The Nature of a Windows 7 Theme - Interview with Mike Swanson

I always felt that a talented photographer tells an intricate and subtle story using nothing more than images.

Collections of imagery are a puzzle put together from standalone snapshots, a complex artistic perspective sharing almost palpable experiences, capable of resonating with the viewer.

You get to experience the result of an entire photography process, ranging from a simple enumeration of tasks for a hobbyist to a religious craft for a professional photographer, in an instant, and over and over again.

Mike Swanson is one of my favorite Microsoft bloggers. I have been reading his blog for years now, while also using the collection of wallpapers he shared with the world as one of my main sources of background images.

Having returned from vacation at the end of September 2010 I was extremely excited to come across the “Nature by Mike Swanson” theme in the Windows Personalization Gallery.

This was an opportunity that I could not miss. After giving it much thought for a few days, I contacted Mike and asked whether he would agree to answer a few questions.

He was kind enough, and I cannot stress this enough, to take time from his busy schedule and do an interview for Softpedia.

And I do mean busy, as Mike is tasked with preparing events such as PDC 2010 and Tech-Ed Europe 2010 (by the way, it looks like I will be in Berlin in November, so if you want to have a chat feel free to drop me an email and perhaps we can set something up).

Mike is the kind of photographer I am talking about in the first few paragraphs of this article, and below you’ll be able to read the text version of the story he’s telling with the Nature by Mike Swanson theme, and so much more.

1.       Please introduce yourself for our readers, tell us what you do for Microsoft and how long you’ve been with the company.

My name is Mike Swanson, and I’m a Director of Events in our Developer and Platform Evangelism group in Redmond, Washington. I’ve been with Microsoft for over 10 years.

I started as a development consultant in one of our field offices, and about 5 years ago, I moved to Washington to focus on evangelizing Windows Presentation Foundation, XAML, and then, Silverlight. For the past few years, I’ve been focused exclusively on running our big events: the Professional Developers Conference (PDC), MIX, Tech·Ed North America, and Tech·Ed Europe.

2.       What does photography mean for you? A simple hobby? Something more?

I am admittedly a “collector of hobbies,” but photography has been a constant for many years. Like most people, I started by taking simple snapshots to record family events and vacations. As I learned more and more about how images are captured and made, I started to appreciate the technical aspects of photography. By then, I was hooked.

I took a number of photography classes and immersed myself in the literature. As someone who is split directly between left- and right-brained functioning, I slowly started to appreciate the creative aspects of photography, and I’ve recently focused most of my efforts on the elements of good design.

I specifically resist the urge to profit from my photography, because I want to preserve it as a creative outlet. I often allow non-profit organizations to use my photos, and all I ask for in return is a small attribution and a photo/sample/link to the finished product. There’s a bit of joy each time I see one of my photos used somewhere.

3.       I’m sure that there’s more than meets the eye with your “Nature by Mike Swanson” theme. What’s the story behind the theme pack? How did it end up on the Windows Personalization Gallery?

Leading up to the release of Windows Vista, the person responsible for collecting themes and wallpaper images was a fan of my photography. So, the Windows team asked if they could include one of my photos in the release, and I happily said yes. It’s mind-blowing to imagine that my photo is installed on a few hundred million PCs around the world.

In February of this year, the site manager for the Windows Online Personalization Gallery, Jennifer Shepherd, reached out to ask if I would be willing to put together a theme pack of my nature images for release on their site.

My schedule prevented me from following-through immediately, but she was patient and persistent, and I finally got around to satisfying the request in August. Her help was invaluable as we selected a subset of images that would work well together.

4.       Is there a particular photo in the theme that you’d like to highlight? Your favorite? Maybe more than one? Remember, one image is worth 1,000 words. :P

Well, I personally like the mostly-green photo titled “leaf 62.” If you saw the actual plant, you’d be surprised at how small of an area the photo represents…perhaps only an inch. Many of the photos in the theme pack were taken in my back yard or neighborhood.

Using a macro lens changes your perspective on the world, and there is an endless number of subjects in and around your own home to be re-discovered and seen in a new way. I will note that the photos that feature water droplets are far-and-away the most popular.

5.       What photography gear do you use? What’s your favorite camera?

I started with a Nikon COOLPIX 990 back in the day. It’s the camera I used to capture the 3.34 megapixel image that was featured in Windows Vista. For its class, it had a remarkably good macro mode. Most of my images, though, were taken with an 8 megapixel Canon Rebel XT camera with a Canon EF-S 60mm macro lens.

The 60mm macro lens produces fantastic shots with lots of color and contrast. Recently, I’ve upgraded to a Canon 7D, and I’ve noticed yet another bump in overall image quality. It’s my current favorite. I shoot using natural light, and I use a WhiBal cardto ensure accurate color.

6.       What role did Photoshop or other photo editing software play in getting the photos ready for a Windows 7 theme?

I shoot all of my images in RAW to capture their full fidelity. Then, I process them with Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS5. To remove noise, I used to depend on Noise Ninja, but I’ve recently been able to achieve even better results with Topax Labs DeNoise 5. I sometimes use DxO Optics Pro 6 too, depending on the photo.

While a lot can be done in software, I try to remain true to the image that I saw when I captured it in the field. For more detailed information, I have an article on my blog titled How I Make My Wallpaper Images that also covers issues of composition.

7.       How’s working with your photos on Windows 7 in comparison to older Windows platforms?

It’s the small things in Windows 7 that end up making me much more productive. For example, I use a color-calibrated widescreen (16:10) monitor to do all of my editing, and I frequently use the Aero Snap feature in Windows 7 to pin windows to either side of the screen.

I’ve also finally made the leap to 64-bit, because the device driver support in the 64-bit version of Windows 7 covers everything that I use. Of course, I can also work with much larger images (or more of them) with the additional memory support in the 64-bit edition of Photoshop CS5.

8.       You have been offering some superb imagery through your blog for years now. Any interesting statistics you’d like to share? I know they’ve immensely successful.

They’ve been much more successful than I ever imagined. The last time I ran a report, the images had more than 2.5 million downloads. The majority of the downloads are of the widescreen set.

The other statistic is that people tend to like images that include water. Many of the top 10 include water in them. On average, I receive two or three e-mails each week asking for permission to use the images in a product, on a web site, in a catalog, at an event, etc. It’s very rewarding.

9.       Apart from being an exceptional Microsoft blogger, and a first-rate Evangelist, you are also an amazingly talented photographer. Have you ever considered leaving Microsoft and pursuing a professional photographer career? Does Microsoft have to worry about losing you?

Flattery will get you everywhere. Thank you for that. :-) Seriously, I love Microsoft. It’s incredible to work for a company whose products are familiar to almost everyone on the planet.

To know that the work you do can impact so many people in a positive way is what gets me excited about coming to work each day. As far as photography is concerned, I do recognize that I’ve become much more comfortable and capable as a photographer over the years, but I still consider myself an enthusiast.

Plus, to my earlier point, photography is a hobby and a creative outlet, and I wouldn’t want to pollute that passion with profit. Microsoft has no reason to worry.

10.       Any chances that more Mike Swanson themes will follow? Anything for the next version of Windows?

There’s absolutely a possibility for another theme, and as a matter of fact, it’s already being discussed. I feel like I’m past my close-up/nature/plant period, and I’m on to something else. So far, it’s been exciting to dive-in to another subject, and I hope that people will like the new direction. As to the next version of Windows, only time will tell.


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