How To - Outdoor Model Photography - 2003

Outdoor Model Photography
Sunlight sure looks good!

Natural Light Makes a Difference
Outdoor Model Railroad Photography - 2003

Back in 2003 I discovered the pizazz present in photographs of model railroad subjects shot outdoors. I'd recently I moved to the countryside and I put my old timesaver layout on the back deck's railing and snapped a few pictures.

The results were encouraging. I'd been afraid of grotesque perspective mismatches between the HO scale models and the full size background objects, but it turned out not to be a problem. Scroll down and follow along or click 'em to enlarge 'em.

Related links:
Notes on model railroad photography page.
My dioramas page.

(1) One of the test pictures. I was very pleased by the realism the real sunlight created. I've worked hard with photo flood lights to duplicate this and had some success. But never anything like this! The perspective issue with full size backdrop also wasn't a problem.

Thus encouraged I spent a bunch of time the next Saturday taking more pictures (and the weather couldn't have been nicer). The timesaver went back onto the deck railing and this time I dug out some buildings, trees and rolling stock from the boxes stacked in the new (and as yet unpacked) train room.

(2) I shot these three pictures in the early morning. The quality of the light streaming in at a low angle is stunning. Note how the foreground trees and background trees blend together.
(3) The low angle of the light here makes for contrasty pictures. Not much of the real trees and hills in the background is discenable here.
(4) The underbrush at the right rear of this picture is actually a plum orchard!

(5) These three pictures were taken in the mid-afternoon. Not how much harsher this light is compared with the morning light in the previous photos.
(6) This shot would have been extremely difficult indoors. The reflections in the water would have to have been carefully analyzed to ensure non-sceniced areas did not show (such as the edge of the sky!). Outdoors however the sky has no edges so there's nothing to worry about!
(7) Well almost nothing to worry about. I was incautious with the framing of this shot and got the corner of the garage in it. A most out-of-scale element...

(8) Backlit shots can be very dramatic. But the intense contrast can be very hard to control. The bright spots are VERY bright and the dark spots are VERY dark. I should have used a bounce card to soften the shadows (but I didn't think of it).
(9) Backlit shots can be very dramatic. But the intense contrast can be very hard to control. The bright spots are VERY bright and the dark spots are VERY dark. I should have used a bounce card to soften the shadows (but I didn't think of it).

(10) The sun is just seconds from disappearing behind the trees to the west. This last light has a wonderfully warm quality to it. The relatively low angle helps draw out the shadows.

(11) The sun has just gone down behind the trees leaving a rather flat bluish light (blue because the sky is now the biggest source of illumination. Contrast this flat light with the previous picture.
(12) Similar to photo (11) but with a longer lens. Notice the trees in the background appear significantly larger due to foreshortening effects.

(13) The foreground silhouetted against a little bit of sunset.
Things to consider outdoors

There appear to be a few things to think about when photographing HO models outdoors (other scales will possible have slightly different considerations).
  • A still day works best. Wind is not your friend. It can and will blow portions of the layout that aren't firmly attached away.
  • Pay attention to where the layout ends and the background starts. This transition can be tricky. It's best if there is no direct connection between the layout and the background.
  • Full size objects in the background will appear to be about 87 times closer than they are (for HO scale). The plum trees in picture (4) are about 150 real away from the timesaver. This makes them appear as though they were a little less than 2 feet beyond the timesaver.
  • Shoot at a low angle. It makes for more realistic feeling pictures. Plus it makes it harder to see that nasty line between layout and reality. If the end-of-the-world problem can be seen, try placing something in the way. Rolling stock and buildings make good view blocks.
  • Use the smallest apperature your camera allows. On my digital this is F8 (on my film camera it's F32). This will maximize depth of field. Depth of field is your friend - it's a real trick to get trains less than two feet from the camera to be in focus at the same time a background hundreds of feet aways is also focused.
  • Watch out for little critters on the layout - a bug bigger than the people on the layout would be horendous (or maybe fun!)
  • Position the layout, rolling stock, structures and camera carefully to get the best use of the light. Back lighting with real sunlight is dramatic but extremely hard to control the black shadows and intense contrast. Consider using a bounce card (a sheet of something white) to reflect some fill light into the scene.
Here are a couple of pictures illustrating the setup I used for these pictures.
(14) My good friend Terry Roberts helped out with these pictures. Here he's positioning a boxcar. The 18"x6' layout is perched on the deck railing. In the background is the neighbor's orchard.
(15) Here's the uncropped version of the last-second sun picture (9) clearly showing that the world is indeed flat and what's more it appears to be framed with 1/4" birch plywood!
(16) NEWS FLASH! Train attacked by horrible giant. Crew terrified!
(17) NEWS FLASH! Town attacked by horrible giant. Towns people terrified!

Things to dislike about outdoor model photography
  • The best light is usually just after sunrise and just before sunset. You'll need to arrange your schedule around these events to get great lighting.
  • The darn wind can pickup that great depot you scratchbuilt and toss it on the ground
  • I want sunlit pictures and it's cloudy...
  • I want cloudy pictures and it's sunny...
  • Not recommended in the rain or snow (duh)
  • I was lucky to have nice backgrounds no further away than my back deck. Otherwise there's loading and driving involved. Be sure not to forget something important like film or the loco...
Things to like about outdoor model photography

  • The lighting (and shadows) and sky look really real!
  • With care the background can blend well with the foreground. I'm pretty sure I couldn't paint a background like these!
  • No worrying about whether the lighting direction, color, and intensity in the backdrop mural match the lighting directions, color, and intensity of the modeling!

Over all I'd say, "Try it, you'll like it (or at least like the results)".

This page and images copyright © 2003-2005 by Charlie Comstock. All rights reserved.