How To - Model Railroad Photography

Model Railroad Photography
Taking pictures of little stuff

Notes on Model Railroad Photography - Updated Nov 2005

I wrote the original web page around 1998 when I was just getting started in Model Railroad photography. Some of the information in it has become a bit dated (like the section on selecting film types). But much of it still applies.

Charlie Comstock - Chief Photographer, Bear Creek & South Jackson Railroad

Related link: Outdoor Model Photography.

Table of Contents


Lighting Models for Photography

Scene Composition

Special Effects

Camera Gear



I've been taking model train pictures now for close to 8 years. I'm not what I'd consider a real pro-photographer but I think I've some tips that may prove useful to some.

It never ceases to amaze me just how good models look when they are well photographed! While it's true that the camera will show you every little flaw, omission, fingerprint, spiderweb, dust, and lots of other sins it does have two enormous advantages over just eyeballing a layout.
  • A camera can get down and show you a layout the way a scale person would see it!
  • A camera is the ultimate in restricted view-point viewing. No one can, by turning their head see an unfinished area or the missing backside of a building.
Taking good looking pictures of models requires a few things:
  • Models worth photographing
  • A layout or diorama on which to photograph the models
  • Good lighting
  • A decent camera
Models to Photograph

Make your own determination here. You may well be surprised at how well your models photograph.

Highly detailed and nicely weathered models will tend to look better than an unmodified boxcar from a train set. But even relatively vanilla models will look much better if weathered. No plastic shine!

A Layout or Diorama on Which to Photograph Them

Use what you have. Or borrow someone else's. Fixed or movable. Indoors or something you can take outdoors. They'd all work if you are clever and careful.

Make your own determination here. If you're not sure you're modeling is good enough go ahead anyway. You may well be surprised at how well your models and layout photographs. And seeing the pictures will definitely help improve your modeling!


Lighting Models for Photography

Lighting may be the trickiest part of taking model pictures. A poorly lit picture of the best model railroad just isn't gonna look very good. If you can get the railroad outdoors by all means do so (photo 4, photo 8, and photo 9). Daylight looks really good and is hard to duplicate indoors. And if you're shooting film daylight film is generally finer-grained that tungsten slide film.

But if you can't get outdoors determine the kind of lighting you want to simulate.
  • A bright, sunshine filled day.
  • A day with a high haze, the direct lighting is there but its muted (photo 6).
  • An overcast day where there is little or no direct lighting (photo 8).
  • The color of daylight changes - early morning (photo 9), noon, and late evening all have their own characteristics.
  • Moonlight?

Watch Out for Multiple Shadows

Real sunlight casts very sharp shadows, but each object only casts one shadow (there's only one sun). If you use multiple light sources make sure you don't have multiple shadows visible (apparently John Allen lit the Gorre & Daphetid very carefully but in places where multiple shadows couldn't be avoided, such as when trees or structures were near backdrops, he would paint them out - this is one reason why almost all photography of the G&D was done with just the layout lights). Unless you've carefully eliminated multiple shadows on your layout don't shoot under layout lighting.

Simulating Sunlight

I tend to use a single halogen spotlight set as far back from the railroad as possible for a "sun" and bounce photo floods off the ceiling, walls, or a bounce card for a diffuse fill in light. Make sure the fill lights don't cast extra shadows! Having the "sun" far away will make the shadows sharper. Ideally the "sun" should be the same size from a model person's point of view as the real sun is for us
photo 16.

Don't Mix Lighting Types

Don't make the mistake of mixing different types of lighting (incandescent and fluorescent for example. The places where the fluorescent light is shadowed will appear reddish while the places where the incandescent light is shadowed will appear greenish blue (
photo 7). This is nearly impossible to correct with a computer let alone with conventional photo methods. To make things more difficult your eyes adjust very well to different light source colors so you may not see a problem until you're looking at photographs.

Color Match White Balance or Film Type to Lighting

If you are shooting film the light source MUST be color balanced for the type of film. This can be done either by selecting the right type of lights for your film or by using special filters to correct the lighting. Digital photographers have it much easier - use a piece of white foamcore or cardboard to set the camera's white balance before you start taking pictures.

Light Positioning

The positioning of your lights is very important. Go outside and look around. On a sunny day notice how the direct lighting (the direct rays of the sun) bounces off everything to create a reflected light. The sun light may be reflected from the sky, lawn, nearby cars, buildings, and trees or landscaping. If you are standing next to a red barn this reflected (referred to as ambient or diffuse) light may take on a reddish color.

