Looks real

Over the weekend, I spent several hours playing with this image in Photoshop CC, trying out various backgrounds and effects. I know what I want to do but, I’m not there yet, so what you see here is the original untouched photo. (Funny how we now feel the need to make that clarification.)

As I worked with this photo, several thoughts kept running through my mind, so this post may be less focused than I prefer.

General considerations
First, I like the scene and the composition. I feel it says Indiana, or at least the American Midwest as opposed to the generic scenery-from-a-bag so typically seen. There are a few commercial products used, but most of the foreground vegetation is from the dried flower department of the local craft store or stuff I found outside like the tall trees and fallen logs on the right.

Secondly, I like the uncrowded aspect of the scene. The railroad is in the landscape rather than bits of scenery tucked in here and there around acres of track. Located on benchwork that is 24 inches wide, nearly 50 percent of that width is given over to a gravel drive and parking area behind the locomotive. This open expanse provides breathing room that contributes more to the sense of believability than the most detailed modeling ever would.

A Tool For Modeling
The photo is also a way to improve my modeling. By freezing a moment in time, I can study the scene in great depth without the distraction from the adjacent areas. The background is not finished by any means, not only in detail but also color. In truth, I’m undecided about the treatment. I want to keep the open feel but also need to blend the 3D scenery into the backdrop more effectively than what is seen here. Studying this photo at length with a critical eye, helps me see what’s missing or what isn’t working. For example, Mill Street on the right hand side runs smack into the backdrop. I thought of extending the modeled street with a photo but haven’t found a good candidate yet and, that treatment is also becoming commonplace. I’m leaning toward modeling a closed street that is reverting back to nature near the backdrop transition, or perhaps, changing the role of Mill Street itself. I’ll have to think on it some more.

Why Doesn’t It Look Real?
Trying out a variety of skies and cloud images in Photoshop CC, started me on a path to understand why our model photos come up short when compared to the real thing. There are a number of reasons but two came to mind quickly: a sense of depth and the quality of light.

Our compressed, miniature slices of the world can’t begin to compete against the full-sized reality in terms of visual depth and spaciousness. Even a close-up view like my photo lacks the depth it would have if it were real. It isn’t bad but still has many distracting features that destroy the realism I’m striving to convey. The unweathered diesel, the shiny wheels peeking out, the dead flat, featureless sky, the aforementioned street to nowhere. As well detailed as portions of the scene are, detail alone won’t carry all the weight. If we want jaw-dropping realism in a model photo, we need to pay more attention to the quality of the light.

Artists and photographers learn to see light and color. The hour before and after sunrise or sunset isn’t called the golden hour for nothing. It describes the beautiful quality of light at these times. Even on an overcast day, the sky is luminous and that light colors and shapes our perception of the landscape. The sun and sky not only illuminate the landscape they define it.

Although I’m striving to depict an overcast, mid-winter day, the quality of the light in my photo is lifeless. The overhead fluorescent lights let me see the scene but do nothing in terms of giving it the character we’re used to from outdoor light. Compared to even overcast daylight, the levels here are far weaker. The lower Intensity along with the lack of an atmosphere impact how the colors are seen (much of the foreground is too bright for the time and season). The background lacks the tonal shift  from aerial perspective one would see outside, even at the short quarter-inch scale distance of 96 feet represented here. The lack of both of these atmospheric aspects contribute to the artificial quality that destroys any sense of depth and ruins the realism.

Of course color in a modeled scene can be manipulated to compensate for the absence of aerial perspective and the time worn trick of using smaller scaled objects in the background tries to mimic linear perspective. Done well, the techniques work. Done poorly they just look wrong.

Color perception is so personal and people more knowledgeable than I have written extensively about how to use color in modeling. Looking at the photo and comparing it to winter time shots in my collection, there is a huge gulf between the two. In other words, I have an opportunity to sharpen my eye and learn something new.

What Are We Doing?
I had a great time playing with this image. In fact, I enjoy that form of creativity around model trains as much as the modeling itself. The two support each other nicely. For the majority though, the modeling itself is the end and perhaps the only goal. You build it, or buy it and you have it to enjoy. When the shine wears off, you do it all over again, as often as you want. I could finish the scene and my shoot photos, play trains until I get bored, rip it all out and, rinse, repeat. That’s the definition of the hobby most people subscribe to. That’s fine and I followed that approach for decades too.

Now, I treat the modeling like I would any other creative medium; as a tool and a means to express something personal about trains and railroading. I no longer think of it in terms of one day, I’ll finally have this wonderful thing in my basement and then I’ll be happy. I’ve discovered that’s a recipe for dissatisfaction.

I’ve pursued some form of creative work for forty years. If you treat such work as something to achieve and then you’re done, you won’t last long enough to have anything worth saying with it. Creative accomplishment isn’t a thing that you can possess and parade in front of people like a flat screen TV. It’s a journey you embark on and, you have to understand it as a journey, one you take for the experience(s) it brings.

Modeling railroading is as creative as it gets. The work seen in the photo is a just another step on that journey. It’s an improvement over the work I was doing twenty years ago and if I have another twenty in front of me, that future work should be better still. In an instant gratification culture, we’ve lost this concept entirely. (If you think the general culture has had no impact on the hobby, we need to talk.)

You learn something today that you didn’t know yesterday. Tomorrow, you learn something else and on it goes. And it is this journey that keeps me enthused and eager to explore where the work can take me.