The Academy Award for best cinematography is one of the most prestigious honors bestowed each year at the Oscars. The best cinematography Oscar has been around since the inception of the award ceremony but it underwent a great deal of experimentation and evolution in the early years.

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Academy Award cinematography

History of cinematography at the Oscars

The first Academy Awards ceremony, held in 1928, nominated cinematographers for their collective work in the given year rather than an individual film, followed by the next year where the cinematography award was absent entirely, and the third year where films were nominated for Best Cinematography without naming the cinematographers.

When color film began growing in popularity, the award was split with the main award going to a black and white film, and a “special achievement” award going to a film shot in color. By the 1940s, two full Academy Awards were given out for cinematography each year, divided into black & white and color. This would continue until 1967 when color and black & white films would finally be judged against each other for a single Best Achievement in Cinematography award. If you love the B&W look, check out our tips for black and white photography.

Cinematography Oscar movies

All Best Cinematography Oscar Winners

Before we pick our favorite Best Cinematography Oscar winners, let’s recap every single recipient of the award to date:

best cinematography academy award

All best cinematography Oscar Winners

  • 2019 - Roger Deakins, 1917
  • 2018 - Alfonso Cuarón, Roma 
  • 2017 - Roger DeakinsBlade Runner 2049
  • 2016 - Linus Sandgren, La La Land
  • 2015 - Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
  • 2014 - Emmanuel Lubezki,  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  • 2013 - Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity 
  • 2012 - Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi
  • 2011 - Robert Richardson, Hugo 
  • 2010 - Wally Pfister, Inception 
  • 2009 - Mauro Fiore, Avatar 
  • 2008 - Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire
  • 2007 - Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood
  • 2006 - Guillermo Navarro, Pan’s Labyrinth
  • 2005 - Dion Beebe, Memoirs of a Geisha
  • 2004 - Robert Richardson, The Aviator 
  • 2003 - Russell Boyd, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  • 2002 - Conrad L. Hall, Road to Perdition
  • 2001 - Andrew Lesnie, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • 2000 - Peter Pau, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • 1999 - Conrad L. Hall, American Beauty
  • 1998 - Janusz Kamiński, Saving Private Ryan 
  • 1997 - Russell Carpenter, Titanic 
  • 1996 - John Seale, The English Patient
  • 1995 - John Toll, Braveheart 
  • 1994 - John Toll, Legends of the Fall
  • 1993 - Janusz Kamiński, Schindler’s List
  • 1992 - Phillipe Rousselot, A River Runs Through It
  • 1991 - Robert Richardson, JFK 
  • 1990 - Dean Semler, Dances with Wolves 
  • 1989 - Freddie Francis, Glory  
  • 1988 - Peter Biziou, Mississippi Burning
  • 1987 - Vittorio Storaro, The Last Emperor
  • 1986 - Chris Menges, The Mission
  • 1985 - David Watkin, Out of Africa
  • 1984 - Chris Menges, The Killing Fields
  • 1983 - Sven Nykvist, Fanny and Alexander
  • 1982 - Billy Williams, Ronnie Taylor, Gandhi 
  • 1981 - Vittorio Storaro, Reds 
  • 1980 - Geoffrey Unsworth, Ghislain Cloquet, Tess 
  • 1979 - Vittorio Storaro, Apocalypse Now
  • 1978 - Néstor Almendros, Days of Heaven
  • 1977 - Vilmos Zsigmond, Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • 1976 - Haskell Wexler, Bound for Glory
  • 1975 - John Alcott, Barry Lyndon
  • 1974 - Fred J. Koenekamp, Joseph Biroc, The Towering Inferno
  • 1973 - Sven Nykvist, Cries and Whispers
  • 1972 - Geoffrey Unsworth, Cabaret 
  • 1971 - Oswald Morris, Fiddler on the Roof
  • 1970 - Freddie Young, Ryan’s Daughter
