My Favorite Cinematographers of All-Time

The cinematographer’s job is one of the most vital in filmmaking. They are tasked with listening to the director and reading over the script to capture what these people have imagined on camera. The imagination is infinite, which means this can be anything from a conversation between two people at a kitchen table to an intergalactic battle. To do this, the cinematographer has to have a masterful understanding of lighting, angles, blocking, movement, the elements of production design, the way an actor appears on camera, editing, and post-production effects that will be added later. The cinematographers on this list are not responsible for all of my favorite scenes in cinema, but they have a hefty body of work which, in my opinion, positions them as masters of the craft. Not every movie they have worked on has been a gem, but the camera shines when they have found the right collaborator in a director.

  • Gianni Di Venanzo (8 ½, La Notte, L’eclisse, Juliet of the Spirits)

As I revisit it and watch films that are new to me, I am finding the Italian New Wave to be my favorite of the European film revolutions post-WWII. The movies of Fellini & Antonioni speak to me the strongest, and the man behind the camera for my favorite of these pictures was Gianni Di Venanzo. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much about his background in a cursory glance, only that he died far too young, at 45, due to viral hepatitis. In his criminally short life, Di Venanzo fashioned some of cinema’s most extraordinary images, scenes that would ripple through the art form to the present day. While he may have passed before doing even more amazing work, he left us with stunning, pure beauty on camera. Below is the iconic opening sequence of Fellini’s 8 ½ and the incredible closing montage of Antonioni’s L’eclisse.

  • John Alcott (A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining) – 

Another life cut short, this time at age 55 from a heart attack, John Alcott fashioned so many of the powerful images found in Stanley Kubrick’s films of the 1970s. With a father who was a film executive, John got his start in pictures as a clapper boy, the lowest position in the camera operation hierarchy. However, he worked his way up over the years. His big break came at 38 when Stanley Kubrick put him in charge of lighting for 2001: A Space Odyssey. They shared similar sensibilities and continued collaborating with John in the cinematographer’s seat, starting with A Clockwork Orange. John was incredibly interested in the science of light and used that to his advantage in Barry Lyndon, arguably Kubrick’s most beautiful-looking movie. John recreated classic paintings of the era using only natural light. It is a stunning piece of cinema that has never been matched. He would rightfully win the Oscar and BAFTA for Barry Lyndon.

  • Tak Fujimoto (Badlands, Silence of the Lambs, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Sixth Sense) –

Tak Fujimoto is still with us at the age of 83. He is a Japanese-American born in San Diego and interned in the concentration camps built for Japanese citizens during World War II. Fujimoto would graduate from the London School of Film and make his cinematographic debut on Terence Malick’s Badlands. What a start to a career! He’d continue to find work on a lot of exploitation films like Caged Heat and Death Race 2000. In the former film, he established a working relationship with Jonathan Demme that would continue for decades. Fujimoto would shoot Silence of the Lambs and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. While not working exclusively in suspense films, I think they were the pictures Fujimoto excelled at the best. His last work was a film released in 2013, so it’s safe to say the cinematographer is likely enjoying his retirement now.

  • Owen Roizman (The Exorcist, Network, The French Connection, The Addams Family) –

Owen Roizman was raised in Brooklyn and dreamed of being a baseball player like many kids his age. He tried out for the New York Yankees, but a bout of polio as a child interfered with his performance. His dad, Sol, was a movie cameraman, and Roizman saw it was pretty good money. His debut as a cinematographer came in 1970, but a year later, shooting William Friedkin’s The French Connection, Roizman’s incredible skill was on full display. He collaborated again on The Exorcist, another visually rich and stunning picture. Roizman shot The Stepford Wives, Three Days of the Condor, Network, Tootsie, and even The Addams Family along the way. He passed away under hospice care in January 2023 at the age of 86 with his son, Eric continuing the family tradition as a camera operator.

Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Invasion of the Body Snatchers)

Michael Chapman grew up in a Boston suburb and was more interested in sports than the arts. At Columbia University, he majored in English and, after graduation, worked as a brakeman for the railroad. His father-in-law got him a job in the film industry as a focus puller, and he worked up to camera operator on pictures like The Godfather and Jaws. His career as a noted cinematographer took off on his sixth picture in that job: Taxi Driver. Scorsese would bring Chapman back for Raging Bull, one of the most visually impressive boxing pictures ever made. Chapman also became the go-to camera guy for Ivan Reitman and Carl Reiner. Chapman would remark that he didn’t watch new films from his longtime collaborators because “Unless a director makes some huge sea change in what he does, that the work, the mechanical work, is going to be vaguely the same — or of the same school, anyway — but what changes is the intelligence and passion behind it in the script.” He also preferred to watch films at home rather than in the theater. Chapman passed away in September 2020 from congestive heart failure.

