Dina Belenko is an inspirational still life photographer who creates unique, and often surreal, conceptual artwork. Dina’s creative cup is overflowing with imaginative ideas and which she conceptualises by taking everyday items on magical visual adventures.
As well as mastering the visual arts, Dina is also an accomplished writer who help educates aspiring creators on how to conceive their own artistic visions. Dina divulges a lot of her creative secrets in her ebook The Creative Photography Cookbook which is a crowd favourite within our community.
No matter how far you like to push your creative boundaries, there’s something we can all learn from Dina. She may even inspire you to push your creativity to the brink of your imagination and beyond.
Scroll down and find out as Dina takes us on a magical journey into her unique and wonderful creative mind.
Welcome Dina! Tell us a bit about yourself.
Hi everyone, I’m Dina. I live in a far-eastern city with a slightly weird name Khabarovsk. It’s quite small, and I believe this has significantly influenced my photos. When you can’t simply buy certain props or equipment, you learn to make-do without them. You learn to use things you already have in a new way. And you realise that most of the time you don’t need anything expensive to take a cool picture. All the photos you see here I’ve created at home, not in a fancy studio. And that’s why now I can teach you how to take amazing photos too!
What are some fun things people might not know about you?
How did your journey to photography start? Have you always been a conceptual photographer?
Honestly, for a long time I was just enjoying the sound of the shutter. So pleasant!
My parents gave me a cheap camera when I was in high school, so I took snapshots of everything. There was no Instagram, but the content (sunsets and cats) was quite appropriate for its early years. I wasn’t a photographer, I just took a lot of silly pictures without a thought.
But years later I took a still life shot. And I’ve realised that I can tell a story with it. That I can orchestrate my own reality. That I don’t need to catch what already exists, I can make something new. And I’ve realised that I want to be a still life photographer. I didn’t have any skills (yet), but I was mesmerised by the possibilities.
What equipment do you currently use for your conceptual creations?
My creative tools are my Nikon D800 camera, Manfrotto tripod, SB-910 speedlights, a small glue gun, good scissors, some double-sided tape, a dozen sketchbooks, and a lot of funny pens to draw sketches.
Tell us more about your lighting setup?
Hmmm, I don’t think I have one. I approach every shot as a problem to solve. First, I need a story. Second, I need to figure out how I can tell this story. Third, I need to arrange an effective composition. Lighting and camera settings come after that. They are just tools, I can’t pick favourites here.
What is your best advice to share with aspiring conceptual photographers?
DRAW. A. SKETCH. FIRST.
Seriously. It sounds so simple and obvious, but it really helps to get your story straight. You can plan your props, your composition and your lighting. You can get to the scene prepared and just do what needs to be done step-by-step with confidence and pleasure. I’m a nervous person, and the process of trying and failing freaks me out. I want this dose of dopamine coming from successfully completing the task. And nothing brings you closer to a cool photo than planning ahead.
It still leaves a lot of room to experiment on the set. You still can try new things you haven’t planned for. But it’s much easier to reach the goal when you know what your goal is. So, pretty please, draw a sketch first. It took me a couple of years to realise that. And you can do it RIGHT NOW!
Your behind the scenes videos are very popular, any advice for creatives wanting to produce this type of content?
Oh, I always love to look at someone’s work in progress. You can learn so many things. Especially, tiny little things which make your life much easier, but no-one bothers to mention in a tutorial. That’s why I’m constantly reminding myself to take some photos of my process. I even made a sticky note on my workplace about that)
So my main advice is to not forget to take some photos with your backstage. People love to see it. I love to see it. Please, do!
How do you keep learning and evolving your skills?
I constantly try something new. Sure, I like to plan my photos and get exactly what I want. But I also like to experiment. When you get into an experimental mode of thinking, every failure is a secret success (since you’ve discovered a wrong way to do something, this makes finding the right way more likely in terms of chance). Before I approach any technique I’ve never tried before (like liquid fire or shooting from below) I try to find a simple and quick way to test it. This helps me to fail faster, but also to find the right method faster.
I can’t recommend any courses, but I can recommend a book. It’s not about photography, but it’s about a mindset that helps you to grow and learn. The book is called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It’s written by AI scientist, Eliezer Yudkowsky. Here Harry Potter grows up in a loving family, believes strongly in scientific method and is surrounded by genuinely smart people. Even Crab and Goyle are actually smart in this book. Harry explains the basics of cognitive biases and teaches you how to think better. All in a fun (and at the end — heartbreaking) way.
There’s a great audio version narrated by Eneasz Brodsky. Highly recommend it! This book made me the photographer I am today.
Which other creators do you admire and find inspiring?
So many of them! In no particular order:
What are your three favourite props to use?
Dried leaf - it represents the beauty of decay and imperfection. Also, autumn is my favourite season. My beloved playwright Tom Stoppard says that the feeling of something coming to its end is his favourite feeling. There’s something touching and profound about it. That’s autumn for me.
Sheet of glass - You can do so many things with it! From imitating a rainy window to creating an illusion of levitation! So versatile!
Lastly, we would love to know - what’s next for you?
Well, two things. I hope! First, I want to write a new (third) book of creative still life techniques. I enjoy seeing the photos people take after reading my tutorials, and I definitely want more of it!
Second, I want to expand my small video tutorials into a real course, with homework and all. The hardest part is to find a platform for it. But I hope I’ll figure something out.
I love the pictures created in the ebook and how creative they all are. I loved this book. I learnt so much and I’m still working on trying everything. Dina made it so much fun. She explains how things are to be set up, step by step, and also lighting and camera settings. She’s an artistic genius!
Community member Ruth Robinson
Thank you Dina for opening our creative minds a little further to the possibilities of our own imagination.
You can follow Dina’s whimsical ways and still life creations at @dinabelenko and check out her ebooks at The Creative Photography Cookbook and Flat Lay Photo Fever at Expert Photography.
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