Position your lights to simulate several of these situations. A light aimed directly at the models will represent direct sun light. A light bouncing off a white ceiling will look like sunlight on a hazy or cloudy day.

The angle of the lighting will also make a big difference. Try positioning your lights near the camera. Try positioning them above the subject looking down (high noon!). How about low and off to the side (early morning or late afternoon - checkout those shadows!). What happens as the light source gets higher?

Light Balancing

A tricky part of indoor photography under lights is balancing the sun (direct) and the ambient lighting. Too much sun and anything not directly lit will appear dark. I often try to light up my background independently giving me 3 different lighting types:
  • Direct lighting (the sun)
  • Diffuse lighting (bounced off the ceiling)
  • Background lighing (direct light on the background
If these aren't in balance with each other the resulting pictures won't look rights. Too much background light and the sky is way too bright for the foreground. Too little and the sky becomes dark.

This is where taking pictures outdoors can be much easier because the lighting is (mostly) handled for you.

Light Consistency

I strive to have all light sources blend into a harmony. One of the things I try to avoid is having a strong direct (sun) light source but the secondary lights put too much light into shadow areas (
photo 11).

Goto top.

Photo 7 - I took this picture under both fluorescent and incandescent lighting. Even the mighty Photoshop couldn't compensate for the white balance problems. Some surfaces are too red, others are too blue-green.

Photo 8 - A photo taken outdoors on a cloudy day. There are NO sharp shadows anywhere!

Photo 9 - An early morning picture taken outdoors. Note the light coloration (reddish) and the very long shadows.

Photo 10 - With the primary light coming in from the left why is the side of the building facing the box car so well lit? This shot could have had better light balanced.

Photo 11 - The sky lighting is uneven in this photo. Too much light on the right. Too little on the left.

Photo 12 - The lighting of this picture is fairly balanced between direct, ambient and the sky. It's not too bright/harsh but neither is is too dim.

Scene Composition

Composition counts for a lot when photographing models, same as for photographing anything else, if you've got a boring scene your photos aren't gonna make it.

Camera in the Scene

One of my favorite tricks is placing the camera on the layout itself to get in close to the "action".
photo 13 I set the camera on the layout to take a picture from a viewpoint inaccessible using a tripod setup in the aisles. This technique has a few difficulties associated with it. Often you can't look through the view finder to aim or focus (my Canon Powershot G2 digital camera avoids this issue through the use of a fold-out LCD display). Use auto focus or preset the focal disance. Take lots of pictures bracketing the focus (some a bit nearer, some a bit farther) distance while the scene is setup. Chances are good you'll get some in-focus pictures.

If you have a digital camera with a computer remote control or video out plug the camera into a laptop computer or portable video monitor to see what the camera is really seeing.

The camera in the scene is less practical that larger your camera. Be real carefull if trying this with a large format (4x5) camera!

How Low Can You Go?

I find the most believable shots often come with the camera at (close to) the height of a scale person's eyeballs.
Photo 11 and photo 12 were taken with the camera on a tripod but with the lens resting on the scenery. Be careful not to bump the layout when the camera is in contact with it.

Things to Watch Out For

It is altogether too easy to make silly little mistakes. For example watch out for
  • People that have fallen over photo 14.
  • The edge of the sky is visible photo 15.
  • The ceiling is reflected in water or a building's window.
  • Rolling stock or loco's derailed.
  • Cracks visible underneath a tree.
  • Cracks visible underneath a building.
  • Out of scale elements (cordless drill or your dog) visible.
The list is nearly endless.


It's easy to get wrapped up in the foreground and forget about what's behind your models.

In the real world very seldom do you find a situation where there is "nothing" behind the foreground. Even when looking off a cliff there will most often be something across the canyon to see - and the sky is always there anyway.

Having something in the backgrond makes a big difference. Compare
photo 16 with photo 17.
  • Which one has a more believable background?
  • How does the height of the horizon relate to the height of the camera?
  • If the camera is below the horizon looking up should the background be anything besides the sky?


If you're looking to document your layout as it exists please disregard the rest of this section. But if you're looking to make your pictures more realistic and interesting read on.

It can be really difficult to avoid problems like shadows on the sky when shooting layout pictures. But if an extra sky is available (say a 4x8x1/4" sheet of plywood painted appropriately) that can be placed in an aisle, that sky can be separately illuminated to eliminate shadows.

Scaffolding can be added beyond the layout edge to hold jury-rigged temporary scenery.
Check out
larger image for a better view.