  • 1969 - Conrad Hall, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • 1968 - Pasqualino De Santis, Romeo and Juliet
  • 1967 - Burnett Guffey, Bonnie and Clyde
  • 1966 - Ted Moore, (Color) A Man for All Seasons
     Haskell Wexler, (B&W) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • 1965 - Freddie Young, (Color) Doctor Zhivago
    (Ernest Laszlo), (B&W) Ship of Fools 
  • 1964 - Harry Stradling, (Color) My Fair Lady (
    Walter Lassally, (B&W) Zorba the Greek 
  • 1963 - Leon Shamroy, (Color) Cleopatra 
     James Wong Howe, (B&W) Hud
  • 1962 - Freddie Young, (Color) Lawrence of Arabia
    Jean Bourgoin, Walter Wottitz, (B&W) The Longest Day 
  • 1961 - Daniel L. Fapp,  (Color) West Side Story
    Eugen Schüfftan, (B&W) The Hustler 
  • 1960 - Russell Metty,  (Color) Spartacus
    Freddie Francis, (B&W) Sons and Lovers
  • 1959 - Robert Surtees, (Color) Ben-Hur
     William C. Mellor, (B&W) The Diary of Anne Frank
  • 1958 - Joseph Ruttenberg,  (Color) Gigi
    Sam Leavitt, (B&W) The Defiant Ones 
  • 1957 - Jack Hildyard, The Bridge on the River Kwai 
  • 1956 - Lionel Lindon, (Color) Around the World in 80 Days
    Joseph Ruttenberg, (B&W) Somebody Up There Likes Me 
  • 1955 - Robert Burks, (Color) To Catch a Thief
      James Wong Howe,  (B&W) The Rose Tattoo
  •  1954 - Milton Krasner, (Color) Three Coins in the Fountain 
    Boris Kaufman,  (B&W) On the Waterfront 
  • 1953 - Loyal Griggs,  (Color) Shane 
    Burnett Guffey,  (B&W) From Here to Eternity 
  • 1952 - Winton C. Hoch, Archie Stout,  (Color) The Quiet Man
    Robert Surtees,  (B&W) The Bad and the Beautiful 
  • 1951 - Alfred Gilks, John Alton, (Color) An American in Paris
    William C. Mellor,  (B&W) A Place in the Sun
  • 1950 - Robert Surtees, (Color) King Solomon’s Mines
    Robert Krasker,  (B&W) The Third Man
  • 1949 - Winton C. Hoch, (Color) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
    Paul C. Vogel,  (B&W) Battleground
  • 1948 - Joseph Valentine, William V. Skall, Winton C. Hoch, (Color) Joan of Arc
    William Daniels,  (B&W) The Naked City 
  • 1947 - Jack Cardiff,  (Color) Black Narcissus 
    Guy Green,  (B&W) Great Expectations 
  • 1946 - Charles Rosher, Leonard Smith, Arthur Arling, (Color) The Yearling 
    Arthur C. Miller,  (B&W) Anna and the King of Siam 
  • 1945 - Leon Shamroy, (Color) Leave Her to Heaven 
    Harry Stradling,  (B&W) The Picture of Dorian Gray 
  • 1944 - Leon Shamroy, (Color) Wilson 
    Joseph LaShelle,  (B&W) Laura 
  • 1943 - Hal Mohr, W. Howard Greene,  (Color) Phantom of the Opera
    Arthur C. Miller,  (B&W) The Song of Bernadette 
  • 1942 - Leon Shamroy, (Color) The Black Swan
    Joseph Ruttenberg,  (B&W) Mrs. Miniver 
  • 1941 - Ernest Haller, Ray Rennahan, (Color) Blood and Sand
    Arthur C. Miller,  (B&W) How Green Was My Valley 
  • 1940 - George Périnal,   (Color) Thief of Bagdad
    George Barnes,  (B&W) Rebecca
  • 1939 - Ernest Haller, Ray Rennahan, (Color) Gone with the Wind
    Gregg Toland,  (B&W) Wuthering Heights
  • 1938 - Oliver T. Marsh, Allen Davey, (Color) Sweethearts
    Joseph Ruttenberg, (B&W) The Great Waltz
  • 1937 - W. Howard Greene, (Color) A Star is Born 
    Karl Freund, (B&W) The Good Earth 
  • 1936 - W. Howard Greene, Harold Rossen, (Color) The Garden of Allah
    Tony Guadio, (B&W) Anthony Adverse
  • 1935 - Hal Mohr, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • 1934 - Victor Milner, Cleopatra 
  • 1933/32 - Charles Lang, A Farewell to Arms 
  • 1932/31 Lee Garmes, Shanghai Express
  • 1931/30 - Floyd Crosby, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas
  • 1930/29 - Joseph T. Rucker, Willard Van der Veer, With Byrd at the South Pole
  • 1929/28 - Clyde De Vinna, White Shadows in the South Seas
  • 1928/27 - Charles Rosher, Karl Struss, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Now that we’ve recapped all of the Best Cinematography Oscar winners, let’s rank our favorite winners and highlight their exceptional work.

