I had the pleasure of interviewing Dina Belenko. A still life photographer and a bit of a magician. She tells magical stories using everyday objects. A person with little paper cities, sugar cubes, moon from polymer clay, doll’s miniatures, broken cups, handmade Rube Goldberg machine, repainted puzzles, wire trees, cardboard dragons and spilled coffee, a 500px Brand Ambassador and an author of many tutorials on creative still life photography.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I just really, really loved the sound of the shutter. No, honestly! Back in high school I had a camera. If you can call this extremely cheap piece of plastic “a camera”. Just one film cartridge, non-existent lenses and no settings whatsoever. Just point and shoot. But the sound of the shutter was so satisfying. It made me photograph everything I saw. Friends, sunsets, kittens, the usual stuff. It wasn’t even a serious hobby. But soon I moved to another town and it became difficult to photograph friends. So I tried to hear that sound by arranging a composition with some dried flowers.
It seemed like a good idea at the time and I thought that shot turned out beautiful. Gradually I stopped photographing that was already there and tried arranging compositions by myself. Surely, I failed miserably most of the time, but the feeling was magical: now I’m a film director, hey, coffee cups, you’re my actors, listen.
In course of time, I started to take photography more seriously, started to think about what I want to say by my pictures, to plan shootings, draw sketches and pay attention to minor details. I began to control more and more aspects of my work.
Call me a control freak but I fell in love with it. I found out that what interests me lies not in tracing some events and retelling stories of some happenings, but in creating tales of my own and the easiest way to do this is when you have control over all the objects in your shot. And I understood that still life photography is something I can become good at. At least, theoretically. So I decided to make it my profession.
The most efficient way I know to figure out what do you want to do with your life is to touch as many things as you can reach and decide which one is the most exciting. Turned out I’m pretty good at telling stories without using words, just with visuals. Being a painter a might be a suitable career, but I can’t draw a straight line to save my life. So I became a photographer instead. And the specific genre of still life was perfect for such an introvert like me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Sounds like a challenge. I’m always getting excited about the smallest things, so people rarely can relate to what I regard as interesting. Discovering that you don’t have to follow the rule of thirds is interesting. Trying to shoot a still life underwater is interesting. Developing a skill to photograph splashes is outright exciting. But with time your waterline of interest raises and all these fantastic things become your new normal. You don’t even quite remember your first exhibition, only the fact you had to work in a complete darkness and provide your visitors with flashlights.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh, I have plenty of them! How about TOP-10?
10. Once I had to shoot a restaurant menu, white dishes on a white background. For some reason, I thought that wearing a hot red skirt would be a great choice of photographer’s uniform! What could go wrong if you feel beautiful in your clothes? Well, red tinge on each surface could be a real headache. The rest of this shooting I had to hide behind my reflector.
9. Tripods are heavy. So, once I changed my trusty Manfrotto tripod for a much cheaper and lighter one. Jsut for one shooting, I told myself. Unfortunately, I forgot to tell myself which tripod head I have to pack. I’ve got my lighter tripod but was unable to set my camera. I’m not used to hand-held shooting (and don’t like it movies, btw), but had to suffer for a couple of hours with it.
8. Some things can float. It’s useful to remember that, say, the wooden chest can float. Especially when you’re about to submerge this chest with carefully arranged jewelry into a fish tank. Only to watch it rise to a surface. This pirate-style shot suddenly extended for two more hours of trying to glue this cursed piece of wood to a bottom of an aquarium.
7. Food dye is not an acrylic paint. Repeat after me: food dye is not an acrylic paint. I love acrylic paint! You can dissolve it with water. And once it’s dried, you can peel it as a thin film from almost any surface. But food dyes are fierce. My kitchen table still remembers spots from some „magical potion“. Green food dye was the main ingredient.
6. Mirrors. Just mirrors. I don’t know why they have to be that difficult to work with. I guess, they are my cranky models. You want a couple of kaleidoscopic pictures. You jump around a whimsical construction бфву from mirrors and duct tape. And repeat “The angle of incidence equal to the angle of refraction” as if it were a spell. Sure, you fail oh so miserably. And you wish you could be a vampire, it would solve at least one problem.
5. Levitating marshmallows are easy! And the trick with memory wire was fun! Sure, combining them won’t lead to any problems. Except you can’t pierce the marshmallow with the wire. It sticks to the wire. It would deform and won’t move. Instead of getting my shot in 20 minutes I’ve fallen prey to the Planning Fallacy.
