Regardless of what you might think of the quality of movies these days, you have to admit they look better than ever. Even a universally panned movie like Transformers 3 looks amazing. There is a consistently high quality to the look of most movies coming out of Hollywood these days, and for that we can thank the cinematographers. The work of actors, directors, and writers seems to fluctuate from movie to movie, but cinematographers pretty much always kick ass. I guess when it comes to having a good eye there’s no such thing as having a bad day.
I’ve limited my selection to DPs who are alive and currently working. (So no all-time greats like Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis, and Gregg Toland.) Here are my ten masters of light and composition:
10—Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, Iron Man)
Libatique started out with Darren Aronofsky and had a lot to do with the director’s reputation for visual flair. Early in his career, Libatique was defined by his gritty and gorgeous cinematography on independent movies. He later demonstrated his versatility by working on slick Hollywood productions, showing that he could excel at two seemingly disparate styles.
9—Darius Khondji (Seven, Stealing Beauty, The Beach)
Khondji’s specialty is beauty. Every frame he shoots is beautiful, pristine and rich in tone, utterly devoid of murkiness and blandness. There is a painterly quality to his movies, even the ones full of shadows and dark scenes.8—Robert Elswit (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to guy, Elswit has also worked with Clooney and Mamet. While lately he has turned his attention to action movies (The Town, Salt, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), he is probably best with character-based movies. His work is subtle, no-nonsense, and clean, and I think he lights people better than anyone.
7—Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Blow Out)
Perhaps best known for his fruitful collaborations with Brian DePalma, Zsigmond has worked with many great visual filmmakers and was the DP responsible for some of the most iconic cinematic imagery of the ‘70s in movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter. His advocacy of experimentation has influenced countless other cinematographers.
6—Robert Richardson (JFK, Kill Bill)
Richardson worked on all of Oliver Stone’s early films. He specializes in giving things an ethereal, almost otherworldly sheen, especially when he indulges in his trademark of shining a hard light down on an actor, making them glow. He’s a consummate artist, able to adapt his craft to any genre, be it war film, kung fu flick, or kid’s movie.
5—Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan)
Starting with Schindler’s List, Kaminski became Steven Spielberg’s DP, the only one he has worked with since. This pairing of visual masters has become a boon for those who love seeing sumptuous imagery projected onto the movie screen. Even though most of Spielberg’s movies are big budget summer spectacles, Kaminski isn’t afraid to mix it up and eschew conventional lighting (see Minority Report).
4—Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Children of Men)
Lubezki first caught everyone’s eye with his collaborations with Alfonso Cuarón. Lately he has been working with the inimitable Terrence Malick, creating some of the most astoundingly beautiful images we’ve ever seen. He’ll do something down and dirty every now and then (Y tu mamá también, Ali), but seems to specialize in the really breathtaking, awe-inspiring stuff we’ve come to expect from him.
3—John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous)
Toll works with a big canvas just as well as he does with smaller, more intimate stories. His lighting is almost dream-like—he’s able to capture each scene as we would see them in our imaginations, switching from a diffuse, gauzy look to a clear, focused, and vibrant one as the situation demands.
2—Roger Deakins (Fargo, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
Deakins is the universally acknowledged master of cinematography. He is so revered that when the makers of Wall-E needed a visual consultant, they turned to him. He has worked mainly with the Coen brothers but has done work for others including Scorsese and Edward Zwick. Everything he does is crazy amazing.
1—Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Conformist)
When people compare cinematography to painting, Storaro’s work is what immediately springs to mind. No other cinematographer has ever been more inventive and bravura with the use of color and light in motion pictures. There’s an almost hallucinatory quality to his work at times that is both striking and truthful. As good as a lot of DPs are, Storaro stands above them all.