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Composing a scene

Composing a scene on our layouts requires careful consideration of many factors.

On May 3, 2022 the Second Section Podcast, hosted by Andy Dorsch and Mike Ostertag, assembled a panel of model railroaders to discuss composing a scene on your model railroads. The panel guests included Alan Schroeder, Tom Johnson, William Sampson, and myself. Each guest explained how they composed a scene and what the important elements were to having a realistic looking scene.

Alan Schroeder reviewed how he composed and constructed a signature scene on his layout that is the first thing visitors see when they visit his layout. The points he brings up are important for all model railroaders to consider. We want out layouts to be pleasing to the eye and viewed much like artwork in a museum. Lighting is also another important consideration. Each layout will have it challenges and selecting lighting is not a “one size fits all”, it has to be customized to the layout. Good lighting goes a long way to making a layout more appealing. Generally, lighting in the 4000K range is a good place to start, and look for a color rendition index of 90 to 100. Lighting rated below 4000K is warmer, while lighting rated above is cooler or more bluish. Each layout room has different needs for lighting, and those with multiple decks have an additional challenge of lighting the lower deck. You may need to experiment to see what works best for your layout space.

Tom Johnson is a master at blending backdrops into the 3D scenery. His structure models are nothing short of outstanding. Tom discussed the use of color and texture and showed numerous photos of his layout. He explained how he composed scenes and brought the models to life with the use of details and weathering. Tom is a retired art teacher and modelers can learn a lot by viewing his amazing work.

Consider how a scene will be photographed and it will help with composition.

William Sampson discussed the use of photos to improve your modeling. You want to compose scenes that will look good in photos and videos. Camera angles and viewing a scene from a low level help it to look more realistic and what you might see if you were rail fanning. William highlighted some of his favorite photos and the details that he included to make the photos really standout. When you compose a scene think about how it will be viewed from a camera, and the composition as a photograph with the scene divided into thirds, foreground, middle, and background.

The use of negative space allows the train to be the star of the show and helps a scene look more realistic.

For my portion of the program, I discussed the use of “negative space”, that is the open areas that don’t really call any attention to themselves. Negative spaces can be open fields, forests, parking lots, or even non rail served structures. These areas have to be planned for just as much as structures and track, they don’t just happen. The negative space allows the stars of the show, or the main focal points, to really standout. Much like watching a movie with the primary actors as the main focus, background extras help fill the scene and make it look like what we expect to see in real life. Model railroaders need to include negative space to allow the main areas to standout and look more realistic. Model railroading is a form of art and we need to think of it that way. Lance Mindheim wrote a book, Model Railroading As Art, and is an excellent read for those that want to compose realistic scenes on their layouts. The link below takes you to Lance's website and book store.


The Second Section Podcast show ran a little longer than normal, but it is well worth the time to watch it and get ideas for your own model railroad. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast and tune in every other Tuesday night for the live show.

Until next time stay safe and keep model railroading.

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