Period pieces always seem to lend themselves to beautiful imagery, which, to me at least, really highlights the importance of production design in cinematography. All of the locations for this film were real places with absolutely no sets built for the production. When you think about it, that's half the battle, and when you think about it some more, it's probably more than half.
The photography of "Barry Lyndon" has become so celebrated over the decades since its release partly due to the gorgeous visuals that director, Stanley Kubrick, and his cinematographer, John Alcott, delivered. Throughout the three hours of the film we're constantly seeing luxurious locations and breathtaking vistas. Their maniacal dedication to absolutely perfect compositions was demonstrated time and again. Many of their shots were intended to invoke similar compositions from 18th Century paintings. You can see on the screen that nothing is a mistake and the famed Kubrickian attention to detail never waivers.
Alcott was always a fan of naturalism in lighting and that proclivity is certainly present in this film. Every daytime scene has a simple sun or sky light motivation whether interior or exterior; it's not always amazing, but it's never objectionable either. The real intrigue is in the night interiors where Kubrick and Alcott accomplished the other thing that this photography is famous for. Kubrick made it his goal to be able to photograph the night scenes using only practical candles. This was of course an issue because in most situations the illumination from candles wouldn't provide enough light to get a healthy exposure on film. His solution was to find a few 50mm f/0.7 lenses developed by Zeiss for use on NASA's Apollo missions, giving him the fastest lenses ever used for cinema (he still holds that record by the way). They ended up developing a custom adaptor to make one of the lenses 36.5mm rather than 50mm and with that they made movie history. In some cases Alcott used reflectors to bounce the light coming from the candles and increase the exposure, but at the end of the day it's the candles in the scene that are exposing the image.
Kubrick was intent on shooting his night interiors in this style because he felt that the common technique of bringing in movie lights wasn't true to the reality of an era before electric lighting was invented. Once again they opted for the naturalistic option. I think it's all well and good that Kubrick wanted absolute authenticity and did what he had to in order to achieve it, but at the same time I really have to question why it's considered such a feet of cinematography.
For starters, yes they did manage to achieve exposure, but that's mostly it. For most of the night scenes the lighting doesn't come off as particularly aesthetic or flattering. In the candlelit scenes more than anywhere else, Alcott relies on the beauty of the sets over his own work to achieve a look. In some cases that might be just fine, but this is supposed to be a film that's known for its beautiful cinematography. It seems that no one ever really wants to talk about the fact that the lighting isn't actually that good in the night scenes. If the process wasn't so well-known I'm not sure that anyone would care. Fortunately the sets are usually good, so the image isn't a total wash, but we're talking about the cinematography here!
I've also got to say that as far as I know there was no real, tangible effect of Alcott's work. When you think of Gordon Willis's lighting in "The Godfather" (1972), you think about how he changed the way people approach dark lighting. The fact that something that was once underexposed could now be a wonderful artistic choice. That's how we know it was an amazing work. He did something new and it changed our perception of cinematography. In the case of "Barry Lyndon" I don't think anyone really tried doing the candle light only gimmick ever again. And you have to wonder why. Might it be because DP's just value good lighting over authentic lighting? And just to throw it out there, hasn't half the point of cinematography since the beginning been to achieve good lighting in the place of authentic lighting? It seems silly to think that something like Roman Osin's work in "Pride & Prejudice" (2005) or Caleb Deschanel's photography in "The Patriot" (2000) would be better if they stripped away all their amazing lighting and shot everything wide open and lit only by candles. On that note, it would be even easier for the modern films to accomplish the candles only look with their advantage of finer grain film stocks and higher ISO's than ever with digital sensors. But no one has a desire to do it. Even the more contemporary "Amadeus" (1984) was lit primarily by candles, but cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček knew when he had to make use of artificial lighting. In the grand scheme of things this experiment with candle light feels like something the cinematography community needed to cross off its bucket list. It's as if we have to pat Kubrick on the back for lighting with candles so the rest of us don't have to because it's already been done.
The last thing I have to say about it might be petty, but it's a bit of a last straw for me, and it's that the Kubrick lens is soft. Not only is the depth of the field paper thin, making the vast majority of the image out of focus and distractingly so, but also the parts that are in focus just aren't very sharp. I might add that the optical inferiority of the lens is the precise reason why lenses that open up that much aren't ever made for films, hadn't ever been used until "Barry Lyndon," and haven't been used since. And I'm sure the fact that the film had to be pushed a stop in order to accommodate the low light levels didn't help the situation either (that goes for the entire film, not just the night scenes).
When it comes down to it, this was a beautiful film even though Alcott sacrificed good for authentic with the lighting. The rest of the mise-en-scène and his powerful compositions were more than capable of picking up the slack, but I have to wonder if it could have been even better if it was lit more expressively.