There is an old adage that in order to be a good writer you first need to be a good reader. If that is true (and it is) then it follows that, since cinematography literally means “writing with motion and light,” your cinematography should improve as you consume more movies.
For this article I’ve put together an incomplete list of essential films that everyone who wants to study, practice or simply appreciate the art of cinematography should watch. Twice.
This list leaves off some more traditional choices, like Citizen Kane and The Godfather, because I am assuming that as a MovieMaker reader, you have already seen (or at least heard of) those films. If for some reason you haven’t seen those classics, stop whatever it is that you’re doing (yes, even reading this article) and seek them out immediately.
In the meantime, the following films are a good place to start the conversation about the art, craft and technology of cinematography and its importance in the collaborative art of cinema.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
directed by F.W. Murnau
20th century fox, $239.98, part of the
murnau, borzage and fox box set

Sunrise is the first film to win an Oscar for Best Cinematography (shared by co-cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss) and was also given a special award for “artistic quality of production,” which has never been awarded since. This is a film made at the height of visual storytelling (produced the same year The Jazz Singer introduced the world to synch sound) and uses almost no title cards to tell its story. It stands as the prime example of how lighting, camera movement, framing and lens choice can express a story.
essential scene: Early in the film the Man (George O’Brien) has arranged to meet the Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) in the middle of the night. The Man enters the scene with a giant full moon reflected in the lake behind him. The camera travels with him before appearing to lose him in a thicket of the marshland. However, the thicket opens before the camera as it tracks forward to reveal The Woman from the City silhouetted against the moon, tossing aside a flower as the Man enters her embrace. It is a dazzling display that continues to inspire moviemakers about the possibilities of what a camera lens can express.

The Third Man (1949)
directed by Carol Reed
Lionsgate blu-ray, $39.99

It is easy to see why Robert Krasker won the Oscar for his expressionistic, black-and-white cinematography in director Reed’s post-war thriller: The entire story depends on light and dark. Add in the unique angles and on-location photography (shot in a beautifully ruined, post-war Vienna) and you have a perfect example of how a choice camera angle and expressionistic lighting can help tell your story better, create mood and atmosphere and sometimes even establish character.
essential scene: The introduction of Orson Welles’ character, Harry Lime (the titular “Third Man”) is a prime example of Krasker’s exemplary photography as a simple window light casts a theatrical spotlight on the hidden figure and the camera suddenly pushes in on Welles’ schoolboy expression, creating the most memorable entrance in screen history.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
directed by Charles Laughton
Criterion Collection, $39.95

It is a shame that director Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez only collaborated once because this film is so luminous and cinematically rich. Shot almost entirely on a soundstage, the cinematography helps to create the atmosphere of a dark children’s fairy tale come to life. Using techniques and framing that hadn’t been used since the silent era, Cortez created rich tableaus that managed to push visual storytelling forward by reaching into the past.
essential scene: No shot sums up the movie’s visual fantasies better than the discovery of Shelley Winters’ body sitting in a car at the bottom of the river, her hair drifting with the seaweed. It is a beautiful and haunting image full of the logic of childhood nightmares.

Winter Light (1963)
directed by Ingmar Bergman
Criterion Collection, $79.95, part of the
Ingmar Bergman trilogy

Cinematographer Sven Nykvist may not have invented soft, indirect lighting, but he certainly perfected it with this film, which follows the path of the sun for a few short hours. It’s a prime example of micro-storytelling that requires and applies to the macro. It is the smallest of stories, taking place between two church services, but feels as if the entire world is examined in that short amount of time.
essential scene: In his most spiritually bleak and visually stark film, Bergman includes a stunning, uninterrupted six-minute shot of Ingrid Thulin’s face that is somehow a summation of everything cinematography can do with the human face, which is still the greatest mystery for every cameraman.

I Am Cuba (1964)
directed by Mikhail Kalatozov
Milestone cinematheque, $44.95

After completing I Am Cuba, cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky retired as a cameraman. It’s easy to see why. What more can you do with a camera? The camera movement in this film is still unparalleled; it’s confounding to think what kind of equipment was needed to make these elaborate tracking shots work in the days before CGI and lightweight Steadicams. Beyond all the technical wizardry, this is a profoundly moving picture, thanks in part to how the camera moves. Can a tracking shot provoke emotion? It can. Watch I Am Cuba to see magic.
essential scene: Early in the film there is a breathtaking, unbroken sequence that begins on a rooftop deck in the midst of a beauty pageant. The camera meanders through the bikini-clad women before impossibly descending four stories to the poolside bar below, following a waitress and her drink order to tourists and finally following one of the tourists into the swimming pool itself with an underwater camera (a shot Paul Thomas Anderson paid tribute to in Boogie Nights).

