LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Barbra Streisand scrutinizes the movie screen. In this early footage from ''The Prince of Tides,'' she doesn't like what she sees. Specifically, she doesn't like herself.

Who's at fault? Not Miss Streisand, the film's director and star. Not the costume designer. Same for the makeup person.

Blame it on the cinematographer.

If a movie impresses viewers with lush, lyrical images, somebody else usually gets credit. If the visuals somehow disappoint, though, it's the director of photography who bears the brunt.

''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' went through three cinematographers. ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind'' used seven.

For all the neglect, the cinematographer plays a most important role as a partner with the director, translating screenplay gibberish to big-screen dazzle.

''He runs the set. He's the boss,'' said William A. Fraker, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. ''But people don't know what he does.''

Indeed, it's only at Academy Awards time that cinematography attracts a lot of attention beyond Hollywood. Pick the winning cinematographer, and you may win the office Oscar pool.

The cinematographer's typical 15-hour day is chaotic, filled with concerns over lighting, staging, planning and filming. (The person actually running the camera, by the way, is called the camera operator.)

The cinematographers' truly essential contribution resists easy detection: Subtly but deliberately, they give films their unique look and sense of style.

Much of the work is technical. What film speed? What kind and how many lights? Will the actors still be in focus? Is that telephone pole going to ruin the shot?

The best cinematographers are able to juggle these pragmatic concerns and simultaneously deliver artistic excellence. The five Oscar-nominated directors of photography this year all have managed that difficult equilibrium.

Stephen Goldblatt, nominated for ''The Prince of Tides,'' faced two major obstacles: a multi-layered script - and the perfectionist Miss Streisand.

Tides, moons and sunsets factored heavily in Goldblatt's shooting schedule. So, too, did his director's very specific ideas.

''Of course, she has a reputation,'' said Goldblatt, whose credits include ''For the Boys'' and ''The Cotton Club.''

''The big fight and the big challenge (was to) photograph her so she was happy and not make it look like a star vehicle.

''We fought to the death,'' he said. ''She's the kind of person who demands a lot.'' Goldblatt said, however, that he did not use any beauty-enhancing filters on Miss Streisand that he did not use on co-star Nick Nolte.

Half of the film is set on the South Carolina coast, the other half in and around Manhattan. As a cinematic bridge, Goldblatt included in his New York footage as much water as possible ''as if Nick Nolte were drawn to the sea.''

There wasn't much water to worry about in the dry, rugged locations used in ''Thelma & Louise,'' for which Adrian Biddle is nominated. The veteran of such movies as ''Willow'' and ''The Princess Bride,'' Biddle gave this road movie a wide-open look.

The movie's most memorable images include panoramas of Arches National Park, the two women's green Thunderbird cruising down Southwestern highways, and the vast canyons that ultimately block their escape.

''We were just trying to get the most out of the country,'' Biddle said of himself and director Ridley Scott. ''What can I say? Perhaps we look at the United States through a different eye coming from England than an American would. It's so big.''

In keeping with rough-and-tumble feel of ''Thelma & Louise,'' stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were not photographed to appear glamorous.

The actors' faces, Biddle said, ''were shot raw most of the time. ... I think their natural good looks came out.''

Good looks are what the mobster drama ''Bugsy'' is all about, said Allen Daviau, the film's nominated cinematographer.

''You want all your characters in this kind of film to look handsome or elegant,'' said Daviau, whose previous Oscar nominations are for ''Avalon,'' ''Empire of the Sun,'' ''The Color Purple'' and ''E.T. the Extra- Terrestrial.''

''Everything is rich but there's an edge of doom,'' Daviau said of ''Bugsy.''

For example, when Harry Greenberg (Elliott Gould) is taken for his last ride, the visuals are almost entirely monochromatic. ''The only reds in the shot are Virginia Hill's lipstick, her cigarette lighter and the tail lights of the car,'' Daviau said.

Warren Beatty, who stars as Benjamin ''Bugsy'' Siegel, is filmed without a hat. Millinery experts may object, but Daviau said it wasn't a period oversight. ''It's an absolute bitch to light people under a hat,'' Daviau explained, noting that Siegel in real life occasionally would go hatless. ''So we just said: 'He doesn't wear a hat.'''

If the Oscar were awarded for logistical mastery alone, the winner would be Adam Greenberg, the cinematographer for ''Terminator 2: Judgment Day.''

The most expensive film in Hollywood history at $90 million, ''Terminator 2'' involved six months of photography (compared to less than three for ''Thelma & Louise'') and as many as 13 cameras at once (other films generally use one or two).

''Suddenly, you become like a commander in an army,'' said Greenberg, who also photographed ''Ghost,'' ''Three Men and a Baby'' and the original, low- budget ''Terminator.''

''The size of the thing was astonishing,'' he said. Because the film involves so many special effects, Greenberg on some days came away with only 10 seconds of usable footage.

The molten mass into which Arnold Schwarzenegger descends at the movie's end is a creation of photographic wizardry.

Four hundred lights, some tinted orange, some flickering, were placed under a clear-bottomed vat of water. Powdered sugar and mineral oil, mixed into the vat, gave the water a steel-like texture. Steam, smoke and sparks were added. A heater placed in front of the camera rippled heat waves. And - just like that - no more Terminator.

To give ''JFK'' a quasi-documentary spin, cinematographer Robert Richardson used 14 different kinds of film, from black and white to color, 8mm to 35mm. Richardson, who photographed Stone's ''Platoon,'' ''The Doors'' and ''Born on the Fourth of July,'' also used video.

The result: viewers can't tell in this cinematic collage where the actual, grainy Abraham Zapruder footage of Kennedy's assassination ends and Richardson's new material begins. While much of the movie has a harsh look, Kevin Costner's Jim Garrison was filmed with warmer, softer tones to make him more sympathetic.

It is Richardson's verisimilitude that has made ''JFK'' as powerful - and controversial - as it is. As the cinematographer wrote in a production diary: ''Let the audience move through the material, never doubting its authenticity.''