Without the story behind it, a photo like this is nothing more than a tour-de-force of Photoshop techniques.

Headlight Effects_Small

One could imagine a number of scenarios about this image. It might bring up memories of tiptoeing to work through the early morning fog watching for traffic, deer or whatever might be on the road ahead. Maybe this shot was a lucky break that you stumbled on to or maybe the trip was planned from the outset.

Perhaps this the final run, with the crew cleaning out the yard for the last time. Or is it the first day of revenue operations for a new shortline? Given that the turnout in the distance is set for the diverging route, maybe it’s just a normal day of switching, albeit a dreary one.

Whatever scenario we bring to the image, it’ll hopefully be a humane, human story, one with good outcomes for all concerned. If it’s the end of operations on this line, what will happen to the employees? Will they be transferred or have to look for another kind of work? What impact will the closure have on the community? If it’s the first day of operations for a new company, will they make a go of it? One never knows what the future will bring.

I’ve been reading some wonderful blog posts about how to involve visitors with the context of the scenes we model. A typical reaction I get from non-hobbyists is they weren’t prepared for how realistic the layout looks. Invariably people expect nothing more than a loop of track on a bare sheet of wood, maybe a few clunky buildings or corny looking trees. They expect a lot of animated features and other things more common to the toy train side of things than scale modeling. I wish my visitors could experience the layout as it’s depicted in the photo. I wish I could experience it that way! Of course, I can’t, except in my imagination and on the computer monitor.¬†However, a photo like this could start a conversation and provide non-hobbyists a point of reference about my approach to scale modeling and how I see my layout.

How could we provide the missing context that would help folks understand what we’re doing? How could we speak about the work in a way that people would relate to beyond the modeling and railroad jargon that no one outside the craft understands? David P. Morgan would have crafted a compelling tale about that Baldwin S12 going about her business on a cold, fog bound January day but he wouldn’t have forgotten the people and their context to the work and machines.

In a hobby that’s hyper focused on stuff, maybe what’s missing are the human stories. What’s your story about? What do you bring to the work you’ve chosen? What does the craft return to you? How could you convey that to your neighbor or Aunt Bessy?



  1. Trevor

    Great thoughts, Mike – and great questions.
    To help visitors to my layout – especially those who are not in the hobby – I try to focus on details and scenes beyond the trains, to help tell the story in terms that everyone can understand.
    In the hobby we put a lot of emphasis on rolling stock and (especially) locomotives. An S12 tells us a story about switching or short line railroading, as opposed to the latest high-horsepower, Class 1 mainline diesel from GE.
    But the non-hobbyist gets no context from the type of locomotive we use. They’d be perfectly happy seeing a UP Big Boy 4-8-8-4 switching one boxcar into a feed mill.
    To my mind, context is delivered to visitors (regardless of their understanding of the hobby) through details with which we’re all familiar. For example:
    – Vehicles can convey era.
    – The models and condition of vehicles can convey the state of the economy. (Think shiny luxury models vs. rust buckets.)
    – Clothing can convey era and season (although this is, unfortunately, tricky because figure manufacturers haven’t covered all the bases. Where does one get enough of a variety of people dressed correctly for the era and season to populate a layout?)
    – Billboards, street signs, and other way finding devices can help define location.
    – Trees help convey region and season.
    And so on.
    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

  2. downeast

    I find this to be an interesting dilemma. With my former railroad which was freelance, there really was no connecting story, so the only thing going for it was the fact it was highly detailed. Therefore when the uninitiated were invited to ‘see’ the railroad at my wife’s urging, it was obvious that they were going through a re-definition process, because my work was not at all like the ‘train set’ they expected. However, the story was really weak and did not often connect.
    Now that I have fully embraced the prototype concept, the ability to tell the story is far different and I am enjoying that difference. I have number of large prototype photos posted at various locations that depict the images that I am modeling. It has become such an enjoyable way to communicate specific modeling. Everything: track work, scenery, engines, rolling stock, structures, are all rolled together in depicting the photo. The photos directly pull the visitor into the quality of my work in duplicating the photo scene. That leads to such things as the type of materials used and the techniques employed. Once the realization takes hold that this is not a ‘train set’, the discussion jumps to a totally different level. The idea of accurate duplication draws the visitor into new ways of thinking and the transition is fun to watch. After all of my research into this project, I relish the idea of sharing it with those who have no initial concept of what they are about to see when invited to the railroad room.
    Ben Brown

  3. mike

    Ben and Trevor,

    Thanks for commenting gentlemen. Good points all around.