4. Burning paper in a typewriter looks spectacular! Oh, you can feel the emotions of a frustrated writer! Also, you can feel the smoke. The smoke filling the room where you work and sleep. Don’t try this at home.
3. Once I failed to check if my tripod is steady. Sure, I dropped my tripod, that’s not a big deal. I dropped my tripod on a carefully arranged flat lay. With my camera attached. Lenses down. Right on a cherry pie. Score!
2. I used to be proud of the fact no cups were harmed during my work. I managed to keep all my flying cups safe. I only wish I could wash my cups without any victims. For some reason, a kitchen sink is the deadliest place in my home! Well, at least all the cups I’ve lost are clean.
1. I never managed to explode anything. Well, according to plan. Once I held a workshop with sparklers. We peeled some sparklers and used the combustive substance to sigh up the bottles and jars. It goes well until one spark flies right into the saucer with peeled sparkle pieces. Oh, it burns like a damaged UFO and explodes, scattering pieces of glass throughout the studio. All the photographers, naturally, try to shoot this with their phones. Because the sense of self-preservation is alien to our profession.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
That must be getting the most out of limited resources. It’s not only about still life as a genre. Sure, your set of tools is a bit limited. You can’t use visible human emotions to drive your story, you have to convey those emotions by the props, lighting and composition. It’s a lot like landscape photography, but far smaller and scale and much more controllable.
It’s also about the gear. I don’t own any fancy equipment. My home is my studio. I have the shortest commute ever, just stand up from the sofa and voila, you’re at work!
The lack of equipment present a challenge and let your imagination run wild! I can make a dragon with a piece of paper. Or a galaxy with a donut. With two speedlights and a reflector, I can tell stories of outer space, magical potions, travelers, scientists, and wizards. The thing that interests me is the story I can tell, all the technicalities are just a homework algebra. Solve it and you can go for a walk.
I guess you need some expensive gear to make everything look polished. But you don’t need it to make anything look meaningful.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
he most important thing I’ve learned is that your inspiration stems not from other photographers. It grows from other media. It grows from your everyday life. So, if I can give only one piece of advice, that would be it:
Seek inspiration outside photography.
We are all compelled to seek inspiration inside our own professional field. Visual art, cinematography, that sort of thing. But what about literature and music? What about podcasts and poetry? I have a photo that came to life solely because of one line of The National song. And you can never tell which one if I don’t tell you. Broad-mindedness is essential for inspiration. So, don’t limit yourself to photography knowledge, learn something interesting about biology, cognitive science or dancing. This is the most reliable way to forget about creative block.
The second one is this: Be specific.
What makes your object interesting, what mesmerizes or you give you a warm and fuzzy feeling? Let us think that your choice was a nice cup of tea. Why is it beautiful?
Because it’s transparent and you can see a sunlight in your tea? Then put it on a stack of books and shoot it in the backlight to show its beauty.
Or maybe you like the taste and aroma? Surround the cup with spices and flowers to show your viewer how it feels like to have all these rose petals, vanilla sugar, and lavender in your teacup.
Or maybe you like it because it makes you calm and relaxed. In that case, combine it with a bedtime story photographing paper Moon and stars above steam of your tea.
When you decide which specific property of the object you like the most, this detail will guide you through the rest of the process.
And last, but not least: Take your time
So often people think they couldn’t solve a problem or they’re out of ideas, but they didn’t even allow themselves to think about the problem for 5 minutes. By a clock. Harry Potter from Eliezer Yudkowsky‘s „Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality“ says:
„You never called any question impossible, until you had taken an actual clock and thought about it for five minutes, by the motion of the minute hand. Not five minutes metaphorically, five minutes by a physical clock.“ The Boy Who Lived has a point.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The sheer amount of support I’ve got is astonishing. I don’t necessarily mean something substantial like a piece of advice. But simply people saying what they do like my photos meant the world to me. Even the photos (as I can see now) wasn’t that good. Especially when they weren’t that good!