Cinematography of the year

20. Road to Perdition (2002)

A unique rain-soaked shootout

When the Sam Mendes directed Road to Perdition was nominated for six Oscars at the 2003 ceremony, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall received his 10th nomination for Best Achievement in Cinematography. Unfortunately, Conrad L. Hall passed away less than three months before the annual awards ceremony. The prestigious Oscar was awarded to him posthumously, becoming his third win in the category and capping off a career that began all the way back in the 1950s.

Best cinematography winners

Conclusion

Conrad L. Hall left behind an endlessly impressive legacy. This may not be his only entry on this list, read on to find out.

Best cinematography winners & nominees

19. Dances With Wolves (1990)

Majestic scenery in Dances With Wolves

With Kevin Costner both directing and starring in the frontier epic Dances With Wolves, he needed someone he could trust and rely upon behind the camera, and that person was Dean Semler. Much of the beauty in Dances With Wolves comes from the stunning scenery where all of the action takes place. Dances With Wolves was a technically complex shoot with hundreds of extras, horses, and SPFX technicians requiring precise production coordination.

Academy Award for best cinematography

Conclusion

The sweeping story and gorgeous landscapes are sure to impress in Dances With Wolves.

Cinematography awards

18. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

The iconic, groundbreaking finale

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Bonnie and Clyde to the history of cinema. The film was groundbreaking and envelope pushing in more ways than one. Inspired by the French New Wave, Bonnie and Clyde was instrumental in the changing style of filmmaking as the 60s progressed into the 70s. And Burnett Guffey’s cinematography was a key part of that pivotal transition, perhaps most notably in the film’s envelope-pushing climax which showcased graphic violence in crystal-clear slow motion. One of the early examples of how to use slow motion to create iconic moments.

Academy Award cinematography

Conclusion

Bonnie and Clyde should be on every aspiring filmmaker’s watchlist. Check it out if you’ve never seen it before.

Best cinematography Oscar

17. The Revenant (2015)

A 4K showreel of images from The Revenant

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu quickly followed up his hit Birdman with a second Oscar darling the very next year; an impressive back-to-back showing. The revenant again features show-stopping cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki. What makes the already incredible cinematography even more impressive are the conditions under which the film was made: in freezing temperatures, out in the wilderness, and with almost entirely natural light. Natural light is one of many different lighting sources and techniques used by cinematographers and this film is a high watermark for the style.

Cinematography Oscar movies

Conclusion

The Revenant is an impressive technical achievement in all regards.

Academy Award for best cinematography black and white

16. The Hustler (1961)

Heavy chiaroscuro lighting

The Hustler is the first black and white film on our list, and was awarded the Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar back when the category was still divided into black and white and color sub-categories. Eugen Schufftan’s moody lighting and use of chiaroscuro lighting evokes a Film Noir mood without committing the film fully to the noir genre’s more traditional stylings. The Hustler’s excellent lighting does wonders to make the confined locations of the film feel dynamic and exciting.

Cinematography Oscar winners

Conclusion

Martin Scorsese’s long belated follow up to The Hustler, The Color of Money, made it onto our list of the best Scorsese movies.

Cinematography of the year

15. There Will Be Blood (2007)

The oil derrick sends fire into the sky

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a cinematographer’s dream. It’s an incredibly visual film, and cinematographer Robert Elswit captures and delivers Anderson’s vision perfectly. The film is full of memorable visuals and sequences from start to finish.

The vastness of the desert is wonderfully captured, and sequences such as the burning of the oil derrick are truly awe inspiring.

Cinematography Oscar winners

Conclusion

Daniel Day Lewis also won an Oscar for his remarkable performance in There Will Be Blood alongside Robert Elswit for cinematography.

