Rise from the ashes and create flaming creatures with Dina Belenko

Magical photographer Dina Belenko teaches us how to create fantastic beasts from fire and flame using photo composition…

I love it when something magical happens inside my still life photos—a predatory plant grows in a broken flowerpot, a couple of coffee cups balance on a single spoon or a tiny UFO steals cookies. Mostly I achieve this magic with real-life tricks. Not smoke and mirrors, but paper models and a hot glue gun. But some of my illusions can’t come to life without the magic of post-processing. And this fiery fox is exactly like that. Let’s see how it’s done!

A timelapse showing the creation of the flaming fox photograph.

1. Sketch

First of all, make a sketch. It’s the heart of any good shot. Think about things you can represent through fire. What can it be? A fantasy castle burned by a disappointed writer or a tiny pet dragon born with a candle flame? My pick today is a quick fiery fox. Basically, you need to find a source of fire (candle, match, burning paper, miniature bonfire, lighter or even a cocktail) and draw from that.

2. Composition

The key points of the composition you can determine on the stage of drawing a sketch. Remember to leave a lot of space for the fire and bring some props associated with your creature or with the atmosphere. So, if you have a frustrated writer, burn a crumpled paper ball and arrange a composition with notebooks, pencils, and notes. I don’t have any props related to foxes, but I have some items associated with magic. So my composition contains some moss, crystals, books and potion bottles. And lots of free space above my candle.

3. Setup

You can use practically any lighting scheme you want but the important thing is to make the candleflame visible. So don’t overpower it with additional light sources.

Setting the scene.

In my case, the scene is lit with two speedlights, both set on quite low power. One is inside a small strip-box on the right and slightly behind the scene. That’s my key light. Another speedlight is behind a large diffuser on the left. That’s my fill light. I have a rather open aperture (f/4.5) and a not too fast shutter speed (1/125 c), so the candlelight looks rather prominent and bright.

Dina’s photography set up, showing two speedlights lighting the scene.

4. Shooting

Now, light up your fire! And take a sequence of shots.

When I was shooting papers in a typewriter, I didn’t need any extra flame. The burning papers were quite enough. What I needed was a bucket of water prepared in advance! But in the case of the burning candle, I needed to give the fire more food, so it could grow bigger and brighter. I used a wooden skewer to do that—cheap and safe. I also added some smoke curling on the table to enhance the mysterious atmosphere.

Dina using a wooden skewer to create a larger flame to photograph.

5. Silhouette

It’s time to go to post-processing, but first, we need to find a silhouette of our creature. You can draw it yourself, find something appropriate on websites with stock photographs like Unsplash or buy a vector stock image. You don’t need anything very detailed, just an approximate and recognisable shape of an object you want to set on fire.

The sketch of a fox that Dina used to create the flaming photo composition.
The fox sketch put into position on the photographed background.

6. Post-processing

And now the true magic begins! Place your silhouette above the candle and decrease its Opacity. You’re only going to need it as a guideline.

After that gather all the flames you’ve shot on separate layers. Pick one of them, add a layer mask and discard sharp edges and the remains of the candle or the wooden skewer with a soft black brush.

Change the Blend Mode of this layer to Lighten. Now, place this flame alongside the silhouette of your fire creature to recreate its form.

The steps taken to add flames to the fox silhouette.

You may need to transform the flame slightly so it matches the silhouette perfectly. For that Affinity has a wonderful feature called Liquify Persona. Just click on the icon in the top left corner and adjust the shape to your preference.

“Try not to get too caught up in small details. The fire figure will look clearer and easier to recognise if you compose it from just a few wide flames”

Repeat this process until you have the entire silhouette covered in flame. Try not to get too caught up in small details. The fire figure will look clearer and easier to recognise if you compose it from just a few wide flames rather than from many little ones. Paint your fire creature with wide strokes. And remember that fire gets hotter and whiter closer to its centre. So make the central area of the silhouette (maybe the place where their heart is if they have a heart) a bit brighter and whiter than the edges.

This process is very simple, but not very fast. So take your time and watch your creature slowly come to life!

7. Final touches

When you’ve completed the silhouette, you can delete or hide the layer with the original fox silhouette and give your work a little polish. In my case, it’s adding some smoke creeping on the table as well as some smoke from the candle around my fox.

Yes, I know, burning candles don’t produce smoke. But they also don’t produce dragons, phoenixes and salamander spirits. So a little suspension of disbelief is appropriate here.

After that, all that remains is to adjust overall colours and contrast. Voila! Enjoy the company of your new fiery pet.

The finished fire fox image with sparks and smoke finishing touches.

Other examples of fire creatures…

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.

Check out her tutorial on floating food compositions on Affinity Spotlight.

You can also see more of Dina’s amazing work on 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.