10 Films with Inspirational Lighting

I was about 15 years old and couldn’t sleep one night so I was up watching cable and this film came on by Bernardo Bertolucci called La Luna. The story line was pretty racy: a mother and son’s  “distorted” relationship involving heroin and opera! Epic drama! But the lighting! I could’ve watched this film with the sound turned off because the visual imagery was so moving. Vittorio Storaro was the cinematographer on La Luna and his work has since then captivated me.

He’s lit such other epic films as Reds, The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and my personal favorite, Apocalypse Now. Who can forget the richness of lighting in that film?? The Robert Duvall scene where he made his troops go surfing during a bombing. Or the deleted scene where Martin Sheen has an affair with the French opium addict. The lighting in the bedroom of that scene sits in the archives in my brain as “go-to” lighting monumental moments!

Shortly after I was transfixed by Bertolucci and his beloved Storaro, I saw a picture in the LA Times advertising a film by Francois Truffaut: Small Change. I fell in the love with the picture in the ad and begged my mom to drop me off at the local Landmark theater in Pasadena, The Rialto. The Rialto played all the foreign films on the big screen. I went by myself and sat and watched “Small Change” and “The 400 Blows” by Truffaut. And I was hooked. I went as often as my mom would drop me off to that little theater on Fair Oaks. I soaked it in. I was 16 when I first saw “Last Tango in Paris” and I nearly fell out of my chair. Ha!! But it was the lighting, mainly, in these films that really moved me. And it’s the lighting that still does really move me when I watch a film. And to be even more honest, I can forgive a movie for it’s weak story line or tepid characters if the lighting is profound. In other words, I will watch a movie deemed by the critics as “bad” if the lighting is interesting.

This list is small because there are 100′s of movies that have inspired me. They’ve inspired my lighting, my aesthetic, my sensibility, my eye. Some of them have even inspired me in the way I shoot fashion. I’d love to hear what movies have inspired you as photographers. If I haven’t seen it yet, I will check it out because I am always looking for movies that help direct and guide me on my path of learning and growing as a photographer.


The Night Porter

This film will always be controversial. You have to see it to understand why.  But for me,  the lighting in it was amazing. It’s such a twisted dark story but even the main female character, Lucia, who’s name means “light” and her leading man’s guilt complex being afraid of the light just adds so much more intrigue for me as well. I have watched this movie so many times and I always see something new every time I see it. Alfio Contini lit this dark story beautifully.


Apocalypse Now

I mentioned this film earlier and have to mention it again. Although the story carries the film itself and Francis Ford Coppola is truly a genius, the lighting is equally brilliant and so strong that it made you feel like you were really there with the gang on their journey to find Colonel Kurtz. I mentioned a few scenes that stand out to me but I’ll mention another one; the final chapter where Martin Sheen confronts Marlon Brando! I mean, the lighting in that scene is so incredible. I’m getting goosebumps now just writing about it. If you haven’t seen this movie, it’s just simply a must.


The Godfather

Again, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film will remain one of the top films ever made. The story, the actors, the art direction, they’re all amazing in this movie. But the lighting was impeccable.  I remember the first time I saw this movie. The first scene had me. The lighting had me. Gordon Willis has always been one of my favorite cinematographers. He also lit my favorite Woody Allen movies, “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall”. AND he lit one of my all time favorite movies ever: Klute. I put Klute on as background when I’m in bed working on my computer.

Don't Look Now

Anthony B. Richmond: Genius!!! He also did The Pianist which is phenomenally lit. I go back to Don’t Look Now about once a year and watch this movie. Again, it’s a disturbing tale but the lighting informs us that we want to have sympathy for these characters and the grief they’re feeling with the loss of their daughter. It’s just a must-see for the whole entire movie.


Days of Heaven

Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler did such an amazing job on this film that it won an Academy Award, as did a lot of the movies I have mentioned so far. I was basically unconcerned with the story and can’t even remember the plot line too well but I could talk about the cinematography for hours. Nestor Almendros also did Sophie’s Choice, another beautifully lit movie.



John A. Alonzo lit this tragic story in the harsh Los Angeles sun thus informing the viewer that a film noirdoesn’tand “The Pianist”. He’s a genius and he chooses genius cinematographers. Watch all of his films. He just proves that film noir does nothave to be shot in black and white to convey the heaviness of a story. Roman Polanski directed this film and he really is one of my favorite directors. He also directed Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.



Strangers on a Train

We can’t leave out Hitchcock. And there is so much to learn about photography and film making by watching his movies. I listed Stranger’s on a Train here but Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s premier cinematogapher also was the cinematographer on Vertigo, Birds, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, etc. etc. And there is much to learn from all of these films. When 4 of the films I just mentioned either won an Oscar or was nominated for one, you have to study the cinematographer earning that kind of respect. And while I don’t watch Hitchcock’s films on a regular basis, I did when I was going to Art Center and learning about lighting for the first time.


Out of Africa

David Watkin’s lighting was so moving that I literally was choked up throughout the entire film. I saw this at the Graumann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd in 1985 and my first husband was so mad at me because I couldn’t stop crying. Ha! Just see if you haven’t. But watch it alone. ; )



Darius Khondji’s lighting in Se7en is magnificent and flawless. He was also the cinematographer on “Stealing Beauty” which isn’t one of my favorite movies but the lighting was gorgeous! I study Darius’s lighting for Se7en a lot and it’s another movie I will keep on as background. Brilliant!!


A Very Long Engagement

Another one of those movies that had me choked up the whole time because of the lighting. Bruno Delbonnel’s lighting in this sad little love story is so over the top beautiful that I immediately watched, back to back, every one of his movies after seeing A Very Long Engagement. Delbonnel is probably more famous for Amelie but I prefer A Very Long Engagement. Maybe it was Gaspard Ulliel who starred as the lost lover in this film that has me won over the other movie. He’s been someone I’ve wanted to photograph for a very long time!

I had to keep this list short! There isn’t enough room or time (or memory in my own mind) to create a list of every movie that has ever moved me. But the above list is a start. Now I want to hear what films have inspired YOU!

Melissa Rodwell