The ten greatest cinematographers of all time

by Dillon Bryden

Here is my own personal list of the ten greatest cinematographers of all time. All of these men have expanded the possibilities of the film process and inspired hundreds of filmmakers to work with film. Vittorio Storaro called cinematography "painting with light and motion". With the advent of new techniques, it is heartening to see that traditional film stock still has a major part to play in modern filmmaking and that those who make art from the capture of light and motion are finding ways to maximise the potential of digital photography as well.

If you have any comments on this list, please feel free to email Any contributions to the debate are most welcome.


10  winton hoch US, 1905-1979                    

"The work left behind by Winton Hoch is the vindication of Technicolor as a creative means. Unique of his generation, Hoch rose to director of photography from the chemistry labs where color stock was developed and never shot a foot of monochrome stock." (Derek Owen) John Ford found Hoch 'pedantic', but the longevity of The Searchers as one of the great American films owes a vast amount to Hoch's mastery of the process.

Key films: The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949).


9 freddie young GB, 1902-1998                

The most celebrated of British cinematographers, Young's ability to control a vast tapestry led to his reputation as a photographer of epic pictures (he collaborated with David Lean on both Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago) but he was as capable of subtle beauty with films like Lust for Life and Ryan's Daughter.

Key films: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), The Battle of Britain (Guy Hamilton, 1969), You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967).


8 john alcott GB, 1931-1986                                  

Best known for his collaboration with Kubrick, starting with his work as part of the camera team on 2001: A Space Odyssey, West-London-born Alcott was a pioneer of naturalistic lighting, preferring as much as possible to use natural daylight and even on occasion, candle-light as opposed to standard artificial lighting techniques. Was closely involved with Kubrick's abortive Napoleon project.

Key films: Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980).


7 stanley cortez US, 1908-1997                  

Born in New York to Austrian-Jewish parents, Cortez blossomed late, but his meticulous sense of invention led to crucial interventions in some of the most iconic films ever made. Notorious as a fussy, slow worker (remarkable considering how prolific he was - twenty six films in the four years between 1938 and 1942), Cortez fell out frequently with the hyperactive Welles on the set of Ambersons, but the two remained strong friends (without working together) ever since.

Key films: The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942), The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964).

6 nestor almendros Sp, 1930-1992     

Spanish born but exiled to Cuba then lived in France for most of his career. He spent a short period in the US where he picked up numerous awards for his work on Days of Heaven (pictured), Kramer vs Kramer and Sophie's Choice. A prominent gay activist who made two powerful documentaries on the subject, he died of AIDS in 1992.

Key films: Ma Nuit Chez Maud (Eric Rohmer, 1969), Days of Heaven (Terence Malick, 1978), L'Enfant Sauvage (François Truffaut, 1970)


5 robert krasker Aus, 1913-1981                         

An Australian who learnt his trade in the burgeoning British film industry of the 1940s (working as camera operator on Korda's Four Feathers and The Thief of Bagdhad), Krasker, whose b&w camerawork envied no-one, became known as one of the first great colour photographers, largely through his work on Senso and El Cid.

Key films: The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), Senso (Luchino Visconti, 1954), The Quiet American (Joseph L Manciewicz, 1958).


4  gregg toland US,1904-1948                              

Legendary for his role on marshalling the young Welles on Citizen Kane, Toland also worked with John Ford, Eric Von Stroheim, Howard Hawks, King Vidor and William Wyler. He was quite simply the most sought after US cinematographer of the 1930s and 1940s.

Key films: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), Wuthering Heights (1939).

3 michael chapman US,1935-                        

Chapman has the interesting distinction of having worked as camera operator on three monumental classics: John Cassavetes' Husbands, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Later he tried his hand at acting and direction, with mixed results. His cinematography for Martin Scorsese, on the other hand, will live forever.

Key films: Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980), The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973).


2  gordon willis US,1931-                                            

In one seven-year stretch in the 1970s, Willis was the director of photography on seven movies which received a total of 39 Academy Award nominations, winning 19 Oscars, including three 'best picture' awards, all without so much as a single nomination for Willis himself. The Academy finally awarded him an honorary Oscar in 2010 for his colossal body of work.

Key films: The Godfather Trilogy (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972-90), Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), The Parallax View (Alan J Pakula, 1974).


1 vittorio storaro It,1940-                                     

Inspired as a young student by paintings, music and literature, Storaro is perhaps the world's foremost living authority on cinematography. He invented a series of custom colour gels and his own film system, Univision (three-perforation 35mm film stock with an aspect ration of 2:1) with the intention that it become the universally used method of film projection.

Key films: Apocalypse Now (Francis Coppola, 1979), Il Conformista (Bernardo Bertollucci, 1970), Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998).