Best cinematography winners & nominees

14. Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Available in five parts on YouTube

Ingmar Bergman’s semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander stands tall as one of the best pieces from the master director’s filmography. Fanny and Alexander was initially planned and produced as a television mini-series which was divided into five parts and clocked in at over five hours in length. A film version was edited out of the mini-series which came in at a still lengthy, but more manageable three hour and eight minute runtime. This film version is what was honored at the academy awards and earned cinematographer Sven Nykvist a much deserved Oscar.

Cinematography Oscar winners

Conclusion

Whether you watch the mini-series or the slimmed down film version of Fanny and Alexander, you’re sure to enjoy the experience.

Cinematography awards

13. The Last Emperor (1987)

A compilation of important moments and impressive visuals

The Last Emperor is a life-time-spanning epic biopic on the life of Pu Yi, the final emperor of China. Vittorio Storaro won a much deserved award for Best Achievement in Cinematography for his incredible work on the film, and this was far from the only Oscar won by The Last Emperor. The film also won Academy Awards for music, editing, costuming, sound design, art direction, writing, directing, and even Best Picture.

Academy Award cinematography

Conclusion

Only three films have won more Oscars than The Last Emperor: Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Kingand Ben-Hur.

Academy Award for best cinematography

12. Apocalypse Now (1979)

The iconic Ride of the Valkyries scene with impressive aerial photography

Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war masterpiece Apocalypse Now garnered eight Academy Award nominations and won two of them: one for Best Sound and one for Best Cinematography awarded to Vittorio Storaro. This is Vittorio Storaro’s second and final entry on our list, though he did win the Best Cinematography Oscar on one other occasion for Reds in 1981. Storaro’s work on Apocalypse Now is made even more impressive by the extreme conditions under which the film was shot.

Academy Award cinematography

Conclusion

Apocalypse Now was one of the best films of the 1970s and a strong contender for any list of the best films of all time, and the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, made it onto our list of the greatest directors of all time.

Academy Award for best cinematography

11. Days of Heaven (1978)

Golden hour photography

Days of Heaven was Terrence Malick’s second feature film following his 1973 debut with Badlands. Nestor Almendros won the Best Cinematography Oscar for his work on the film, and he certainly had his work cut out for him. Days of Heaven was famously shot almost entirely during golden hour, the slim window of time just before sunset and just after sunrise when the sky provides the richest light. Days of Heaven is a gorgeous film, packed with golden exteriors and beautiful views.

Academy Award cinematography

Conclusion

Be sure to make use of as many cinematography techniques and tips as possible in your own projects, like shooting during golden hour

Academy Award for best cinematography black and white

10. Schindler’s List (1993)

The introduction to Oskar Schindler

Steven Spielberg’s gut-wrenching holocaust film is rich in theme, tone, heart, and cinematography. Janusz Kaminski won the Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar for his stark black and white photography with the only splash of color being the little girl’s red jacket.

Schindler’s List was Janusz Kaminski’s first collaboration with Steven Spielberg. The two became close collaborators and Kaminski would go on to shoot every Steven Spielberg film that followed.

Academy Award cinematography

Conclusion

Find out where Schindler’s List ranks on our list of the best Steven Spielberg movies.

Academy Award for best cinematography

9. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

So many stunning images connected through the appearance of a single take

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) earned nine Academy Award nominations and won four of them, including the Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar for Emmanuel Lubezki. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki would both win again at the Oscars the very next year with The Revenant. Birdman’s execution of the single-take style is perhaps the best that this novel filmmaking style has ever been pulled off.

Academy Award cinematography

Conclusion

Even if the one-take gimmick were somehow stripped away from Birdman, the cinematography would still be undeniably gorgeous.

Academy Award for best cinematography

8. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Fighting on tree tops

Ang Lee’s martial arts wu-xia epic is both an excellent film and an important bridge for mainstream audiences into the world of Hong Kong filmmaking. For many audience members, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was their first exposure to the wu-xia style of martial arts and brought new fans to the flourishing genre of martial arts films. Peter Pau’s gorgeous cinematography is a big draw to the film for those who may not be as interested in action films.

Academy Award cinematography

Conclusion

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a highlight of the genre and a highlight of Ang Lee’s incredibly diverse filmography.

