Interview: EXkurogane

One of the most famous photographers of Japanese scale figures who is known for his impressive dioramas and determination to capture them in the best possible way.

When and why did you start collecting scale figures and taking photos of them? Can you tell us how the beginnings of EXkurogane looked like?

I started collecting scale figures almost a decade ago! I still remember it very fondly. Wonder Festival 2008, summer I think? My friend sent me the links and showed me the picture of a figure of Saber Lily Distant Avalon by Good Smile. I was a fan of Fate / Stay Night so, naturally, I was interested. Black Rock Shooter also caught my eye even though I knew nothing about her because I loved anime characters that have huge guns or cannons. That was the moment I started to become interested in scale figures.

I have been using the name EXkurogane for a very long time, since way back when I was a normal Gundam kit collector and I had my own blog on Google’s Blogger platform. The name originated from one of my childhood anime, Law of Ueki. The main character, Kosuke Ueki, had a huge cannon that goes by the name Kurogane. I took that name and added “EX” in front to differentiate myself from others, because the name “Kurogane” could be quite common online. The blogger site was so buggy then, so eventually I shut it down around the year 2011, when I was already collecting figures but only taking pictures of figures with my phone.

I kept comparing my phone photos to other figure photographers and soon realized I needed a “real camera”. I was only a college student and I couldn’t afford one initially. Eventually, I managed to buy my first camera in September 2013. It was a Nikon D5200 with an 18-55mm kit lens. That is when my journey as a “real” figure photographer began.

What kind of photos do you capture? Is there any story behind them?

Nowadays, I concentrate only on scale figures of anime characters, figures with a fixed pose and no joints, and create my own scene for it. I decided to make that my only focus, my niche, in an attempt to differentiate myself from other photographers. I wanted to build an identity for myself.

Back then when I just started doing figure photography, there were a number of people who were already making dioramas for Nendoroids and Figmas, but not so much for scales due to the size and practical issues – and perhaps, cost.

My principle for figure photography is very simple. It’s to tell a story. A story created either from my own imagination or using references directly from the anime or manga the character came from. When I look at my photos, I expect them either to look like a screenshot out of a game or anime, or a movie poster, or an artwork – but with my unique style. The figure in the photo should look like a human or a character that is doing something – a story behind the scene I made. It is all about bringing imagination to life.

Imagine a travelling photographer going places and taking pictures of the locals doing their daily routine, or a street photographer capturing a moment. There is a story in their photos, and the concept I aim for is exactly the same. The difference is, I create and construct the scene myself.

You are well known for making impressive dioramas, I dare say that they make your work unique and easily recognizable. Do you have any strict method you follow every time when you make a new one?

I am very strict with obeying some composition rules, but I am also flexible enough to break the rules when needed. You could say that the scenes I make are highly calculated and have a predictable result. My dioramas – in terms of size and layout are designed to fit 50mm focal length range of camera lenses.

The rule of thirds comes to mind when we talk about composition rules, but I don’t use that as much. I love using the Phi Grid, Triangle ratio and Golden Ratio to organize my diorama scenes for photography. It tells me where to place an object in the scene so that it does not look out of place. When you put so many elements or objects in a scene, the slightest bit of mistake in composition can make the difference between a messy and distracting photo, and an organized chaos that is pleasant to look at. And then there is something called “color composition”. I always make sure the colors of the furniture and overall scene in my diorama match the figure well. I do use the color theory to a certain extent.

I trained myself in photography by using prime lenses a lot in the past. I avoided zoom lenses whenever I could. Because I have always been tied to one single focal length, I am very familiar with what a photo looks like for any given focal length. If you showed me a random photo, and assuming the photo wasn’t cropped, I could tell what focal length it was taken with most of the time. This acquired skill enables me to accurately design a diorama for the lenses I use with my camera, at the same time matching the composition I was aiming for.

Timelapse of Kay building diorama for Nazo no Heroine X is available here.

You bought a 3D printer this year. Is it difficult to achieve the desired prints?

I have always been scared of jumping onto the 3D printing bandwagon because I have zero knowledge in 3D design. But, just like learning photography, everyone has to start somewhere. You need to start from zero. I felt frustrated by how difficult it is to make some unique diorama parts by hand, especially curved parts that 3D printing could make with ease. I did as much research as I could online, learning the basics, and then eventually bought a printer in earlier this year in late July.

My very first prints were successful, and I was ecstatic. However, the problem was consistency. There were times where successful prints looked outright terrible on some surfaces. They were usable but required some modifying work by hand. Eventually, I solved all the problems on my own by solely relying on the internet for information and troubleshooting. So, there is definitely a learning process I needed to go through. In exchange for all these pains, I felt a new sense of freedom now. I can make anything I need now. My current limitations are the limited number of 3D designs available on the web, and my skills in designing them on my own. I’m still quite a novice.

