Understanding the Cinematography of Robert Richardson

Robert Richardson is one of the greatest contemporary cinematographers. I go through some of his cinematography lighting and camera techniques to help you understand his unique style.

Just to be clear: Robert Richardson changes his style to suit the movies he shoots. The goal of this video and article is to drum up enthusiasm and a yearning to learn more.

Warning: I do not claim this knowledge is 100% accurate. Just think of it as an endorsement of his work. If you want accuracy, look someplace else.

First, here’s the video illuminating the cinematography style of Robert Richardson:

His lighting philosophy

Two conventions Richardson breaks knowingly are:

  • He doesn’t look for lighting motivation. He lights a scene based on his own motivations as regards to story and mood.
  • He under-lights actors through fill.


The Robert Richardson look

Everyone who knows cinematography and Robert Richardson probably knows his signature style:

  • A very hot/strong hard source of light (Parcans, fresnels, spots, etc.) from the top or slightly at the back (but high) pointed straight down.
  • This creates a hot and blown out rim light. Sometimes, the overexposure is 6 to 8 stops.
  • The bounce of this strong source fills in the actors’ face, and this is what the camera exposes for.
  • Sometimes, he augments, cuts or flags this fill with bounce cards, muslin, etc.

However, he also uses a book light with bleached and unbleached muslin (and therefore large light sources) to create a super-soft key light – mostly short lit.

Lenses, format and movement

He prefers primes, and uses Panavison Primos. However, with Tarantino, he has also learned to use zoom lenses.

He shoots on both anamorphic, spherical and now 65mm (2.76:1). He prefers to have a widescreen aspect ratio (2.39:1), though he would easily break that if the director so chooses.

He loves to ride manual cranes and operate the camera, and prefers a fluid head over a geared head.

His style and look is often copied, but not with similar success. There is something called the cinematographer’s eye, and that cannot be shared.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If I’ve stoked your interest in Robert Richardson’s work, please watch the movies he shot. They are mandatory viewing for students of cinema.


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