I strongly suspect that we all have an imaginary vision of our layout if it existed in full scale. It’s fun to pretend and perhaps that image guides the work in a way that simple plans and dry facts on paper can’t.

In times past (and present), perhaps a painting was commissioned, or a photo of a particular scene was carefully cropped and retouched in the darkroom to bring that imaged sense of realism to life.

Mill Street Mood -My Indiana & Whitewater

Mill Street Mood – Sycamore, Indiana.

In my mind’s eye it’s always a dreary, overcast, cold and raw day at the Indiana & Whitewater’s yard in Sycamore, Indiana. It’s mid winter. There’s no snow but the ground is hard and the trees are bare except for the oaks, which hold onto their leaves long into the season.

As in the photo, everything on the layout is designed to support that image of a winter day in the American Midwest. Spending thirty years chasing the artistic muse may give me an edge in recreating such atmosphere but there are things in this photo that anyone can recreate on their layout.

The Camera Angle
It’s as close to the viewpoint of a scale figure’s normal eye level* as possible to mimic what the viewer would see if the scene were actually at full scale. This isn’t rocket science and we all understand it. (*See my comments following the post.)

Eliminate Distractions
I chose the angle to carefully frame the scene, yet there were plenty of distracting features like the top of the backdrop, the edge of the fascia, the basement walls and ceiling that destroyed the illusion I wanted to create. These were simply cropped out. (I’ll get to the rest of the digital voodoo shortly.)

The Scenery is Layered.
I’ve put special effort into the groundcover on the layout by adding taller weeds and a greater variety of them. This is a direct result of observing nature and a deliberate move away from relying on one type of material, mainly the sisal twine grass.

Nature is profuse in the types of plants and their number. The host of different textures in the foreground is more convincing (at least to my eyes) than the manicured nature of the commercial products we typically depend upon and I’ve been adding weeds in far greater numbers than most modelers consider. Yes, it’s time consuming but I’m more than happy with the results and believe the investment is worth it.

Respect The Relationship Between Objects
Pay attention to object heights, dimensions and proportions in a scene. The utility pole is tall and slender, taller than the mill behind it but shorter than the surrounding trees, that tower over everything with plenty of thick and thin trunks to be seen. And from the chain link fence to the ballast, nothing looks grossly out of scale.

Give The Trees Their Due
I’ve belabored this point lately so I’ll say no more. The photo speaks for itself.

Pay Attention To The Quality of The Light
An overcast winter day has diffused but dead flat light. I shot this without flash under the normal fluorescent layout lighting and adjusted the camera setting accordingly. Speaking of my camera, there’s nothing unique about it. It’s a basic Nikon D40 with the standard 18-55mm lens and mounted on a tripod as close to the edge of the layout as possible. For other shots, I’ve placed the camera on the layout and leveled it with whatever I could find. I use the auto-timer feature to trip the shutter.

You Can Do These Things Too
None of these things is beyond the ability of any modeler. It only requires learning to pay attention to detail and that comes with practice. That’s it, no secrets, no magical fairy dust, no excuses.

As for the digital voodoo; all I did in Photoshop was crop the photo, shift the color toward blue to enhance the feeling of a cold day and applied two gradiant layers that had their transparency  adjusted to simulate the fog. The effects aren’t perfect by any means, yet the impact is there. Apart from the implied atmospheric effects, the rest of the modeling is what you’d see in person.

I want to emphasize that I’ve had a lot of experience in learning how to look at the world and I’m sharing the photo to illustrate the modeling principles I’ve been writing about. If you’re sharp, there’s one giant blooper in the photo (at least one and likely plenty of others). See if you can spot it.



  1. Odds

    I really didn’t look at this picture as a model! I thought it was your inspiration FOR a model. Lovely stuff, Mike and beautiful trees (my particular hobbyhorse).


  2. mike

    Hi Martin,

    Yes, it’s a photo of my layout gussied up in Photoshop.

    My trees are made from natural material with finer branches added.


  3. Matt


    I like the photo. Yes, how we see things in our mind is sometimes difficult to relay to others. I have started making a three dimensional drawing of my modules to help other see what I see and help explain the story to them.


  4. Simon

    Very nice, even with a blooper!

  5. soo4513


    Really nice scene, had to double take to realise it was your layout and not the real thing.


  6. Trevor

    So… are you going to share the blooper? For the life of me, I can’t see anything out of place with this scene. Beautiful work.
    And this has me thinking about how I see my own layout. I’ll have to ponder this some more…
    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

  7. mike

    Well Simon has found it, so he wins the blooper spotter’s award. 😉

    The foreground turnout lacks guard rails and a few spikes.


  8. mike

    Some discussion happening on the web suggests that a clarification is needed with my comment about normal eye level.

    I should have said the camera was placed as close to the normal eye level of a scale figure as possible. My sentence as written, has led some to think I was referring to the height of the layout being as close to my eye level, which isn’t what I intended to say. Ample proof you don’t need Photoshop to generate fog.


  9. downeast

    It is clear to me that we live in a better era where photography is so much more flexible and forgiving. The digital age has removed many of the earlier restrictions that we had to live with in the days of film. I personally prefer to illuminate my railroad the way I want to view it instead of preparing the lighting for photos, and that was often a conflict in the prior era.
    Your photo is a great mood setter. Thanks for sharing.
    PS, I thought the frog was self guarding…..

  10. mike

    I agree Ben. As mentioned there was no special lighting here, just the normal layout lights. I do use a 3500K photoflood for greater contrast and to simulate sunlight when required, as the CFLs don’t produce enough shadows.


  11. Simon


    Your photo is a great mood setter. Thanks for sharing.
    PS, I thought the frog was self guarding…..

    It is indeed a brilliant mood setter. Although I have never been to that place at all let alone at that time of the year, I can relate it to scenes over here in the UK which I have seen, particularly the late autumnal/early winter mist. There is something universal about the picture which can appeal to everyone. Possibly this is due to the simplicity of the whole scene?

    As for self-guarding, the give-away was the lack of spikes where the guard rails were not.


  12. Simon

    It is in a section headed up “The Camera Angle”, so I think it was very clear, really.

    Ample proof you don’t need Photoshop to generate fog.
    Ample proof that you have a sense of humour!

    PS Maybe fog is in the eye of the beholder?

  13. mike

    Ample proof that you have a sense of humour!

    If you’re going to write publicly about this hobby, it’s a requirement.