Do you use any special photography or post-production technique?

Nowadays I use a unique post-processing technique called focus stacking. I started learning this technique back in late 2017. Basically, you take many shots of the same scene while on a tripod, usually at a large aperture – such as f/2.8, but each shot is focused on a different part of the figure. If I took 10 shots, I would have each shot focused separately on the figure’s eyes, hair, face, body, and limbs. All the 10 photos would be edited in Lightroom first to look exactly the same in exposure and color, and then they are merged in Photoshop into one single shot, where the result is an entire figure that is in focus from head to toe, yet preserving the smooth bokeh produced by the large f/2.8 aperture. If I take my figures out for outdoor landscape photography, with focus stacking I can maintain a sharp focus on both the figure and the background with this method.

This method is more commonly used by macro photographers, those who shoot insects, for example, and struggle with depth of field issues even at the smallest apertures. I applied the same technique to figure photography. It was revolutionary in some ways, where my photos now have a unique look that otherwise can’t be produced in photos taken with a single shot. This new look has become one of my trademarks now.

Focus stacking was, for example, used on Kay’s recent photo of Shuten Douji. You can see more in his YouTube video below.

Is there any upcoming figure project you are going to surprise us with?

Without a clear idea of what figure I even want to buy in the coming months, I don’t know what I can announce for everyone to expect in the coming months. As for the figures I have currently, I wanted to do something great with Alter’s Avenger / Jeanne D’Arc Alter. It is not easy to build a scene for such a huge figure, and I intend to throw in everything I have in my arsenal into this project. So that’s one to look out for.

Early next year, you can expect to see me photograph my first male anime figure, and I also have a rather ambitious plan for it. Nowadays I don’t preorder many figures anymore, because their releases and delays are so unpredictable and they often mess up the schedule I create for myself, unless it is something I expect to become rare after release. I only start planning a purchase and the photography after a figure I’m interested in has a confirmed release date.

I am currently on a mission to create a series of photos of different Type Moon / Fate Grand Order characters because next year we might be having a Type Moon related event in local anime exhibit here. It’s not yet confirmed but I’d like to have a single theme for my photography and diorama exhibit in the near future.

What is the most favorite figure photo you have ever made?

My personal favorite is my photo of Alter’s Matsuura Kanan from Love Live Sunshine, from November 2018.

What cameras and lenses do you use to capture the figures?

Currently, my main camera is Nikon D850. I’m using a Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art for diorama shots, and for outdoors (combining a figure with landscapes) I use an ultrawide lens, the Tamron 15-30mm 2.8 Di VC USD.

What would you recommend to someone who is considering to start collecting figures and taking photos of them? What camera and equipment would you recommend to start with?

To me, lighting makes or breaks a photo. No matter how huge or small your budget is, always spare some money for buying lamps and lighting equipment. One single lamp is not enough, you need at least two to three of them. Lighting modifiers like reflectors and diffusers can be made with DIY methods if you are looking to save money.

When it comes to cameras, I am not going to side with any brands because that is entirely up to personal preferences. What I do recommend though, is to purchase an interchangeable lens camera – a mirrorless or a DSLR. A smartphone camera simply isn’t a good option because the main cameras of smartphones are too wide for most genres of figure photography – most often to be between 24mm to 28mm equivalent in field of view. No matter how good smartphone cameras have become, in the end they still have a tiny sensor.

Since we are talking about figure photography, which is technically only taking photos of a static object, you do not need the latest and greatest technology found in expensive cameras. Expensive camera bodies are necessary when you do more demanding types of photography, such as wedding, or sports and wildlife. This is why I recommend focusing a larger portion of your budget on good lenses and instead of expensive camera bodies. The kit lens itself is very versatile and produces good results, but not great results. That is why I recommend buying better lenses.

This might sound contradictory when I use a Nikon D850 – an expensive camera, but I’m speaking from past experience. I used a relatively entry-level Nikon D5200 for 4 years and built my reputation with only that one camera. During that period, I picked up good lenses, prime lenses, and it made a world of difference.

If your budget is limited, the used camera market is highly recommended. I myself still buy used lenses even today. While I use a 50mm prime lens for my scale figures, it is important to remember that 50mm lenses are not suitable for photographing smaller figures like Figmas and Nendoroids. Those lenses have a minimum focusing distance of 40cm. It can’t focus on very close objects. In those cases, buying a macro lens to add to your kit lens is a good idea.

Also, do learn to edit your images a little. Shoot your photos in RAW format and not jpeg, and do some post-production on those RAW files before saving them as jpegs.

What is your favorite anime and anime character?

I have too many waifus (LOL) but if I have to pick my favorite one, then the answer is an easy one. Tohsaka Rin from Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works.

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