So, is it real? Or is it cheating? I think it's not cheating anymore than a movie using a sound stage where they created a series of painted backdrops is cheating.

Goto top.

Special Effects

I sometimes make use of additional effects in photographs.
  • Fog completely changes a scene often giving it a feeling of isolation.
  • Night time where the sun is extinguished and the scene is lit by on layout lighting.
  • Post processing where I can paint in smoke or steam using a program like Photoshop.

Fog Effects

Fog mutes the colors and if thick enough takes away the need for a good background. I make fog using dry ice in a pan of hot water. I get the dry ice from a local ice cream shop such as Baskin-Robbins. I carry it in a small ice chest.

WARNING! Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide. Dry ice is extremely cold. Touching it with bare skin will cause frost bite and may cause your skin to stick to it. You may have nasty consequences include serious infection leading to gangrene. Dry ice should only be handled with tongs. Exercise caution when around dry ice. While dry ice isn't particularly toxic don't even think about swallowing any unless you wish your insides to become frost-bitten. Wear goggles.

Before making the fog be sure the scene you wish to photograph and the camera are ready to go. You'll not want to be making a bunch of camera adjustments while the dry ice is bubbling away. You did remember to turn on the loco headlights and number boards as well as all the building lights in the scene?

When the scene is ready I fill a 2 qt sauce pan halfway with hot water (water from the hot water faucet is hot enough). I crack the brick of dry ice into smaller pieces and toss a piece or two (or three) into the sauce pan. Instantly the pan will begin to bubble looking like a cauldron from MacBeth. Carefully take the pan to where the photography is happening. VERY CAREFULLY hold the pan above the scene so the fog rolls down onto the scene. Start taking pictures.
Two things will be required to make this work:
Oh yeah, that sauce pan can get pretty heavey pretty quickly.

Lighting for a fog scene should be muted. Use little if any direct sunlight. After all, you don't see much direct lighting on a foggy day do you? Use enough ambient lighting to get the camera's shutter speed out to 15 or 30 seconds (photo 19, photo 20).

After you've taken a few pictures the dry ice will be mostly evaporated and the rate of fog production will be greatly reduced. Throw out what's left and refill the sauce pan with hot water before adding more dry ice. When buying dry ice don't get more than a few pounds. It won't be there tomorrow (unless you've got one heck of a freezer!).

Night time

Night photography is another interesting effect. If your layout has enough lighting on it try taking some pictures without the sun (direct) or any ambient lighting.
Photo 21 actually needs more building lights. Using ISO 64 tungsten slide film this shot was exposed 30 minutes at f22. Make sure eveyone knows what you're doing so nobody comes into the train room and turns on the lights in mid-exposure...

I used a small (25 watt) blue light bulb laying on the floor under the detached sky backdrop to get the sun-just-gone-down sky.

Night photography is a place where a digital camera can be a curse or a blessing. A digital with good noise characteristices and a very short focal length lens may only need to stop down to f8 to get equivalent depth of field to a 35mm SLR film camera with a 50mm lens set to f22. If all else is equal this will reduce expose time from 30 minutes to 7.5 minutes! But if the digital camera can't do a 7 minute exposure without adding a bunch of "noise" to the picture it isn't much help. All digital cameras are different.

If using a film camera use Tungsten film to balance the lighting color of those on-layout incandescent bulbs unless you're looking for a yellowish lighting effect.

Be sure the structures with interior lighting were painted with an undercoat of black or silver before the final color goes on so their walls aren't translucent (photo 22). Strangely glowing buildings look best on a science fiction set, not a model railroad.

Speaking of undercoating I'd suggest doing it to any sort of thin plastic structure light cross bucks to avoid that strange glowing look when backlit.

Post Processing

With the digital revolution came the ability to modify pictures after they're taken. Programs such as Photoshop (and others) allow one to paint in diesel exhausts, steam plumes and the exhaust of a steam engine hard at work (
photo 24. You really can't believe a photograph any more!

Black and White

Another use of post processing is to convert an image to black and white. Why would I want to ruin a perfectly good color image by changing it to black and white you may be thinking? How about:

Goto top.

Photo 19 - A foggy background gives a dreary brooding feeling to this picture.

Photo 20 - This super fog shot shows a great deal of scene depth from the dark trees poking up from the bottom of the picture to the grade crossing and the train behind the F3's lost in the swirling murk.

Photo 21 - Nighttime photography shows off the building lighting with relections on the rails. The sky in the back ground was illuminated with a small blue light lieing on the floor under the sky panel. Exposure about 30 minutes a f22!