Academy Award for best cinematography black and white

7. Roma (2018)

A compilation of gorgeous shots from Roma

Roma is a rare instance of a director serving as their own cinematographer. It is a rarity for an individual to fill both of these roles simultaneously but it does happen from time to time with those who have mastered their craft. Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino have both served as their own cinematographers on occasion. In Roma, Alfonso Cuarón directs and serves as his own DP, and the results are beautiful.

Academy Award cinematography

Conclusion

Roma is light on story and character but is a visual feast for the eyes.

Academy Award for best cinematography

6. Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Impressive coordination of extras

Doctor Zhivago continued David Lean’s trend toward massive spectacle and vistas in his films. Some critics have noted that the priority for grand spectacle may have begun to overshadow both the characters and the story by the time Lean released Doctor Zhivago, but the visual grandiosity is impossible to deny.

Freddie Young won his second Oscar for Best Cinematography working with David Lean and would go onto to win a third for Ryan’s Daughter in 1970.

Cinematography Oscar winners

Conclusion

The International Cinematographers Guild listed Freddie Young as one of the most influential cinematographers of all time.

Academy Award for best cinematography

5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Great use of POV

In the George Roy Hill classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, cinematographer Conrad Hall earned his first of three Academy Awards. Conrad Hall was featured earlier on this list for his posthumous win for Road to Perdition. His career spanned many decades as the Hollywood landscape changed and evolved over time.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a timeless classic of the western and adventure genres. It’s a fun time through and through and features a flawless screenplay from writing legend William Goldman.

Cinematography awards

Conclusion

From the perfect pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford to the sense of high-adventure, all the way to the unforgettable freeze-frame finale, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an all-time classic.

Academy Award for best cinematography

4. Barry Lyndon (1975)

The beauty of candlelight

Stanley Kubrick’s 18th century period piece, Barry Lyndonwas a challenging film to light and photograph, but cinematographer John Alcott was up to the task and earned an Academy Award for all of his hard work. Much of the film was shot using only candlelight present practically within each shot. Kubrick wanted the film to resemble paintings of the time which required meticulous planning, blocking and staging.

Best Cinematography

Conclusion

In addition to John Alcott’s Oscar, Barry Lyndon also won Academy Awards for music, art direction, and costume design.

Academy Award for best cinematography

3. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Too many gorgeous visuals to count  •  Subscribe on YouTube

For his third collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins finally won his first Oscar for best achievement in cinematography after receiving 12 prior nominations that went unawarded. Blade Runner 2049 is stunning in its visual spectacle.

Every single shot has had so much thought and care put towards it. From the vistas, to the framing, to the use of striking color palettes, Blade Runner 2049 is a non-stop feast for the eyes. It is a true cinematographer’s film.

Cinematography award winners

Conclusion

Roger Deakins would go on to win his second Oscar just two films later for his impressive work with the faux-single-shot cinematography of 1917.

Academy Award for best cinematography black and white

2. The Third Man (1949)

Heavy shadows used for an all-time great reveal

Back when the Best Cinematography Oscars were still divided into black & white and color as distinct categories, The Third Man won the Oscar in the black and white division. Robert Krasker’s high-contrast noir visuals of post-war Vienna remain just as captivating today as they did back in 1949. The Third Man was also nominated for Best Director and Best Editing. This was Robert Krasker’s only nomination at the Academy Awards.

Best cinematography

Conclusion

Check out our list of the best film noirs ever made for more highlights of the genre.

Academy Award for best cinematography

1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lean’s vistas at their peak

David Lean’s magnum opus, Lawrence of Arabia is a three hour and 48 minute long epic. The film is chock full of massive vistas and masterful wide shots, and the entire nearly-four-hour film is beautiful in varied ways. Freddie’s Young’s visuals are huge in scope and spectacle. Lawrence of Arabia is a gorgeous epic of massive proportions.

Everything about the film is humongous and dialed in for spectacular results. Beyond the staggering cinematography, Lawrence of Arabia tells a sweeping story, features incredible acting, and was incredibly influential for the editing techniques it pioneered.

Cinematography of the year

Conclusion

Lawrence of Arabia uses extreme wide shots better than perhaps any other film.

UP NEXT

Best Director Winners Ranked

That was our ranking of the Best Achievement in Cinematography winners throughout the history of the Academy Awards. To keep exploring other Oscar categories, check out our ranking of the Best Director winners.

Up Next: Directing winners ranked →
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