Do we need a backdrop?

We all know the problems of creating a realistic backdrop. The explosion of photomurals helps but they aren’t a cure-all. It takes skill to turn a flat vertical plane into the illusion of volumetric space that conveys the depth we see outside. It takes further skill to make a seamless transition between the three-dimensional modeling and two-dimensional background. And, I haven’t touched on the problems of matching colors or dealing with fixed perspective and viewpoint. Oh, have I mentioned the issue of cast shadows on the sky? There’s a lot to consider.

In recent months, I’ve been thinking about what a layout means to me in terms of construction and presentation. The backdrop of Mill Road is nothing more than a piece of aluminum flashing that was painted with hardware store spray cans. It represents an overcast sky with a hazy line of distant trees at the horizon. While it’s effective, I’ve started to wonder whether I need a backdrop at all.

I’m often drawn to display photos where an object is isolated against a black background. As an experiment, I placed a sheet of black pastel paper against the backdrop and snuggled it down behind the scenery.

I was not prepared for the difference a dark background makes to the layout.

Stepping back, the impact was huge and I wasn’t ready for how different the scene looked. My eyes were immediately drawn to the scenery and other modeling. Colors in the landscape that I didn’t notice before stood out prominently. The feeling of depth and openness the sky conveyed was gone. The feeling was one of enclosure since there was nothing else to look at but the modeled objects.

At first I didn’t like the difference but decided to suspend judgment and live with the test for a few days. As I moved around the basement I noticed that portion of the layout effectively disappeared. The dark mass didn’t draw my attention unless the layout lights were on.

Context is important
The sense of open country Mill Road conveys is an important aspect of the scene I don’t want to lose. After a few days of consideration I removed the black paper and things felt right again. I shared the experiment with Chris Mears and as usual, he shot right to the heart of it with this question: Is a question here: what do we want to share, the immediacy of this place or this place as part of another context?

That’s an astute observation. The open country context of the layout is central to the story I’m telling with it. The featureless black background eliminated that aspect and fundamentally changed the story in a way I didn’t like, so I decided to confine the dark backdrops to the staging areas on each end.

I’m still intrigued with the idea of a black background. In a different setting such as an urban scene, like Jonathan Jones is doing, it’s very compelling. In his case the viewpoint is different with the tall and massive buildings limiting distant views.

I can picture an industrial branch that skirts along the edge of various properties, like the remnant of the GR&I locally. Surrounded by trees, scrub bushes and fencing, the focus is on the immediate foreground with the track and the train. In this setting I believe a dark background would provide a strong and appropriate visual focus on the modeling.

A few short years ago, I wouldn’t have even considered the idea of a dark backdrop or none at all. I was locked into a predictable mindset of what a layout should look like. I view the craft differently now in terms of what it means to me and how I might express that meaning. I know where my own interests are and I’m more inclined to explore that vision for the work.

As I’ve mentioned before, the traditional forms seem like cumbersome overkill given the lightweight loads we impose on them. For people living in condos, senior housing or other transitional quarters, these forms often put the craft out of practical reach. Such spaces are also hard to fit a traditional layout into given how we design and think about what a layout is or isn’t.

Moving forward, I want simpler solutions and enjoy pushing at the old boundaries. I firmly believe there are alternatives to what’s currently on offer in terms of design, construction and how we think of the craft.



  1. Kev.Locomotive

    That was a good experiment. Glad you tried it for a few days.

    I really like your hazy shade of winter backdrop. And I liked the photo you posted recently showing the open transition from the black staging area to the scenic part of the layout. It’s a very effective way to show what’s on and off scene. And it shows there’s no need to try and hide the transition with an overbridge or buildings if you don’t want to.

    And I appreciate your comment that some peoples situations rule out elaborate layouts. My restrictions are a miniscule budget and that I don’t want to start a project that’s going to take years to complete.

  2. Craig Townsend

    I always like Trevor Marshalls approach to his backdrop on his Poet Rowan layout. It was a blue fabric back ground that was a few inches away from the layout. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a it strange, but it grew on my over the years of him posting about his layout. My mind filled in the background and brought my attention back to the scene.

    I’d suggest you try your experiment again with a blue color and see what you think.


