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How to make a festive food photo composition with photographer Dina Belenko

Dina Belenko’s magical approach to still life photography really captured our imagination. Armed with her camera, Affinity Photo and her signature whimsical style she shows us behind the scenes on her gravity-defying festive photoshoot and post-processing.

If winter has anything good to it, it’s hot drinks. Raspberry jam tea, coffee with whipped cream, cocoa with marshmallows, all this sweet stuff that not only tastes fantastic but looks perfect in photos. Especially if you add a little dynamism and maybe a levitation spell! So, let’s see how we can make a nice Christmas photo with levitating marshmallow letters and flying chocolate.

Props and gear

The list of things we need is pretty simple:

  • Christmas still life props
  • Holders and supports (for levitation)
  • Marshmallow and cookie cutters (for letters)
  • Cocoa powder and chocolate syrup
  • Light source (if you want to add some action, a light source suitable for high-speed shooting)
  • A camera and a tripod.
The props used for the photoshoot.

First of all, we need some Christmas props for the atmosphere. For example, a cozy knitted scarf or a sweater, a couple of garlands or toys, a wrapped present, fairy lights, fir tree branches, some cinnamon or anise stars would look perfect.

Another essential thing is holders and supports to keep our sweet letters in the air. For that, I used a couple of knitting needles I borrowed from my mom. As holders, I used simple clamps made to help in embroidery and scrapbooking (Starmag Double Flexi Clamp to be precise) as well as famous Wimberley The Plamp II flexible tripod.

Marshmallow letters

I’m new to food typography and I’m hopeless at cooking, so I have to rely on alphabet cookie cutters to make my letters. Draw a sketch, plan your text, count the letters you need, and after that buy the largest marshmallow you can find and simply cut the letters with cookie cutters to get your sweet text.

The easiest way to keep letters in the air is to gather them together on one needle or a skewer per word. So, I pierced letters for ‘Warm’ with one knitting needle and letters for ‘Up’ with another one. I messed up the letter ‘M’ a bit, so I had to use an additional small needle to keep a falling piece in its place.

Composition and lighting

Now it’s time to assemble everything together! Start with a cup of hot cocoa and arrange your composition around it. Add a couple of fir tree branches, some chocolate, maybe your favourite Christmas decorations. Remember to leave space for flying letters and falling cocoa powder.

Behind the scenes showing the still life scene and the lighting set up around it.

Next, set your lights. I used two speedlights: one (the key light) is placed in a small stripbox on the right side (and a bit behind the scene), another (the fill light) set behind a large diffuser on the left side. I also used a black flag between the key light and my background to make all the objects on the background stand out less—so they won’t attract so much of a viewer’s attention.

Both speedlights are set on low power since I want to freeze falling cocoa powder in the air (it works just like with splashes: low power provides a short impulse, so it’s possible to capture movement).

Fix your marshmallow letters with clamps on their place and get ready to action!

And action!

This is my favourite part! Set your camera to a Continuous mode, so you will be able to take several shots in a row. Scatter some cocoa powder on your letters and take a sequence of shots.

The first shot taken, showing the marshmallows being held up.
The shot taken while the cocoa powder is being sprinkled over the scene.

After that, you can pour some chocolate or caramel syrup. Make sure to pour it at least on some letters, because it would look strange if in the midst of falling cocoa powder and flying chocolate syrup your marshmallow letters stay clean and untouched. As a final touch shoot some tiny falling marshmallows.

A series of photos showing the chocolate syrup being squirted into shot.

Don’t forget to take an ‘empty shot’, that is to say, a shot with the same composition, but without any supports, so it would be easier to delete these supports at post-processing. I also took some shots with fairy lights, which I didn’t have in a scene, but would love to add in post-processing.

Post-processing: with all layers combined

Ok, it’s almost ready! Pick the shot you like best. For me it’s one of the first iterations with cocoa powder. And choose several other action shots, say, with best drops of syrup. Place these shots as separate layers on your best one creating a big digital sandwich. Now, use Layer Mask and a small relatively soft brush to conceal all the parts of your layer you want to be invisible.

Layer Masks in Affinity (to my delight) work just like in Photoshop. You paint with black and the area becomes invisible, you paint with white, and you make it visible again. For small details like drops or falling marshmallows, I find it more convenient to create Layer Mask, invert it (or fill it with black colour) and paint with a white soft brush on the areas I want to bе seen. As opposed to painting with black on the areas of the photo that should be invisible. But that’s just a matter of taste.

You may also want to retouch the supports first. You can do it with your ‘empty shot’ and a Layer Mask. Or you can use the Patch Tool. Draw a selection around the area you want to patch (the knitting needle in my case). Then move the cursor away to the area you want to use as the source for the patching. You can see a real-time preview over the area you selected initially. And then click the left mouse button to apply it to that area when you are happy with the preview.

Post-processing: last touches

After I added all drops and drips of chocolate I wanted, I added some polish to my letters. Again, I used the Patch Tool to conceal the cracks I don’t like and to retouch the broken letter ‘M’.

Also, I used several Adjustment layers. The first one I used was Curves to make my letters more white and bright. Then a couple of layers of Colour Balance and Selective Colour to play with tones a bit.

And voila! You can enjoy your cup of hot cocoa and a fantastic photo with levitation!

The final edit.

About the creator

Dina Belenko is a still life photographer and 500px Brand Ambassador. She tells magical stories behind everyday inanimate objects. When she isn’t busy shooting conceptual still life and food on commission, she writes photography and photo editing tutorials.

You can see more of Dina’s work at 500px, Instagram, Twitter and her website.

Artist relations

Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

All photography copyright © of Dina Belenko and used with permission.