Mike Stillwell is a Technowizard
Photographer and graphic designer Mike Stillwell and I first became friends seventeen years ago while working at an astrology website in NYC (yeah...that’s a whole ‘nother story). I was cranking out copy while Mike was designing the website and totally cosmic GIFs. Mike quickly became my go-to techno-wizard, schooling me in the ways of Adobe design programs. Later, he was the first person to introduce my wife and I to smartphones. Mind. Blown.
To say he’s plugged into tech is an understatement. Now an author and designer for Popular Mechanics, Mike Stillwell is one of the few photographers with the uncanny ability to embrace gadgetry without losing his eye for beauty and wonder. Recently, we floated about in the cosmic current between art and science. This is what we gammed about. (Answers have been lightly edited.)
How did you get started as an artist?
I've always had a passion for making things. I think my parents gently guided me towards an artistic path from an early age and I quickly realized that making art was loads of fun!
Describe your scientific background, if any. What role does it play in your art?
I have no formal scientific background but a lot of what I do needs a deeply technical understanding. I'll see something that inspires me and I'll study how it all works and during that process I realize I can use this knowledge to make something amazing for myself.
What or who has been your biggest inspiration in science?
The most exciting thing recently has been Elon Musk's announcement that Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, has purchased all of the seats on a test flight of SpaceX's "Starship" crew vehicle around the moon. Maezawa plans to bring a group of artists as part of what he is calling the moon #dearmoon project! Elon got a little choked up during the announcement and says this has renewed his faith in humanity. This is very exciting to me as an artist and space enthusiast. I can't wait to see what happens. The idea itself is very inspiring even if it never actually happens.
Any artists who have really inspired you?
Alexander Calder, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andy Goldsworthy, and Karl Blossfeldt. Each are pioneers of their craft and very inspiring to me.
Describe your creative process. How much planning goes into a photograph?
A fair amount of thought goes into everything I create. I usually see the entire project completed in my head a few minutes into the planning. My photography hinges on certain times of the day, month, or year, so things are always being planned out for when the stars align, so to speak. Anything I plan with the drone is usually location and time-of-day specific. Flying a drone is a big responsibility to the people and property around and to the rest of the drone community. If I flew into an airplane and injured anyone as a result, I would be pretty upset and it would also give drones a very bad name. Having a flying camera has been a dream of mine for many years. It's only recently that it has been within my reach and I feel very lucky to have one.
What piece of equipment is your everyday, go-to work horse?
My go-to, must-have is a Wacom tablet. I know it’s not the newest tech, but I find it way better than a mouse and definitely better than scratching around on a track pad. I find it puts my hand in a natural position, and having it mapped to the screen makes it super intuitive for placement. I have a huge 15-inch tablet at work and I find the size makes the resolution of the movement higher for fine retouching work.
What piece of brand-new tech are you most excited about?
I have a Fuji X-T1 and I’m probably going to buy a used X-T2 soon, even though the X-T3 just came out. I think for astrophotography and landscape the X-T2 is the better deal. The X-T3 has amazing video features, but I don’t think I would take advantage of that right now. I’ve made some amazing Milky Way photos with my X-T1 and I almost feel like the X-T2 has too much detail for a Milky Way shot, because it gets so many stars in the shot. But it makes up for it with ISO performance and color.
Fuji has also just released the GFX 50S 51.4 MP medium format camera! It’s very exciting, but at $5,000 it’s a little out of reach. Maybe I’ll rent it for a trip or project at some point. They are also planning on a 100MP medium format camera soon, and that would also be something I’d love to play around with for astrophotography!
But aside from the technical aspects I’m constantly looking for that “wow” shot. A lot of my photography depends on the gear being a certain spec, but getting an amazing composition and light is always so exciting.
Do you have any works in progress that you'd like to talk about?
I recently got some high powered LED lights that attach to my drone that I plan on using to light paint some landscapes. I've seen a few people do it, and I keep them with the drone just waiting for the opportunity to do something amazing. I've tested it out in my cousin’s back yard with promising results. I'm also planning where to photograph the next North American eclipse!
If you were selected as one of the first artists to live on Mars, what art projects would you plan? What supplies would you bring?
I'd definitely bring the new drone NASA is developing for the next Mars rover. I would also have to bring several types of cameras for landscape and astrophotography, but I would have to customize my star tracker to match the rotation of Mars!