It’s always good to be reminded that there are good and beautiful things in this world. And on days when the world feels particularly ugly, such reminders can feel vitally necessary. Of course, the craft of the cinematographer is not about prettification, but about communication —in many ways the purest of all the cinematic disciplines, cinematography is about telling the story of the film’s themes, mood and atmosphere through visuals: through the interplay of light and shade, color and motion.
Sometimes this discipline leads to a beautiful picture, but it’s truth and not beauty that is the barometer of greatness for the cinematic image. These are the 50 men and women working today in the field of cinematography whose visual truthfulness we most admire, and whose work is one of the best reasons we can think of to get out of bed in the morning, however bleak the mornings might otherwise seem. And as with our 100 Best Directors feature, we’ve included the matrix “Most Exciting” up top as well, because we want the list to reflect not only past glories but future promise as well. Enjoy —there are still some good and beautiful things in this world.
50. John Seale
We may going out on a hopeful limb here by including 74-year old Aussie legend Seale on our list of active DPs, since George Miller yanked him out of retirement for the dusty, sun-drenched and straight up gorgeous “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Until we hear otherwise, Seale commences our list, and it’s mostly thanks to how he manages to make the endless desert space of ‘Fury Road’ look like a tall glass of teal-dyed lemonade. Seale has of course worked with the likes of Anthony Minghella (for whom he won the Oscar for a different kind of stunning desert film, “The English Patient“) and Peter Weir, but the only way we’ll see him again is if Miller gets Mad Max 5 into production quickfast. We have hope.
49. Jody Lee Lipes
A terrific director in his own right —he helmed last year’s excellent dance-themed documentary “Ballet 422” as well as a couple of “Girls” episodes, a show for which he shot most of the first season —Lipes has rightly become one of the most in-demand cinematographers of the indie and comedy worlds. Making an early impression with Antonio Campos’ “Afterschool,’ Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Lipes has an unfussy, flexible style that feels light on its feet, that puts performance front and center but can still find beautiful images among them, as his recent, career-best work on Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By The Sea” demonstrates.
48. Sean Porter
If you’ve had your finger even vaguely near the pulse of independent American film in recent years, you might have started to hear about Porter, who’s been building up a filmography of diverse but enormously impressive work. He first turned our heads with human trafficking drama “Eden” and the gorgeous “It Felt Like Love,” then made “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter” one of the best looking indies of recent years, and switched gears entirely for the very different, green and gold neon intensity of Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room.” His warm, sun-kissed work on Mike Mills’ wonderful “20th Century Women” marks a step up in scope and scale, and he’ll make his studio debut next year, teaming with most of the “Broad City” team for “Rock That Body.”
47. Tim Ives
The coming of age of digital photography and the explosion of peak TV attracting brilliant filmmakers means that television is more beautiful than it’s ever been, and Ives might be the person leading the forefront. Getting his start in features with the Danny Aiello-starring restaurant movie “Dinner Rush,” Ives soon moved into TV, with impressive work on “Treme” leading to him shooting about two-thirds of the “Girls” episodes over the show’s five seasons. And word spread: he also lensed the pilot to “Mr. Robot,” establishing the show as one of TV’s most visually arresting and distinctive series, before shooting six out of eight “Stranger Things” episodes, including the first, doing so much to give it its striking, ’80s-tastic look. Few are doing more to make the small screen sing right now.
46. Jakob Ihre
One of our favorite photographer/director partnerships of recent years has been that between Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier and his Sweden-born regular cinematographer Ihre. The pair met at the National Film & Television School in London, and though Ihre broke into features with other directors, his best work has come with his three films with Trier, “Reprise,” “Oslo August 31st” and “Louder Than Bombs,” all of which showcase beautiful, dextrous, vibrant camerawork. They’ll reteam for next year’s “Thelma,” but Ihre’s increasingly in demand in the U.S. as well, after his fine work on James Ponsoldt’s “The End Of The Tour.”
45. Rachel Morrison
The first time we noticed the work of 38-year-old Massachussetts-born Morrison —seeing as we never watched a single episode of “The Hills” for which she was resident DP for 24 episodes— was in 2011 on Zal Batmanglij‘s terrific “Sound of my Voice,” though her understated visuals there were anything but showy. The hugely versatile Morrison has since lensed everything from the garishness of “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” to the de-glammed Jennifer Aniston vehicle “Cake.” But it’s been her work with two rising black filmmakers that has really kicked her profile up a notch —she shot Rick Famuyiwa’s bright, poppy, energetic “Dope” last year, and Ryan Coogler‘s impressive breakout “Fruitvale Station” in 2013. And coming up, she has Dee “Pariah” Rees’ “Mudbound” and the very big deal that is Coogler’s “Black Panther.”
44. Thimios Bakatakis
The crisp, stylized, bleached-out images of Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” and the subdued formalist chilliness of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Attenberg” mean that DP Bakatakis has become as immediately associated with the Greek Weird Wave as, well, weirdness itself, and that the movement has a defined look. But although his partnership with Lanthimos (they reteamed on “The Lobster“) is his best known, he has an expanding repertoire that shows his adaptability. He also shot Ira Sachs‘ glowy, warm-toned “Keep the Lights On” and turned in a virtuosic evocation of failing sight in Eskil Vogt‘s underseen “Blind.” Just this year, he gave new cinematic dimension to stage adaptation “Una” with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, proving that he’s practically peerless in the business of giving a sheen of confident, immaculate style to propositions that might seem visually tricky on paper.
43. Hong Kyung-po
Not a name that rolls off the tongue when one thinks of modern cinematographers, but this South Korean DP has had such a healthy string of striking films in his repertoire as of late that we’re happy to shout his name out for all to hear. Hong Kyung-po blipped on our radars after his first collaboration with Bong Joon-ho for the remarkable “Mother” (check out this great analysis of its shooting technique), then wowed us again with their second outing together, “Snowpiercer,” and most recently turned our heads around a few times over with Na Hong-jin’s “The Wailing” —its lush forests and rain-drenched suburbs are as visually striking as we’d come to expect from Hong by now.
42. Charlotte Bruus Christensen
The rise of Charlotte Bruus Christensen has felt positively meteoric. Before she lensed Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” in 2012, giving the film a twitchy handheld energy that gave it much of its power, she only had a few features under her belt, but now she’s virtually omnipresent. That film led to a reteam with the Danish helmer (who she also shot “Submarino” for) on the gorgeous “Far From The Madding Crowd,” as well as doing some impressive work with Anton Corbijn for “Life.” This year, her photography in “The Girl On The Train” was arguably the film’s best element, and she has Denzel Washington’s “Fences” and Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game” coming up soon.
41. Philippe Le Sourd
We’ll be honest: prior to a few years ago, we wouldn’t have really rated French cinematographer Le Sourd, being unfamiliar with his French-language work and not particularly taken with the lensing on Ridley Scott‘s forgettable “A Good Year” and the schmaltzy Will Smith vehicle “Seven Pounds.” But that changed in a big way in 2013, as it did for the Academy, which nominated him for an Oscar, when Le Sourd shot Wong Kar-Wai‘s absolutely bloody gorgeous “The Grandmaster.” That sedate but luxuriant wuxia epic would justify his presence here all by itself, but he’ll surely climb higher in the rankings over the coming years: he’s currently at work shooting “The Beguiled” for Sofia Coppola who has never turned in a less than gorgeous looking film, or indeed a less than gorgeous single shot, in her life.