The above image was taken on my N scale switching layout using an iPhone and the room’s overhead Halogen track lighting. The depth of field was made possible with Helicon Focus stacking software. Most of an evening was spent massaging and editing the original shot using several photo editing programs.
“Too see is itself a creative operation, which requires effort” Henri Matisse.
Perspective, it’s a point of view, a way of seeing things. As readers of this column, or members of our community in general, we all share a common bond. It’s not just a passion for railroads, it’s larger than that. It’s a fascination with the rail environment as a whole, the sense of history, the overarching culture that railroads represent, the decades of fond memories spent rail side by ourselves or with lifelong friends. It’s the fascination we feel when we look at that abandoned depot in the weeds, a fascination that those outside of our circle can’t really fully grasp.
In many ways, this is the engine that drives our modeling. It’s a desire to be transported. A desire to recreate those mental images, the moods they evoke and bring them into our homes where we can view and re-live them day in and day out. That being the case, anything that can enhance the experience of being transported is worth examining. As a community we are hardwired to be builders and as such we generally focus on using ever advancing modeling skills to improve our viewing experience. Of course, that’s vital but focusing solely on getting the rivets right and two parts glued together without a visible seam is a case of not seeing the proverbial forest for the trees. Great models are only a portion of the process. How we view our efforts is what brings it home. If we think of things in those terms, from the perspective of the viewing experience, entirely new worlds open up for us. The best part is, it’s a world we can experience without really building anything new. It’s how we experience what we’ve already done.
Sub-consciously here’s what I think happens. We collect mental images of rail themes throughout our lifetime that become fond and cherished memories. Those experiences are collected rail side but the viewing perspective is entirely different than what we see when we look at a several ounce model sitting on our layout because the vantage point and environment is different. In the real world we looking through atmosphere. Weather is in the background. The surroundings are different. Most importantly, we are taking in subjects with enormous mass. The closer we can get to taking what we see in person, and have archived in our mind, and can re-create it, the more satisfying our modeling experience will be for us.
We have two powerful tools at our disposal to accomplish this. First is the power of the camera lens and the endless opportunities it offers to view our subjects in creative ways. Second, we have the lessons of the world’s greatest artists which have been analyzed, broken down, and put into lesson form for us to study and apply. They’ve done the work, all we have to do is apply their lessons.
About a year ago I was surfing the net looking for some modeling information when I came across a photo that caught my attention. The color treatment seemed perfect as did the composition. I studied it for a minute and wondered what techniques the modeler had used to create such fantastic results. Who was this guy and why hadn’t I heard of him? Then, it dawned on me, it wasn’t a model, it was a drone shot of an actual prototype. That brought home the lesson of the importance and power of camera height and viewing angle. One of the primary reasons our models look like, well, models isn’t any shortfall in construction it’s the fact that we aren’t looking at them from the same perspective we are when we see our subjects in real life. The camera can get us around that, not in person, but through still imagery. The lower we drop the lens, the larger our subjects appear, and the closer we get to that mental image we are trying to capture. The arrival on the scene of exceptional smart phone cameras heightens the experience because they allow us to get the lens even lower. In addition to viewing angle, the camera allows us to frame and interpret our subjects in a way the eye can’t. The lens and photo editors give us limitless creative options in terms of how we frame, crop, light, and photo edit an image all of which we can exploit to enhance the experience of viewing the models and vision we’ve worked so hard to create.
All of the modeling and photographic ability still won’t bring things totally home. To truly evoke the mood we want entails the ability to see things in our subjects. The most famous painters in history, people like Vermeer, Hopper, and Monet studied their subjects for days or even weeks before putting a brush to canvas.
It was their ability to “see” things that others couldn’t and then create a visual image of what was in their minds that made them great. We can employ the same strategy if we carefully study our scenes from different angles, under different lighting, and staged in slightly different ways.
In that same vein, the more we can expose ourselves to artistic excellence the more we will absorb via osmosis (often sub-consciously). Over time our modeling and photography will improve. Time spent in great museums studying the work of the masters, browsing coffee table books, and looking at great images in general is not only uplifting but will translate to the layout. Taking art courses will also, particularly if you focus on strategic topics such as composition, color theory, and visual literacy.
The lead image in this column was the culmination of lessons from many sources. Exposure to the work of Edward Hopper and Berenice Abbott allowed me to “see” the image one evening as I was walking by that corner of the layout. Also contributing to the shot were decades of lessons from modeling friends on photographic lighting, the vital role cropping plays in creating a final image, photo editing, and art courses I took at the Smithsonian on composition and visual literacy. In recent years I’ve also developed a willingness to walk away from the traditional single lens reflex camera and spent countless hours learning how to exploit the power of the smartphone camera. All of this, learning how to view or work, learning how to exploit the power of lens, and the use of editing software, blends together to create a bridge from what I (and you) find so compelling in 1:1 and translating it to the experience of viewing our models.
Here is the same scene as the lead photo as it looks when viewed in person. The camera lens gives us the power to experience our modeling in a way that viewing it with the naked eye can’t.