Photo 22 - If you plan on taking night pictures paint a black or metallic silver undercoat on your buildings with interior lighting before applying the finish coat to avoid that unearthly glow.

Photo 23 - Translucent plastic cross bucks need to painted silver then white again to avoid that see-through feeling.

Photo 24 - To avoid the mixed lighting types problem present in
photo 7 I converted the color image to black and white. This also gives the picture a kind of antique feeling. To finish it off I painted in a smoke plume using photo shop. Full size image.

Camera Gear

You don't need top-of-the-line cameras and lenses to take good pictures. Save the $2000 for a camera body and $1500 for a lens until you've discovered that you like photography more than you like model railroading.

Digital Cameras

Digital cameras have progressed significantly in the last few years. The better models offer decent picture quality and all the amentities of film cameras plus the ability to see right away whether your pictures are good or need to be re-shot (without waiting to get film back from the lab).

Digital cameras also can set their white balance to use almost any kind of lighting (as long as you don't mix lighting types!). No longer do you need drag out those photo flood lights and light stands to take pictures. Set the color balance for indoor light bulbs and shoot away.

And it does hurt any that they don't use up expensive film. The year I won the MR photo contest I shot 14 rolls of tungsten slide film. I was spending close to $6 for a roll of film (mail ordered from
B&H Photo in New York - a really reliable mail order house) and another $5 for processing.

Lessee that 14 x (6 + 5) = $154 in film and processing. Lucky I won the contest that year. And film costs have gone up, and the local pro-lab I used went out of business.

Digicams come in two varieties:
  • Digital SLR (single lens reflex) - featuring a through the lens viewfinder and interchangible lenses. As of Nov 2005 prices of the least expensive D-SLR models are in the $700 range without lens - ouch! (Canon Digital Rebel XT and Nikon D-70). These cameras do a pretty good job although they are missing a few features such as spot-metering. The interchangible lenses are a good feature as they let you select the glass that you need from the manufacturers full range of lens offerings which are often of much higher quality than built-in lenses.
  • Compact cameras - when selecting one of these be sure that it offers full manual control AND that the lens will stop down to a minimum of f8 (on a compact camera this is roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens on a 35mm SLR stopped down to f32). You'll need this for decent depth of field. You will need full manual control of aperature, exposure time, and focus.
Which one do I need? Well the answer is "It depends". Because of their compact body size the compact cameras can be placed on the layout in places where their larger D-SLR brothers won't fit. Some models of compact digitals feature a flip out view finder that can be twisted around so the photographer can see what the camera is shooting from many angles (my Canon Powershot G2 - an older model - has this feature and I can attest to its usefulness at times!).

But a D-SLR with a wide angle lens (for the Rebel XT and D-70 models this means 16mm!) that stops down to f22 will give superb depth of field. Plus the image processing will likely be superior to the compacts and the interchangible lenses are a blessing.

DON'T buy a D-SLR with a huge body if you have any desire to place it on-layout. The extra bulk won't be easy to fit and a battery grip housing will keep the lens way too high above the ground for those low-angle shots.

Film Cameras

Good as the digital cameras are these days (Nov 2005) if you want the best image coloration you may still want a film camera. I remain unconvinced that digicams can handle the huge dynamic range (the range from brightest to dimmest) that slide film can handle. My Canon Powershot G2 for example tends to turn the darkest areas in a picture into a brownish mono-chrome mud color when slides taken of the same subject show full color in the darker areas only darker.

Film cameras also cost much less than their digital breathern (although the gap is closing). A second tier 35mm SLR film body will run in the $400 range while the entry level D-SLR's are in the $700 range and the next tier D-SLRS are in the $1200 range.

If you are considering a new film camera be sure to figure out where you'll be taking your film for processing. Costco and drugstores will process print film negatives and make prints for a reasonable price but slide film will most likely need to be seen away to a lab.


When shooting indoors you have two choices for film. You can either use daylight film and deal with flash equipment or use gel filters to compensate for the colors of photo flood lights or you can use T rated (tungsten) film color balanced for 3200k lighting.

I highly recommend the use of slide film. It deals well with images having very high dynamic range and it is a first generation image (prints are a second generation image, their negatives are a first generation image). It is still hard to beat the "snap" that comes from a projected slide (though the digital projectors are slowly gaining sufficient resolution to compete). Oh yes, the only tungsten balanced film on the market is slide film (Fujichrome RTP or Ektachrome EPY). The finest grained film has the lowest ISO numbers, 64 for T rated film and 50 for daylight film. The low ISO number will of course increase your exposure time.


