Framing and hierarchy

The black background is serendipitous. But I like how it makes the layout pop.

As I’ve been exploring my NS&T car barn layout with a camera, one of the things I’ve really enjoyed is how this structure pops out of the photos. The eye is immediately drawn to it.

The credit for that goes to an accident of lighting. When shooting photos, I tend to extinguish all of the room lights and rely solely upon the eight-foot-long strip of LED lighting that I’ve mounted on a temporary valence. As a result, the rest of the room is in blackness – and that blackness forms an ideal backdrop for focussing one’s attention on the models.

While I stumbled on this by accident, Jonathan Jones made a deliberate choice to use a black background for his N scale CNJ Newark Branch layout – and he writes about this in Model Railroad Planning 2023. Jonathan is an architect and brings his professional sense of framing and hierarchy to the presentation of his layout. I learned a lot from reading it – allowing me to better express my own ideas about showing off my work. His article alone is well worth the price of the issue.

Jonathan’s approach will not appeal to most hobbyists, who will instead dream of perfectly rendered paintings or photographs of the places they’re modelling. But it sure worked for me – and I found it interesting to contrast Jonathan’s presentation with other articles in the same magazine that also featured urban railroading.

I went down this road – sort of – with my previous layout (Port Rowan in 1:64), when I used a 70-foot long roll of plain blue fabric as a backdrop:

A photo shoot for a magazine cover shows the fabric backdrop I used on Port Rowan to good effect.
… and the resulting cover.

Adopting a black backdrop would be one step further – and I think I should take it. Or at least try it. I do like to make trying new ideas before passing judgement a part of my hobby and more often than not I’m rewarded for taking chances. And this one is easy: A few feet of fabric (or some of my recently-acquired styrene sheet painted flat black) is a low-cost experiment that’s also 100% reversible if I decide it’s too daring.

(Thanks, Jonathan, for writing such a thoughtful article. It has changed my thinking.)

Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and retired amateur shepherd who trained a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

7 thoughts on “Framing and hierarchy

  1. Trevor. Several years ago, somewhere about the 2008-9 timeframe, there was a layout on the Model Rail Exhibition circuit here in Melbourne (AU, not FL) that used this technique to its outer limit. The layout was narrow gauge and meandered for about 20 feet across the greater layout supports. Everything, except the jigsaw-like pieces of the layout, was matt black. Overhead lighting made the modelled layout pop. I did not have a camera with me on the day I saw this at the Collingwood exhibition. But it sure has stuck with me over the years. Good on you for trying something interesting. I love the look of the layout.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s a concept I too have looked at in the past. I don’t feel the background necessarily needs to be black, but each layout’s colors could give a ‘lead’ to the right colour. I can’t envisage an orange, yellow, medium to dark brown or red shade working on any layout, but blues, greens and greys would have the right colour temperatures in my mind’s eye. I’m aiming to do an N test piece of a Uk prototype, and may throw this into the mix too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Presentation is not the same as realism. It may present your models well, but it will never look realistic (unless you are modeling midnight on a moonless night). Neither approach is necessarily bad, but I think over time you will discover a realistic (blue) backdrop to be more your liking.

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  4. Hi Andrew. I think you talking about “Totternhoe Mineral Railway” in 09. Wonderful layout with many ideas challenging the way we present a model railway.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Trevor.
        Glad to hear you found and enjoyed Totternhoe. The owner on more then one occasion mentioned he was surprised this style of design wasn’t taken on by others. I know Chris Mears and Mike Cougill have both talked about this layout as well. So there’s hope other’s who think out side the square might give this style a go.

        Liked by 1 person

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