Once I’ve shown my portfolio to the stuff of „The Pilgrim“, the best design studio in the city at the time. They were genuinely interested. I had a very serious problem with lighting and composition, but they seemed to like my ideas. I felt so encouraged! That’s why I believe that no-one should ever put down any aspiring artist. You never know how good their art will be in a decade.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
The most difficult one is “An Ultimate Splash Guide” which I am writing for my Patreon page. That’s going to be a collection of tutorials on splash photography on a budget. Shooting splashes is always a lot of fun for me. And I tend to get a lot of questions about my process, especially if the cups don’t stay still and, say, appear to fall from the top shelf of the kitchen. So I thought I can write a half a dozen tutorials, exploring different levels of complexity. Simple splashes, coffee cups balancing on a rim, levitating and falling glasses! Just a little book explaining how you can do all that only with two speedlights and a glue gun. I’m planning to finish it in the next couple of months.
Also, I try to put more time and effort into stock photography. Some of my works are a part of Focused Collection at Depositphotos. I would love to expand that horizon in the future.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve learned almost everything I know about photography, brainstorming and creative process from artists that were generous with their knowledge. So, now I’m writing lots of tutorials and tips-and-tricks articles about still life photography. Mostly in my native language, but some was translated into English as well. Mostly I cover creative ways to enhance your photos and explore themes of still life and food photography. Using sparklers to make fallen stars, shooting vegetables dissolving in water, capturing rain in the studio or taking first steps in food typography. I hope that these tutorials can be helpful for other aspiring photographers.
Can you share “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Take Stunning Photos”. Please an example for each.
1 Start with a sketch.
The most important advice I can ever give is “Always start with a sketch”. Can we make it in a voice of Discworld Death? ALWAYS START WITH A SKETCH. Yeah, that’s better. I wish someone told me that earlier! It allows you to think about your character and your story, to ask an important question, to add cute details. I know there are photographers who can think of an idea on the run, but I’m definitely not one of them. So sketching and planning ahead is a core of still life photographer’s work and, for that matter, inspiration.
2. Think about a character.
You can approach your still life in a different way. Think not about the objects you want to photograph, but about a person, who may be their master. An artist, a pilot, a reader, a student, an accountant, a pirate or a stage magician. Tell us something about that person. Something really simple and relatable. For example, how does a pirate like his morning coffee? How does an artist see the mess in her apartment? What happens if a stage magician tries to bake some cookies?
3. Make the most out of what you already have
Remember: it’s not about props. It’s not about the gear either. „I can’t make a beautiful composition without beautiful props.“ Nonsense. Do you happen to own a coffee cup? And maybe a couple of cinnamon sticks or sugar cubes. Here, that’s enough for a start. Constraints like that are no limits to your imagination, but a challenge that makes the creative process more fun.
This applies to ideas. The most common problem I hear about from people who are new to still life photography is „I don’t know how to start“. Pick a theme. Or better yet, pick an object. Just one. Say, a cactus from your window sill, a piece of apple pie, a coffee cup, a pair of Chinese garden scissors, your favorite pencil sharpener, an orange. Not a toy, not a rare vintage trinket, something really simple and common. Choosing a relatable and mundane object like that is the best way to start your story.
4. Get rid of everything that doesn’t work.
Consider gathering props for your still life photo a packing for a high mountain trip. You’re going to carry all this weight to the top of the mountain, so bring only essentials. Sure, you don’t have to be a hardcore minimalist. You always can add some cute details for the atmosphere. But the first things you should arrange are the things that help you to tell the story.
5 Don’t be afraid.
Repeat after me: „Working hurts less than procrastinating, working hurts less than procrastinating. Eliezer Yudkowsky in his post appropriately named “Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting” says that being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating. We fear to change our current flow and start something new. We are flinching away from the momentary decision, not the paint of the process. Remember it when you’re afraid to try something or when you’re postponing a project. Working hurts less than procrastinating. This simple thing is so hard to remember! But keep it in mind and don’t be afraid to start.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m also a fangirl of “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality“”by Eliezer Yudkowsky it’s hilarious and touching at the same time. And Professor Quirrell (here he’s a competent teacher — calm, collected and powerful) had broken by heart. Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote it to introduce the general public to ideas of rationality. This is a way of thinking that helps you to recognize your mistakes, learn from them and draw conclusions, figuring out how the world really works. I believe that being introduced to these ideas can make life better for many people. It certainly made my life better, so I won’t stop telling my friends about „Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality“ specifically and cognitive science in general.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I have pages almost on any social network, although Facebook seems a bit abandoned. Mostly I count on my Instagram page, Telegram channel, and Patreon page.
Telegram (in Russian): https://t.me/WhateverMake
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you so much for having me!