  • Dean Cundey (Halloween, The Thing, The Back to the Future series, Jurassic Park) – 

If you are a Millennial like me, then you have Dean Cundey to thank for the beautiful images that fed your imagination while watching movies. Cundey loved building miniature sets as a kid and had made several low-budget films when he met Debra Hill, the then romantic & creative partner of John Carpenter. Hill brought Cundey on as the cinematographer for Halloween, and the rest is history. Cundey’s profound knowledge of lighting is responsible for the infamous hallway scene where Michael Myers’s face is obscured by shadow. He’d collaborated numerous times with Carpenter, including on The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China. Robert Zemeckis also knew great talent when he saw it and, after working with Cundey on Romancing the Stone, brought the cinematographer on board for the entire Back the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Steven Spielberg first worked with Cundey on Hook and brought him back for Jurassic Park. Cundey is still working today at 76, having shot two episodes of Star Wars: The Book of Boba Fett.

  • Frederick Elmes (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Synecdoche New York, Paterson) – 

Elmes grew up in New Jersey, developing a deep appreciation of photography, his major at the Rochester Institute of Technology. While studying at the American Film Institute, Elmes met David Lynch, and the two collaborated on Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead. Their paths diverged for a few years, but they reunited in 1986 to make Blue Velvet followed by Wild at Heart. Elmes seems to be mainly interested in independent film, working with directors like Jim Jarmusch and Tim Hunter. He would also shoot The Ice Storm and Hulk with Ang Lee and Charlie Kaufman’s magnum opus Synecdoche, New York. At 76, he’s still shooting pictures, including Jarmusch’s most recent film in 2019.

  • Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, No Country For Old Men, Fargo, Doubt) – 

If you know anyone on this list, it will likely be Roger Deakins. Deakins hails from the county of Devon in England, where he took up painting as a child. He studied graphic design at university, which led to a passion for photography. Deakins was denied admission to the newly formed National Film School because his work was not “filmic” enough. He spent the next year wandering the English countryside and taking pictures and eventually was admitted in 1972. He first garnered international attention shooting Nineteen Eighty-Four. That would eventually lead to Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and, five years later, his first collaboration with the Coen Brothers on Barton Fink. His first Academy Award nomination was earned for his work on Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. His work with the Coen continued on films like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou? It was in the 2000s when Deakins was finally heralded as one of the greatest cinematographers living with so much of his best work happening in this period. He regularly collaborates with the directors Sam Mendes and Denis Villeneuve, with Blade Runner 2049 remaining one of the all-time greatest “in the theater” experiences I have ever had watching a film. At age 73, Deakins shows no sign of retiring anytime soon and even hosts a podcast with his son James about cinematography titled Team Deakins. 

  • Robert Elswit (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler) – 

Robert Elswit’s career began in the early 1980s, working as a special effects camera operator on pictures like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Empire Strikes Back, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. As a cinematographer, he worked on mostly smaller films, with limited acclaim until he collaborated with Paul Thomas Anderson on Hard Eight. The pair would continue by making Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood. That last film earned Elswit his first Oscar win. For a long time, Elswit was one of the voices speaking out against transitioning to digital filmmaking, but he finally was convinced as the technology got better and shot Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler entirely digitally. Along with Anderson and Gilroy, Elswit has frequently shot films for George Clooney for his directorial endeavors. At 72, Elswit is still working, having filmed the upcoming Ripley, an upcoming prestige series based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. 

  • Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The Tree of Life, Burn After Reading) – 

Emmanuel Lubezki was born to a Jewish family in Mexico City and started working in film in the late 1980s. He has been friends with director Alfonso Cuaron since the two were teenagers and served as cinematographer on A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and Gravity. On Children of Men, Lubezki pioneered new technology to shoot the intense roadside ambush sequence. The car was modified so that the actor’s seat could be smoothly tilted down, allowing the camera to have freedom of movement that had previously been impossible. Also, in that same film, he helped shoot the incredible seven-and-a-half-minute battle sequence that appears to be a single take but holds five separate ones seamlessly edited together. Luzbezki has also worked often with Alejandro Iñárritu, having shot Birdman and The Revenant. Additionally, you have seen the cinematographer’s work in films as varied as Reality Bites, The Birdcage, The Cat in the Hat, and The Tree of Life.


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