Cinematography is at the heart of the art of filmmaking. The camera's ab to capture real time situations distinguishes a cinematic effort from photography, literature, radio or stage. When done poorly, a film’s quality will inevitably suffer for all the attributes of the acting, writing and directing. When done well or brilliantly, a film’s quality is elevated immeasurably.

The Oscar in this category tends to award “pretty” films with luscious landscapes and other opportunities to highlight the photography. War films are also always a favorite. That said, in recent years, there has been somewhat of an expansion to more novel types of cinematography, perhaps the sort that complements visual effects to truly “wow” the audience. The category does tend to award Best Picture nominees disproportionately, at both the nomination and win stage.

I should note that while cinematographers frequently end up with their second, third or fourth nomination in any given year, there are always a couple of newcomers. Moreover, Robert Richardson and Roger Deakins are the only two active cinematographers who have more than five nominations (to my knowledge, anyway). So there is a tendency to spread the wealth in this group.

Having spoken of cinematography’s role in distinguishing the art of film, perhaps it is appropriate that I begin my analysis of this category with a film that is a throwback to the beginning of the art form: Michael Hazanavicius’s “The Artist.” Black and white, non-widescreen and with old-fashioned lighting, the photography in the film is crucial to building its mood. And by all counts, it succeeds. I think Laurence Bennett is a very solid bet for a nomination.

Also extremely likely for a nomination is Janusz Kaminski for Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.” A war film that also seems to be making the most of glorious landscapes, the film’s trailer showcased Kaminski’s photography to an exceptional degree. While Kaminski has been a notable snub on occasion (“A.I.,” “Minority Report,” “Munich”), he is clearly respected by his colleagues, with four nominations and two wins (“Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”) and was even invited to present the Best Live Action Short Oscar with James Franco and Seth Rogan two years ago. All things considered, I think Spielberg’s film will truly have to underwhelm for Kaminski to miss.

The third film that seems to be in extremely solid shape for a nomination is “The Tree of Life,” lensed by Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki, like Kaminski, is a four-time nominee, and this film’s photography was nothing short of breathtaking. Not that I expect anything less from a Malick effort, as his films are renowned for their photography and all have been nominated here except “Badlands” – even when they are not nominated for anything else (as Lubezki’s nomination for “The New World” attests to). If the film is getting in anywhere, it’s getting in here.

After those three titles, things get murkier. Nonetheless, Chris Menges would seem to have the opportunity to showcase his talents in different ways on “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Menges was nominated for Stephen Daldry’s last effort, “The Reader” and while I cannot deny being skeptical about this film’s potential overall, if it hits, I think the contrasting and various exteriors presented will allow the four-time nominee/two-time winner an opportunity to get into the race once more.

Another Best Picture contender that I would seriously consider here is “J. Edgar,” with Tom Stern serving as Clint Eastwood’s DP of choice. Stern was finally nominated for “Changeling,” having previously worked on Eastwood’s Best Picture contenders “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.” I’m still not at all sure about how this film will actually look – we still haven’t seen much of it. But a 1930s period piece will certainly attempt to “look good” and if the film is the awards player it is hoping to be, a nomination here seems very possible.

Occasionally this category awards moody, darker films where the cinematography is key to building the atmosphere, if not the plot. Hoyte Van Hoytema has such an opportunity this year on “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” The film seems poised to be Gary Oldman’s first long overdue vehicle to the Kodak. The reviews so far suggest it could do a lot better than that as well. Depending on the extent to which the Academy, and this branch, embrace the film, I could easily see a nomination.

A more interesting possibility in the realm of moody, darker films is Jeff Cronenweth for David Fincher's “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Having just been nominated for a collaboration with Fincher (“The Social Network”), the lenser has an intriguing opportunity that, judging by the recently released trailer, he seized. I’m still not sure about the extent, if any, that this film will seek to be an awards player. Though even if it’s not a player in major categories, I believe massive hit status could bring it into contention for many other awards.

Cronenweth was nominated last year for an edgy contemporary film with interesting cinematography. It’s not impossible that last year’s winner, Wally Pfister, could return for a similar feat this year. Pfister, who took the award home for “Inception” (his fourth nomination for collaborating with Christopher Nolan) did some clever work on “Moneyball,” especially in game sequences. If the film really catches on with the Academy (and it might), he could end up with a fifth nomination in seven years. The branch clearly likes him.

Robert Richardson is a favorite in this category, having been nominated six times, and winning twice, for “JFK” and “The Aviator.” While he’s not always nominated when he’s in contention (I’m still surprised 13 years later about his snub for “The Horse Whisperer”), the respect he commands among his peers is undeniable. On Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” he will have the chance to bring clever, creative lighting to a classic, fantastical tale. It could be interesting and memorable work.

I’ll end with the always-difficult-to-read “Harry Potter” series. Bruno Delbonnel managed to be the film’s only nominee for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” But “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” marks the last chance to recognize the series. Is the work that different from its predecessors? I personally don’t think so. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the twice nominated Eduardo Serra (who heads up the camera department on the finale) is clearly respected by his colleagues.

Those are the 10 strongest contenders as I see them at this time. Undoubtedly that will change as we go forward, however!

What are your picks for Best Cinematography this year? Feel free to discuss in the comments section below!