The Conformist (1970)
directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Currently out of print

Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro seemed to single-handedly bring style back to cinema with this movie. Using saturated color and unmotivated camera movement, this film opened up the possibilities of what one could do with a camera, light, composition and production design for a whole generation of moviemakers.
essential scene: The choreography of camera movement and lighting during the murder sequence in the woods is a testament to Storaro’s mastery of cinematography. The unmotivated camera movement creates tension at the beginning of the sequence, swooping in on the stopped car, foreshadowing the upcoming attack. Storaro’s lighting changes subtly throughout the sequence; it obscures or illuminates the scene with beautiful shafts of light spilling through the swaying trees. Finally, the moviemakers employ a handheld camera at the end of the scene, putting the viewer into the scene and in the middle of the terrifying experience.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
directed by Victor Erice
Criterion Collection, $39.95

The Spirit of the Beehive is a movie that captures the perfect magic hour light of the Spanish countryside. Amazingly, cinematographer Luis Cuadrado was going blind while making this picture. An assistant would take Polaroids of the scenes and he would direct the lighting by looking at the pictures through a magnifying glass. Somehow, despite these obstacles, Cuadrado and Erice crafted a superb movie that should give every cinematographer hope whenever making the day on set seems impossible.
essential scene: A deceptively simple shot of the two sisters overlooking a deserted field sums up the entire movie: The children stand for a moment and watch as clouds pass in front of the sun before running off into the distance. The shot dissolves to reveal the children, part of the empty landscape now, clouds beginning to darken the overall scene. It is as if an Andrew Wyeth painting has come to life.

Raging Bull (1980)
directed by Martin Scorsese
MGM Home Entertainment, $14.98

Scorsese and DP Michael Chapman put everything they knew about cinema into this movie, which earned eight Oscar nominations, including one apiece for Chapman and his director. Every type of shot, lighting and composition can be seen in this film, which serves as a textbook of all of cinema up until this point in film history. Somehow it all comes together incredibly well—and cohesively—to tell a moving story.
essential scene: Jake LaMotta’s (Robert De Niro) final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson takes the visuals to an almost operatic level as Chapman and Scorsese throw everything except the kitchen sink into the ring to get inside the fight experience. The camera speed ramps to slow motion 120 frames per second and the lights flare around Robinson as he prepares to unleash a fury of blows upon LaMotta. It’s a dramatic moment made all the more powerful as Scorsese removes the sound and lets the images alone covey the moment, making it a scene no one can forget.

The Parallax View (1974)
directed by Alan J. Pakula
Currently out of print

Darkness can be a friend sometimes. No one knew this better than cameraman Gordon Willis, who is often referred to as “The Prince of Darkness” as a result of his lighting predilections. This film (and really all of Willis’ work, which includes The Godfather trilogy, Manhattan and Pakula’s Klute and All the President’s Men) is a great testament to the fact that sometimes the lights you turn off are more important than the ones you leave on. Beyond the use of darkness is Willis’ composition and use of long lenses to add an aura of paranoia to the movie.
essential scene: The film’s assassination climax is resplendent with Willis’ use of contrast, alternating shots of extreme darkness in the wings of the political rally with the bright overexposure of the empty rally itself. Pakula and Willis (together with editor John Wheeler) tell the story with a pure Hitchcockian cinema image montage in these final moments that keeps you at the edge of your seat, no matter how many times you’ve seen the film.

Barry Lyndon (1975)
directed by Stanley Kubrick
Warner Home Video, $19.98

A new level of naturalistic photography was achieved by Kubrick and his cinematographer, John Alcott, with this period piece. Developing new lenses which finally allowed actual candlelight to be photographed let the moviemakers show the past closer to how it actually appeared, giving life to the period re-creations.
essential scene: A six-minute sequence depicting Barry’s (Ryan O’Neal) seduction of the Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) in the first half of the film is done with almost no dialogue and is a great example of Alcott’s naturalistic candlelight photography. It begins in a gambling hall lit by candles and moves outside, where more romantic moonlight illuminates the characters, who are overcome with desire. Kubrick and Alcott’s carefully composed frames allow viewers to catch the actors’ performances as they say volumes with glances and slight movements. When the camera finally moves, tracking with Barry to the Countess, it perfectly echoes the contained passion that is about to explode in a manner unparalleled in cinema.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
directed by Steven Spielberg
Dreamworks Video, $14.99

Some of the visual manipulations (like selective desaturation and higher contrast) that we think of today when “digital intermediates” are mentioned were established with Saving Private Ryan, but using photochemical processes. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski used a combination of special film processing, high shutter speeds and handheld camerawork to create the most visceral war movie ever made. Here is a film where the camera technique cannot be separated from the story being told. Unlike many stylistically challenging films, in this film the style is the substance and an integral part of the viewing experience.
essential scene: The film’s first 30 minutes are a now-legendary re-creation of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Using all the techniques described above, Kaminski and Spielberg take the viewer on a chaotic, soldier’s-eye view of the D-Day experience. The sequence’s intense replication of the war experience has yet to be improved upon, or even matched. MM