Understanding the Cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond

The late Vilmos Zsigmond has already cemented his place amongst the great cinematographers, and in this video and article I go through some of his cinematography lighting and camera techniques to help you understand his unique style.

Just to be clear: Vilmos Zsigmond changed his style to suit the movies he shot. 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.

Here’s the video illuminating the cinematography style of Vilmos Zsigmond:

How he lights faces

Vilmos Zsigmond usually lights in the three-quarters or side lighting style, and the light is hard or semi-soft. He rarely ever employed super soft shadowless light. He thought soft lighting was boring!

He rarely backlights, though he does backlight and add kicker lights if there’s sufficient motivation for them. One signature style is the use of a hard edge light on the side of the face.

He lights to a high contrast ratio, averaging about two to three stops, and stops down more so than the modern trend. His frames have more depth and are richer as a result.

About color

Vilmos Zsigmond called his style poetic realism. It should look real, but also be poetic through lighting and composition.

He had a neutral color palette, and sometimes went to extremes like pre-flashing or dye transfer/ENR to manipulate the color response, usually by desaturating it.

In the latter part of his career, he did enjoy color grading some of his work, especially the ones shot on digital.

He rarely used color filters, though he did use diffusion and fog filters to soften skin tones.

Lenses and format

His favorite format is anamorphic, and he loves to use zoom lenses. Some of the lenses he used were:

  • McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Deliverance – Panavision Cooke anamorphic 40-200mm and 50-500mm zooms.
  • The Black Dahlia – Angenieux 24-290mm and 17-102mm zooms.
  • Kickstart Theft – Canon 30-300mm T2.95-3.7 zoom.

He carried prime lenses, too, but only used them when there was not enough light. He didn’t prefer digital images, thought them too sharp!


I hope you’ve found this article useful. If I’ve stoked your interest inVilmos Zsigmond’s work, please watch the movies he shot, check out his interviews in the American Cinematographer magazine, and also check out the excellent documentary about him and Lazslo Kovacs: No Subtitles Necessary.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.


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2 replies on “Understanding the Cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond”

  1. Thank you! I am a rank beginner at video! I have been using Final Cut Pro for years making video from my video clip take with various Nikon DSLR’s. I had no idea that there was such a thing as
    CINE lenses for people like me!!!
    Question: Which CINE lens under about $750 would you recommend for me?

    PS: I am filming interviews for local charities to put on their websites, but I also get video clips on our travels to put in my Final Cut videos.
    PPS: I recently went to your wonderful website.

    1. You’re welcome. There is no cine lens under $750. Shoot with whatever you can afford. You’ll know when it’s time to really get a cine lens!

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