When it comes to filmmaking, directors often get the lion’s share of the credit, but a good cinematographer – the person responsible for the framing, lighting and lens choices – can make or break a movie. Indeed, some of the industry’s biggest names have composed beautiful images on a par with fine art – and here are 20 stunning shots to prove it.
20. Apocalypse Now (1979)
The production of Apocalypse Now was beset by multiple problems. Not only did the crew have to cope with on-set typhoons in the Philippines, but one of them – lead actor Martin Sheen – actually suffered a heart attack on location. However, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro created something truly amazing amid the chaos and actually earned an Oscar for his efforts. This haunting image of the protagonist’s entrance into villain Colonel Kurtz’s compound, for example, is truly striking.
19. Life of Pi (2012)
Although most of Life of Pi’s ocean scenes utilized digital effects, the film’s cinematographer Claudio Miranda wanted to create a look that was entirely naturalistic. And so the Oscar-winning director of photography (DP) came up with a brilliant idea: he carved a door into the soundstage’s roof so that sea scenes like this one could be shot in natural light.
18. Stalker (1979)
Stalker is considered one of the greatest films of Soviet cinema, telling as it does the remarkable story of men journeying through a mysterious location known as the Zone. Unbelievably, though, the movie’s original footage was actually rendered unusable due to an error in the film stock’s development process. As a result, director Andrei Tarkovsky hired a new cinematographer in Aleksandr Knyazhinsky to reshoot the entire movie from scratch – and Knyazhinsky did a fantastic job.
17. Thor (2011)
Taking inspiration from the work of painter Edward Hopper, Haris Zambarloukos became a master of light manipulation for 2011’s Thor. And his techniques were particularly effective in achieving an ethereal, otherworldly look for the scenes set on the planet of Asgard. This shot, for example, quite artistically depicts the titular character’s final fight with the villainous Loki.
16. Black Swan (2010)
In order to depict the breakdown of Black Swan’s dancing protagonist Nina, Matthew Libatique turned to a number of techniques not normally associated with narrative cinema. For instance, the cinematographer used a single handheld camera and a small crew – practices usually reserved for documentaries – to keep the audience in Nina’s headspace. And it worked particularly well during climatic scenes such as this one, in which the ballerina makes her stage debut as Swan Lake’s Odette.
15. The Dark Knight (2008)
The first shot from 2008’s ground-breaking The Dark Knight serves as a brilliant and mysterious introduction to the Joker. Indeed, part of its power lies in cinematographer Wally Pfister’s use of IMAX 70mm film stock – a medium he told Empire possesses a “physical impact that is really unparalleled.” And judging by this quality shot, we certainly can’t argue with him.
14. The Shining (1980)
Director Stanley Kubrick was obsessed with symmetry and perfection, and the one-point-perspective technique has become synonymous with his name. A perfect example of this can be found in 1980’s The Shining – his fourth collaboration with DP John Alcott – wherein the exaggerated and perfectly symmetrical framing gives an ominous quality to Danny’s encounter with the Grady twins.
13. Ghostbusters (1984)
Ghostbusters may just be seen as a fun popcorn movie for some, but the 1984 smash hit also features some surprisingly deep cinematography. Specifically, this shot helmed by DP Laszlo Kovacs is an effective way of depicting the Keymaster and Gatekeeper’s first meeting in Dana’s ruined apartment. Plus, the sprawling view of Manhattan hints towards the citywide destruction at the film’s climax.
12. American Beauty (1999)
Even those who haven’t seen the Oscar-winning American Beauty will recognize this iconic image of Mena Suvari floating in a sea of rose petals. What you might not realize though is that, in order to accurately represent the sexual fantasies of protagonist Lester, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall shot the scene six times slower than normal. And the result? Stunning footage that delivers a dreamlike and heavenly feel.
11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Despite the fact that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is told principally from inside the main character’s mind, director Michel Gondry insisted that the film look as close to real life as possible. And cinematographer Ellen Kuras certainly rose to the challenge. This amazing, naturally-lit shot – filmed on a real frozen lake in New York’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Park – has become the movie’s most famous frame.
10. Interstellar (2014)
Christopher Nolan loves practical effects, and his talent has helped films like Interstellar gain a considerable following. For instance, that film’s final tesseract scene was shot in-camera on a moving physical set which visualized the interior of a black hole. Meanwhile, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema cleverly lit the set with flickering projectors, which only added to its otherworldly appearance.
9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
In preparation for the martial arts hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, cinematographer Peter Pau encouraged his crew to develop their listening skills so that they were in tune with the rhythm of the film’s poetic fight scenes. And as a result, moments like this beautiful aerial swordfight – filmed above an actual bamboo forest – have a gorgeous balletic quality rarely seen in action cinema.
8. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Some job opportunities are just too tempting to say no to, and cinematographer John Seale actually came out of retirement to shoot Mad Max: Fury Road. Without doubt, the DP’s diligence paid off, too, and images like this – in which Furiosa’s anguished scream is framed magnificently by the sparse Namibian desert – showcase his talents to the full.
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick makes another appearance on this list with this scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s another excellent example of the director’s one-point-perspective method. The composition of the shot brilliantly underlines the film’s themes of technology overtaking humanity as astronaut Dave – on his way to deprogram the homicidal AI HAL 9000 – is overcome by the synthetic and clinical environment around him.
6. Fight Club (1999)
Beauty can often be found in the darkest of images, and the final shot of Fight Club is a case in point. But although the context of the scene – which sees the protagonists watch the demolition of multiple office buildings – isn’t entirely uplifting, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keeps us in awe thanks to his clever use of lighting and the darker, emotive hues he has produced.
5. The Graduate (1967)
Images often speak louder than words, and The Graduate managed to encapsulate its own plot with one perfectly composed shot. During Mrs Robinson’s attempted seduction of the protagonist Benjamin, Robert Surtees chose to frame the action through actress Anne Bancroft’s leg. And, consequently, we get a feel for how trapped the young man has become by the older woman’s raw sexuality.
4. The Exorcist (1973)
Although this iconic scene from The Exorcist lasts only 26 seconds, it required a full 24 hours for cinematographer Owen Roizman to set it up just right. It was all worth it, though – using a fantastic use of light and contrast, it established Father Merrin as a beacon of hope against the demon Pazuzu. Plus, the powerful shot also earned Roizman an Oscar nomination and became the cover for home video releases, too.
3. The Tree of Life (2011)
Throughout his career, Emmanuel Lubezki has achieved acclaim for his extensive and often painstaking use of natural light. And although the DP would earn Oscars for his work on Birdman and The Revenant, the sheer beauty of 2011’s The Tree of Life offers his most impressive compositions. For instance, this beautiful sunset-lit shot is moving beyond words.
2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond won an Oscar for his magnificent work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind – and with shots like this, it’s easy to see why. In this scene, Zsigmond portrays the alien spaceship abducting the child Barry through intense and intoxicating lighting. And, as a result, the image is lent a hypnotizing and overpowering quality.
1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
No list of great cinematographic moments would be complete without mentioning Roger Deakins – a true artist who has earned no fewer than 12 Oscar nominations for his craft. Deakins’ first nomination came for 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, and this famous high-angle shot of convict Andy Dufresne’s escape from prison is just as powerful now as it was 20 years ago.