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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Michael Creagh: Fashion In B&W

The peculiar palette of photographer Michael Creagh


“Some clients resist black-and-white,” he says. “It’s not their fault. I work a lot with clothing designers, and they love their colors. They spend serious time finding and developing colors and then even coming up with clever, marketable names to describe them. I assume it’s frustrating for them when I pitch a story in black-and-white. I sometimes have to prove it looks good both ways and give them the flexibility to switch back and forth.

“My last editorial-style catalog I shot tethered with the Hasselblad H3D 39-megapixel back,” Creagh explains. “It was intended to be largely black-and-white on the lead images, but we watched it come up on the screen in color and we were hooked. Now it looks like maybe one or two black-and-white images, or maybe completely in color. With digital, you really have the ability to do so much more after the shoot. You just don’t have to commit. I tell my clients sometimes that we’ll shoot it in black-and-white, but if they’re not feeling it, then we can just switch it. Even on shoots I intend to be black-and-white, I still use the color meter and gel lights to balance the temperatures, just in case.”

Adds Creagh, “The funny thing is, when you claim the shots can be both and you’re shooting tethered in black-and-white the whole shoot, and it’s looking great, and you decide to switch it to color while everyone is standing in front of the monitor and—whoa! The different elements in the clothes and the makeup and the skin tones aren’t working, and you switch it back as fast as you can.”

Creagh is clearly skilled at working with a limited color palette, but he doesn’t think of himself as a black-and-white photographer or one who pushes a grayscale agenda. What he wants is simply whatever provides the best look for his clients’ particular needs.

“The color feel evolved naturally,” he says. “And while I really love it and work at it, I find it hard to think of my work only within it. I, first and foremost, see myself as a conceptual photographer and choose my coloring based on the project and the feel I want to project. It’s not uncommon for me to choose individual images within the series that I think work better in black-and-white, or to get close-ups or action shots or beauty, but still feel the series flows as one.

“I don’t really see myself as a black-and-white specialist,” Creagh continues. “I really love color. I love using a limited color palette as I think it means the colors you do use really jump off the page, even if the color itself is subdued.”

Whether he intends a shoot to be color or black-and-white, Creagh doesn’t simply make wholesale changes in post. For black-and-white shooting, he makes specific lighting choices—particularly in terms of contrast and tonal qualities, and the relationship between model and background. For color, he needs to see all the elements of a finished image come together in the viewfinder.

“I love Photoshop and playing with the images afterwards,” he says, “but I still try to do as much as possible in-camera. The color on the website is pretty much what comes out of the camera; I don’t do too much shifting. I use my Sekonic color meter and balance the temperature settings with my main light and gel up the other lights to match or to get a slight hue. I might skew the whole thing a touch to get a feel I think fits the concept, the look or the model. I’ll sometimes use the colored filters built into my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, but in the Hasselblad, I shoot pretty straight.

“I believe that if you get the light right, it should translate into black-and-white or color,” Creagh continues. “For black-and-white, I do tweak it in Photoshop more than I do the color. Sometimes I process it from RAW to black-and-white—in FlexColor for Hasselblad or in the Canon software—and then it’s just a matter of using curves or old-school burning and dodging. Sometimes I’ll bring it into Photoshop in color and then simply use the Black & White adjustment and play with reds and blues until it looks right. Then I tweak it again with curves and dodging. If I’m really trying to get something different or the feel just isn’t right, I might add a few layers and try a really crazy color or contrast style from Nik Color Efex, but hide it under the normal Photoshop Black & White feature and just blend the layers to get something that feels unique, but is still in the spectrum
of palatable.”

 

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