  3. Simon Dunkley

    On my one and only finished layout, I had a light sky-blue background, with a hedgerow in front of it along the back of the layout. (You can see some photos of it in subsequent ownership here:
    This was reasonably successful, so when I acquired Lydham Heath, I added a similar one, using a paint shade known over here as “mineral mist”, but this time I also added some “blue remembered hills” – this is Shropshire, after all – to provide a bit more context, using a projection of the real hills from an on-line tool I found. I think the hills need a lightening wash of a pinkish grey, but overall I am happy with the effect.

    Done well, photographic backscenes can be incredible: the first time I saw Mike Confalone’s original “Woodsville Terminal”, but perspective is a thorny problem: I find it doesn’t work so well on the same creator’s revised “Andover”,

    Martin Goodall, on his “Burford Branch” (, has done a good job of flattening out perspective. See also Model Railway Journals 220 and 221.

    At the end of the day, backscenes are a personal choice, I think, along with such matters as couplers, turnout operation, track and wheel standards, and the only question I can ask when assessing whether or not the result is effective is, “What was the modeller trying to achieve, here?” (That question requires a degree of hope that the modeller even knew what they were trying to achieve!)

  4. chris mears

    The photo backdrops sure are popular. It’s hard to evaluate their effectiveness because, so often we’re viewing them in photos that subtract the three dimensional presence of the actual layout and reduce it to the same two dimensional plane of the backdrop.

    Do you think the depth of the scene is a factor here? Regardless of how we finish the scene (anywhere on the spectrum from simple fabric backdrop through to high resolution photographic backdrop) the narrower the scene is does that affect our relationship between the scene’s depth and the backdrop. Does it feel too close to me?

    While looking at your photos I was thinking about how we, as creative people, make personal and stylistic choices regarding the scenic textures and colours we employ in our models. Just like colour itself the decision is not informed solely by any sense of fact so much as it is our impression of or reaction to it. We might not notice it any more but I feel it’s apparent when we use a photobackdrop and provide that contrast between what we do and how grass or trees appear in the photo of the real thing.

    I really enjoy how you experimented with this. I like how it interrogates the question of why we include a backdrop. Too much of our design just assumes things into the scene without asking why they need to be there and what their role is. Just like asking if we have enough coal hoppers we can ask if we need a backdrop and then why. As you discovered in this simple experiment we are only made wiser for the experience and better educated into the reasons we did or didn’t do something.

    My Victoria is without a backdrop. I certainly see the value of it in the context of the model railway. Having a backdrop would make photography of the models much easier because it would obscure the brick wall that’s behind it. But that same brick wall is a beautiful thing in our home and that same model railroad backdrop would subtract that aesthetic value of our home so not including it is a decision of balance, for me, when I look at what I’m adding and trying to figure out how to add just the right amount, like they say in recipes, “to taste”.

    These conversations are always the highlight of my day. Thank you again.


  5. chris mears

    And I know we’re not voting, not choosing sides, and so on but that second photo, centred on the ground throw and with the black backrop, I love it. I feel like it changes my impression of the detail and foreground colours. Changing my focus to appreciate their muted tones and that sense of what season it is. I feel myself being draw into and really noticing the richness of texture you have invested into this place.


  6. Dave Eggleston

    While a few have had success with photo backdrops, I find them terribly troublesome and mis-applied for a several reasons. First, linear perspective, as Simon mentions. Second, the atmospheric perspective is rarely effective to my eye; the images need to be desaturated in almost all cases. Third, the edge of the photograph, when trimmed (as many seem to do), leaves a harsh edge where it meets the sky and that just doesn’t work. All of this leads to my eye going right to the backdrop, the last thing I think anyone building models really wants.

    Most photo backdrops that I’ve seen are in photos, not in person. Do they look better in person? Do photos enhance the issues?

    To me, and this is just me, a backdrop should not be the main player. A well-known modeler mentioned on his blog that he gets the most comments from visitors specifically about his backdrops, but I’d argue that that is because the amount of cloud detail draws the eye up and out of the scene, away from all his work. A well-known editor of the mainline modeling press is a massive and vocal fan of the photo backdrops but the only point he makes that really holds is that they are easy.

    Easy is a selling point, salving the fears of most modelers around painting. But this fear is misplaced: I like the idea Trevor came up with and I like the ideas shown above. The key to effectiveness in this simple, easily executed setup is not allowing ANY shadows onto the backdrop. Trevor’s trees become a blur behind the main players in the foreground.

