I think that my sensibilities have sharpened beyond my youth and I’ve acquired a ‘Miyagawa’-style perspective. But there’s nothing I can do about my body.
“In that sense, I would love for there to be more and more young people to surpass me. And yet the fact that I still want to continue making films is proof that I am a fool for movies, and nothing else. I’d like to continue, as long as my body allows, to use the camera to paint on film, to bring rhythm and music to camerawork and to continue writing poetry in the tone.”
Jack Cardiff (1914 – 2009)
British cinematographer Jack Cardiff evolved as an artist along with the technological developments in cinema. From his early work in silent films, he transitioned to Technicolour and became an acclaimed filmmaker towards the end of his career. Cardiff worked with geniuses like Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston and Powell and Pressburger among others and is best known for his fantastic colour cinematography in films like Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death. In 1995, he received a lifetime achievement award from the British Society of Cinematographers.
In an interview, Cardiff explained how his love for painting influenced his views on cinematography: “What I had picked up from painting was that light was the most important thing. The lighting played an important part. So it’s easy enough to analyse it and work out what looked good or what worked and so on. The only difference was I realised early on that because film was a transparency, and the Hollywood photographers used to use a lot of back-light because it made everything look crisper and glamorous.
“I realised that back-light and I relied very much on what I had picked up from paintings – a simplicity of lighting. Mind you, I recognised that painting’s a still picture where it’s easy enough to have a lighting effect, and on film where the actor gets up and walks around the room, you had to bear that in mind. But I still felt then, and still do, that you stick to a simple form of lighting.”
Sven Nykvist (1922 – 2006)
Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist is known all around the world as one of the greatest cinematographers of all time who partnered with one of the greatest filmmakers of all time: Ingmar Bergman. They formed the dream team, creating several masterpieces together like Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander for which he received Academy Awards.
Nykvist and Bergman worked so well together because their artistic visions were highly compatible: choosing naturalism and subtle simplicity instead of technical stylisation. The famed cinematographer also worked with other pioneering filmmakers like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Louis Malle. In 2003, he was named among the ten most influential cinematographers of all time by the International Cinematographers Guild.
Raoul Coutard (1924 – 2016)
An indispensable part of the iconic French New Wave, Raoul Coutard shot more than 75 films in an exceptional career and worked with legends like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Jacques Demy. He was pivotal in the New Wave’s attempts to redefine cinema and considered Godard to be the only true revolutionary. Coutard’s ingenuity with lighting inspired the filmmaker to devise the famous 360-degree camera pan.
Coutard commented, “For me, digital and using digital camera and digital technique is completely just like a tool, like, you know, we went from black and white to colour, from colour to cinemascope. So for me digital is just a tool to show the emotions in cinema. What’s good is that of course you don’t pay as much money, because you don’t have to go through the labs, and then the producer wants to gain time. But in a way it doesn’t matter, saving time or money. What really matters is being able to raise the emotion of the image.”
Vittorio Storaro (1940 – Present)
Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro filmography is as impressive as they come, full of acclaimed entries like Apocalypse Now, The Conformist and The Last Emperor among others. Storaro’s views on cinematography are largely influenced by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s theory of colours, insisting that colours have a deep psychological connection to our perception of the world. With three Academy Awards for Best Cinematography to his name, there’s no doubt that Storaro is one of the greatest living cinematographers.
Storaro said, “Light is energy, and I think that we not only originate from this energy but it is also our reality. The essence of light has this spiritual quality, whether we know it or not. Even if we don’t understand, even if we don’t believe, even if we refuse, even if we don’t know, it has to be.”
He added, “I think each movie is a part of your life, even if you don’t want it to be, because while you’re living you’re working and through your work you’re expressing yourself. And step by step as you express yourself, you grow as a human being, and likewise the more you grow as a human being the more you express yourself.”
Roger Deakins (1949 – Present)
English cinematographer Roger Deakins has achieved worldwide fame and critical acclaim for his breathtaking work in films by Denis Villeneuve, Sam Mendes and the Coen brothers. Although he has been famously snubbed by the Academy 13 times, Deakins finally won the elusive honour for Blade Runner 2049. For each of his projects, Deakins tries to identify the soul of the film and beautifully complements the story with his visual narrative.
In an interview, Deakins revealed, “I’ll tell you the worst advice I was ever given. It was when I was leaving the National Film School; there was a very high power producer who said to me, ‘You’ll never make it. If I were you, I would try to get a job as a PA at the BBC in Plymouth.’ And six years later, I was actually shooting a film that he was producer on. I’m not going to mention his name. [both laugh] It always makes me laugh. So I guess I never take anybody’s advice.”
Maryse Alberti (1954 – Present)
French cinematographer Maryse Alberti has been a constant inspiration for aspiring female cinematographers, stunning the world with her groundbreaking work on both documentaries as well as feature films. She was the first contemporary female cinematographer to be featured on the cover of American Cinematographer, earning critical acclaim for her invaluable contribution to films like Velvet Goldmine and Collateral Beauty among others.
Alberti said, “All three movies that I recently worked on, each very different in terms of style and content, were all directed by men. And all three great directors were keen to have their film shot by a woman. To me, just this simple fact means that in the world of DPs, there’s been huge progress. I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years now, and at the time when I began, there were very few of us.
“We’re growing in numbers despite still being a minority. Besides, I don’t get the same bullshit that I used to get 25 years ago: ‘can the little lady handle the big lights?’ I don’t see that happening today. I actually see more people in the cinema industry increasingly interested to work with women and I think many directors now take the conscious decision to work with female DPs. So in my field, and this is just my personal opinion, I think there’s been tremendous progress.”