To get a stable image the camera must be held rock steady during the exposure. Either leave the camera on the layout or use a tripod. Hand holding the camera will result in shaking which will result in an out of focus image.

A cheap, flimsy tripod is somewhat better than none at all. But a stury one is much better. How sturdy depends on how heavy your camera and lenses are. A 35mm SLR or a DSLR will get by with a much lighter tripod than a medium or large format film camera. The person behind the counter at a full service camera store can help you select a good tripod.

Remote Control Shutter Release

You don't want to be touching the camera to take pictures. Two reasons:
  • You will cause some camera shake when you press the shutter release.
  • You may not be able to convieniently reach the camera to trip the shutter.
Luckily technology comes to our rescue in the form of infra-red remote controls. When buying a camera make sure it has one. Make sure it works from up to 10 or 12 feet away. If you are buying a SLR or D-SLR make sure it works with mirror lockup (in a SLR a mirror is in the path of the light to the film or sensor. The mirror reflects the light coming in the lens up into the viewfinder. When you take a picture the mirror must be physically swung up out of the way. When the exposure is complete the mirror drops back down. But as the mirrow swings out of the way the camera (slightly) jiggled. To avoid this many cameras have a mirror lockup feature in which the mirror is swung out of the way but the picture taking is delayed a few seconds to let the vibrations settle out - a worthwhile feature for model photogrphers.


Photo 25 - An Espee cab-foward coasts across a grade crossing.

Photo 26 - The portrait format of this picture acentuates how far down it is from the photographer (on top of the cut this train is about to enter) to the train. Note where the horizon level is in the background (about camera level).

Photo 27 - An SD7 drifing by the Mill and Feed in Redland on my Redland diorama taken outdoors on daylight slide film.

Photo 28 - The SD7s getting set to make a pickup at the Mill and Feed in Redland on my Redland diorama taken outdoors on ancient Ektachrome E-200 daylight slide film. This film got accidently left in the camera bag for two years before I found it and shot the remaining frames on the Redland diorama before having it processed. The result is all the colors are a bit off. Process film promptly!


Without good technique the best equipment will be a waste of money.

Check List
  • Learn to look through the view fiender to see what the camera will see. Look for those out-of-place items such as the people that fell down, the subject that is cropped partially out of the picture, the background mess (its amazing how much we learn to not see background clutter such as shelves or the drill press when we operate our layouts). Finding these problems before you press the shutter will save money and/or time as otherwise good pictures that wind up in the trash or bit bucket.
  • Do make sure that the scene is evenly lit, that there are no multiple shadows, and that the sharpness of the shadows reflects the type of day you're simulating (a soft, bulbous shadow is out of place on a sunny day). Setting the main light to illuminate the scene from a low angle will generally produce dramatic lighting and ahadows.
  • Take care to avoid shadows on backdrops. Real trees never cast shadows on the sky, yours shouldn't either!
  • Make sure that you have sufficient depth of field so that all primary subjects in the picture are in focus. On an SLR your lens will have a scale next to the focus ring that shows for each f-stop how much of a scene will be in focus. Pay attention to this. Even at f32 depth of field is limited. Without resorting to a pin-hole lens it is just not possible to have everything from 6" to 6' away in clear sharp focus (lack of depth of field is one of the giveaways in model photography that says "this ain't the prototype").
  • Make sure the camera is securely mounted. Either use your tripod or place the camera on the track (if its a metal camera body put a piece of plastic or wood underneath so it doesn't short out the track!) or on a road to take a picture from nearly the eyeball height of a scale person.
  • Use the remote shutter release to avoid jiggling the camera when you take the picture.
  • Bracket your exposures if you're not completely sure what the right one should be. If you take 5 exposures -2 -1 0 +1 +2 at least one of them should come out (wasting film is painful but not as painful is missing an important shot!) This is useful even with digital cameras as it can be hard to tell what the correct exposure was by looking at images on a tiny viewscreen.
  • If there are fluorescent or incandescent room lights make sure they are OFF when you take the picture (see earlier tirade about multiple shadows and funny coloration).
  • Do be sure to carefully focus!
  • Keep a notebook and write down what you did. If things don't work out you can figure out what went wrong. If they do you'll be able to repeat them.
  • Keep practicing. Find a camera club. Chances are the members will be happy to answer questions and give advice. They might even become interested in model photography themselves!

This page and images Copyright © 1999-2005 by Charlie Comstock. ALl rights reserved.