Six Directors of Photography That Every Photographer Should Know

Six Directors of Photography That Every Photographer Should Know

Cinema may be a source of inspiration for photographers. And if we have titles of movies coming to mind or names of directors, we usually pay less attention to directors of photography, also called cinematographers. Big mistake! Those are the guys who master cameras and lighting techniques in order to materialize ideas into images.

John Alcott

Despite his short career, his work had a great influence on the history of cinema.

Since 2001: A Space Odyssey, when he had to replace the director of photography, he has collaborated on many major Kubrick movies, none less than Clockwork Orange or The Shining. He had developed revolutionary filmmaking and had to demonstrate qualities of adaptability to follow Kubrick's ambition to constantly change his style.

He also carried on in movies what he learned in his career in advertising: he made great use of diffusion filters and practical lighting (a source of light included in the frame).

While in 2001 he used mostly bounced light to allow Kubrick to shoot from any angle, he had to rely on the famous Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7, developed by NASA, for the nonetheless famous and challenging Barry Lyndon during the scenes lit only by candlelight. Even with such a perfectionist and control freak as Kubrick, Alcott found a way to use his own techniques and tricks. Spreading water in the streets to bounce the city lights and gain a few stops is one of them.

Even now that we constantly push back the limits of modern cameras when it comes to high ISOs and darkness, such ingenuity can still surely find a practical use nowadays.

Roger Deakins

Maybe one of the most famous directors of photography. His early taste for painting probably had a great influence on his work when collaborating with essential directors such as Sam Mendes, Martin Scorcese, or the Cohen Brothers. No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049, or the more recent 1917 show both his versatility and style, characterized by a simple aesthetic and the use of natural lighting.

When deciding on the lighting, he voluntarily left some unnecessary elements in the dark by contrasting a scene and thus highlighting the important details.

To that end, he often used three sources of light and adopted unusual shooting angles to convey the mood of the characters.

Two other things to learn from him: his belief in thorough preparation and how he devoted his knowledge to the needs of the project. At the end of the day, the story has the final say. It might be something to keep in mind when being part of a group project or when a client stands his ground with a specific idea.

Christopher Doyles

You won’t be surprised to learn that he moved to Taiwan in his twenties and even learned Mandarin when you consider that he is behind the photography of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046.

His taste for multiple arts is visible in his work. His practice of mixed media painting and paper collage transpires in the composition and colors displayed on screen.

As a creator, he feels that he also has a responsibility to voice the world and visualize it in a unique manner.

He has more of an instinctive than a technical approach and follows intuitively his artistic flow, fed by his mixed cultures, European and Asian. Open-minded, any new life experience is, for him, a way to feed his aesthetic narrative. A wise lesson for all kinds of creatives.

Janusz Kamiński

A name usually associated with another famous one: Steven Spielberg. They’ve been working together since 1993 on the acclaimed Schindler’s List.

There is an old-school aesthetic in his cinematography that conforms to Spielberg’s main ambition: to tell a story. And to that end, he uses the image grammar in a traditional way, where perspectives and camera effects convey an idea and help the viewer grab the mood and the concept.

He adapts the technique to the meaning: everybody remembers the desaturated images of Saving Private Ryan, which plunge us into the period of shooting. Munich, Bridge of Spies, or The Post depict visually so well the era their story is rooted in.

His use of film certainly contributes to this, be it the Kodak 320T for Catch Me If You Can or the 200T for Private Ryan.

Another recognizable trait of Kamiński’s imagery is a light haze, accentuated by a glowing backlight, that creates an atmosphere close to the naturalistic look he is after.

Emmanuel Lubezki

Three movies, among others, show the visual talent of Lubezki: Children of Men, Birdman, and The Tree of Life.

Although very different, the movies display some common traits of Lubezki imagery. His camera is often handheld, but its movement is more fluid than in a reportage style, and the takes are longer. The camera follows the characters' evolutions in a way that is "organic to the story," as Lubezki once stated.

In terms of lighting, Lubezki is in search of available light, in accordance with the narrative of the movie.

Planning the sun's position and the quality of its light took a good place in his concerns when shooting. Being consistent is more crucial throughout a movie, but photographers certainly can benefit from applying this to their work.

The type and color of light also contribute to the mood of a scene, whether it is a sharp, clean light, as in Gravity, or an end-of-day light, as in Children of Men or The Revenant.

His contemplative scenes often replace any voice or dialogue in order to trigger a specific emotion through the use of photographic language.

There is definitely a lot to learn by watching Lubezki's image chemistry.

Robert Richardson

Another cinematographer’s work contributed to creating visual milestones. Judge for yourself: Platoon, JFK, Shutter Island, Kill Bill.

As the position of director of photography demands, Richardson endeavors to blend his art with the vision of the film director.

Still, he has spread some of his gimmicks through different movies. Creating a halo around characters with a well-placed backlight that bounces off the subject's face is one of them.

This pattern became part of his method of thinking, depending on where the camera is positioned, where to have the light, and how to bounce it back.

Technically, there were "big, broad sources bouncing off of a muslin through another muslin... We call it a book," he explained.

The lenses and framing also have a precise use in the narration. The wide angle is a reasoned choice to establish a situation, to present a character's stance in its environment, or to show a gigantic surrounding landscape.

It may seem obvious, but the good old visual syntax is still proven to be efficient.


A photographer is most of the time his own image director. Even when it’s not the case, and when he is part of a creative team gathered to achieve an assignment, it might be useful to approach a shoot with those reflections in mind.

By practicing and adapting these methods, we may also find our own techniques that resonate with the ambition of a project.

Stefan Gonzalevski's picture

Stefan Gonzalevski is a French photographer based in Budapest, Hungary.
He has experience in fin art printing, for luxury brands, and product photography. He is also into urban and architecture photography.

Log in or register to post comments