  7. mike

    I’m always gratified when a post generates a discussion like this. Thanks everyone, you all made excellent points.

    Kev: Welcome to the blog and I’m glad the emphasis on smaller designs is useful for you. I’m at the stage where a simpler approach is very appealing, and I understand where you’re coming from.

    Craig: I liked Trevor’s solution too and agree that the modeling blended well with the dark blue material. For my situation where the backdrop is directly next to the 3D scenery, I’m not certain there would be that much difference between black, charcoal gray or a dark blue. Could be wrong about that though. For this scene, I feel the natural sky is the best option that conveys the open space effect I want.

    Simon: I agree about the original Woodsville Terminal; it was stunning. The current iteration doesn’t work as well for me either. I also agree that knowing what you want is more than half the battle.

    Chris: As always you bring up an excellent point about the ratio of a scene’s depth to how effective the backdrop is. At less than 16 inches Mill Road is very shallow for quarter-inch scale. I was deliberate in this choice as I wanted to focus on the immediate foreground with the modeling. To your point and Dave’s about how effective a photo is in person, I’ve only seen one layout in person with photo backdrops. In some places they were used well, in other spots he blew it completely to my eyes (a horribly wrong use of perspective, bad color and inconsistent lighting shifts and so on). Obviously they can work but only with strict attention to blending foreground and photo as Dave mentioned in his comment. It’s a skill in its own right in my opinion. I like how you’re treating Victoria by asking questions at each step of the way.

    Dave As mentioned above, using photos is an art form in itself. We’ve both seen good examples and horrid ones. I’m quickly getting to the point where no backdrop is better than a bad one. I did this experiment to confirm some ideas I’ve been mulling over and the result did just that. I think if there’s another project after Mill Road, I’ll skip the backdrop in favor of a plain, simple surface and compose the scene with a greater sense of enclosure, instead of open country. With regard to the anonymous comment, I think easy is the only selling point the mainstream has left.

    Thanks everyone. -Mike

  8. mike

    Thinking about this further, how much does layout photography drive our design choices? Do we choose a backdrop for photography or practicality? What if we reversed our criteria, would that open up new choices? Feel free to weigh in via the comments. -Mike

  9. Dave Eggleston

    Yes, I think how we expect to use/experience/share the layout should have a large bearing on every design aspect. So much focus is placed on aisle width, reach-in, benchwork height. How it will be shared, even if only with the builder, is key to the initial design consideration and should play in every decision–but my experience is that it isn’t at all. Great layouts have a strong vision and a consistency of execution on every element (including how they live in the room)–there is harmony across every aspect of the layout.

    Ultimately, we only have to please ourselves, but if you want to open it to the outside world you should decide how and how to make it work for maximum adherence to your vision. But frankly, I wonder how many in the hobby even care? Are they just happy to see a train in whatever form?

    All that said, you can design for multiple viewing arrangements. Maybe it’s primarily designed for viewing in the house but nothing says that you can’t have an alternate lighting/backdrop/etc arrangement that overrides and optimizes for photographs. But…when you publish online and, worse, in publications, you relinquish control over the image.

  10. mike

    I agree Dave. The most memorable layouts are singular in their execution, which is why they stand out from the pack. I also agree that a majority of people don’t care about any of this. There are a lot of topics still missing from the conversation. -Mike

  11. Greg Amer

    I’ve been thinking about backdrops a lot. I’m never really good at pulling them off (I don’t think may people are). I’m also a fan of the no backdrop solution (like free-mo)

    Simple backdrop solutions seem to be where I’m leaning and I’m intrigued by the black. Mostly I’m thinking about how to limit perspectives so you don’t see the sky. Limiting the field of view is my next big challenge. And then sticking with just a simple sky where it is visible.

    I’ve also considered printed backdrops, but it seems like an enormous challenge to get them right. Especially the perspective, color, scale, blending. So much to get right. And then what becomes the focus?

  12. mike


    My original plan was to use a photo backdrop on the cameo. Now I’m not so sure photos are the way to go. Like others I’ve seen good and bad examples. As you said there are lots of challenges with them. Today I’m really on the fence about what a backdrop is or the purpose it serves. I think there’s room for new ideas here.