There’s a clichéd old photo that shows an N scale freight car stacked on top of an HO car with both stacked on top of a quarter-inch scale car, in an attempt to show the difference in size between the three scales.

All this does is show the difference in size of freight cars. To my mind, this is a useless way of looking at things because it does nothing to show the potential of a layout that can be built in a given space for each scale. What if we considered another way?

What if we could see the real world proportioned to N or Z scales? How would it look?

NS stack train south of Camden, Ohio headed toward Cincinnati.

This photo was shot from some distance away. I’m guessing it’s between seven and eight hundred feet, maybe more, maybe less, between my position and the track.*(See my comments at the end of this article.) There’s no Photoshop trickery here, just a simple photo of a southbound NS stack train headed for Cincinnati.

What’s your view?

The real key to understanding the layout potential a modeling scale offers is to learn what the viewpoint of each scale is. N and Z scales offer the modeler a panoramic viewpoint like the one in the photo. From this perspective, the models and other elements in the scene are so small that individual details become almost irrelevant. While the photo above isn’t proportioned exactly to N scale, it’s close enough to illustrate my point. From this distance, the locomotives and stack cars read more as shapes than anything else. The details on both the cars and locos that we know are present simply can’t be seen without magnification or physically moving much closer.

Notice too how wide the field of view is. Even though a 70mm focal length is slightly narrower than our normal field of vision, the eyes still take in a broad sweep of the landscape, both front-to-back and side-to-side. The trees and other growth also read more as shapes and blocks of color than as individual objects. There is some texture evident in the foreground field and grassy area, but it really isn’t that distinct. It would be if we were actually on site, because our eyes change focus automatically when we sift our gaze from foreground to background and object to object. In this static photo, the eye just reads it as texture due to the pattern of lights and darks in it.

The most important aspect here is this: N scale allows you to put the train in the scene, similar to how we would see it at full-size. This places the tracks and train in context within the scenery instead of having the scenery become filler around the tracks, like it typically is in larger scales.

All of this is important to consider when designing a layout. We know that a smaller scale allows us to include more features (automatically interpreted as more track) than larger scales. However, thinking in terms of the viewpoint of a specific scale and how that impacts the total design is, in my view, poorly understood. I’ll come back to that in a minute. For now, let’s look at the other end of the scale spectrum.

GATX #63008, Mike Cougill Photo, Copyright 2011

For the sake of argument, let’s say this shot of GATX #63008 represents the world if it were quarter-inch scale. Again, not a scientifically proportioned shot, but within reason. Several things should be immediately apparent: 1) The viewpoint is much closer, which in turn narrows the field of vision considerably and makes the individual objects seem much larger in size. The wide angle sweep of the first photo has given way to a close-up viewpoint. By moving in closer, individual details like the truck springs, lettering and the brake gear are more prominent and, in fact, tend to dominate the attention of the eye because of their visual texture and complexity. Our eyes are drawn to texture and color. Artists use this fact to move a viewer’s eyes around a painting by making some areas more textured and others smoother. The eye will move quickly over a smooth, non-descript area and linger over the textured ones. Visual texture provides a form of emphasis; saying in effect, look here.

2): The proportional relationship between the tank car and the surrounding scenery is still present and in scale with the close-up viewpoint. For example, if you were standing on location here, you wouldn’t see the tree tops in the background without shifting your eyes and head upward. This is where many large scale modelers stumble with their scenery efforts. By failing to keep the proportions between the different elements of a scene intact, the overall realism suffers greatly. I’ve seen far too many S and quarter-inch scale model photos with supposedly mature trees that are barely taller than the trains; a visual mistake that destroys the hoped for realism of both. S and quarter-inch scale models can be incredibly realistic when placed within a proper scenic context that maintains the correct ratio between the trains and landscape elements. A stellar example of keeping things in correct proportions in a large scale scene is shown by the photos of Australian modeler Geoff Nott’s work in this thread from the Westlake Publishing Modeler’s Forum. The ratio of the tree heights to the On3 models is spot on and adds an incredible amount of realism to both. In addition, the large diameter of the many tall tree trunks contributes to the illusion that these are massive trees. The fact that he only modeled the lower portions of the tallest trees, and ran the trunks right up to the lighting cover, is a stroke of genius that flies in the face of conventional practice. Every time I look at these photos, I get the urge to strip the existing scenery off of my layout and start over.

The implications for the viewpoint of a given scale are significant for overall layout scenery design. Of all the scenery and layout planning books and magazine articles out there, few touch on this concept. Of the ones that do, the idea usually got sparse coverage from the authors. However, once this concept is understood, a modeler can use it to assess his available space and make more intelligent choices about how much layout he can effectively model in his preferred scale, in addition to the aspects he can reasonably emphasize.

One Size Does Not Fit All

As typically practiced, layout design is driven by track criteria: curve radius, turnout size, passing siding lengths, etcetera. While important, these criteria ignore equally important ones like leaving room for uncluttered, realistic scenery. Recently, train length has been added as an ingredient to the layout criteria stew by some modelers. While a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough in my view. Furthermore, much of the planning literature is written from the strong bias of one scale, typically HO or N. The resulting one-size fits all approach often falls short in giving modelers the understanding needed to design a layout with realistic scenes in a larger scale. In trying to apply  a set of design criteria from one scale unilaterally to another, modelers will struggle needlessly in their design efforts. That panoramic viewpoint so easily achieved in a modest space with N scale will require huge amounts of space for the broad radius curves and sweeping areas of scenery needed to pull it off in an S or quarter-inch scale layout. It would be much better to focus on designs that take full advantage of the strengths the close-up viewpoints of these scales for modeling fine details.

My friend Trevor Marshall faced this dilemma when he tried to design a P48 based layout for his basement space. With each design attempt, he kept running into the same roadblocks, namely the lack of room for adequate radius curves and long turnouts to accommodate the equipment and operations he wanted. In addition to these issues, he faced another equally vexing one: lack of space for realistic scenery. An important priority for his layout was having realistic scenes with breathing room in them; in other words, uncrowded with buildings, track and other elements.

The close-up viewpoint of P48 dictates the use of large radius curves that leave big chunks of awkward, empty space in the corners of the room. These areas are often hard to deal with in a realistic manner, especially when they tend to be deep and hard to reach and maintain. A further complication was that these awkward spaces were too small for any sidings with industries. Trevor mentioned that everything began looking like a train set instead of the railroad model he envisioned.

His solution was interesting. Rather than put up with the severe, unsatisfying compromises required for a quarter-inch scale layout in his space, he chose to work in S scale instead. The different viewpoint of S scale (one that moves the viewer farther back and thereby reducing the apparent size of the objects) allowed him to come up with a design that met all of his criteria fairly quickly. Trevor explains his planning process on his Port Rowan in 1:64 blog and also in a recent article for the Layout Design Journal -45, a publication of the Layout Design Special Interest Group.

When realistic scenes are an important goal, consider the choice of scale carefully. Keep the viewpoint and perspective of that scale in mind as you consider the options before you. With a better understanding of the proportions and viewpoint for a given modeling scale, one can save much time and frustration by not trying to fit five pounds of layout into a three pound space.



* Well the joke is really on me this time and it’s a good one. I’m no judge of distance at all. It was actually more like 700-800 feet between me and the train in the first photo, not the 100-200 as I wrote originally. I edited the sentence to reflect the correction. I want my writing to be transparent and for the work of OST Publications Inc. to stand for something. So, I’m calling myself on the carpet for this one. Boy, am I embarrassed. -MC