Some of you may have seen this photo in the four part series featured in the Dec. ‘07 through March ’08 issues of Classic Toy Trains: Build the Sandy Harbor Terminal Railway.
What makes a model railroad photo stand out? Much has been written about the technical aspects of miniature photography but hardly anything about the aesthetics. By using one of my favorite shots as an example, I’m going to talk about the art behind the science.
If one didn’t know it was a model, one might think it’s real. My daughter said she saw that very scene on a taxi ride from LaGuardia airport to a hotel in Manhattan. Others have said it evokes memories of Chicago, Detroit or Newark.
So what is it about this shot that makes one do a double take? Is it the modeling, the lighting, the composition, the color, the details? The answer is, it’s all of the above. But even more than that—it’s ordinary. It looks like a photo right out of a scrapbook from the 50’s. The picture has a snapshot quality—like the photographer just happened to be in the right place at the right time and captured a fleeting moment.
And therein lies the magic. The careful composition doesn’t appear staged. That’s because I didn’t make a hero out of any one element. Initially, the eye travels from the train down to the bus, across the tenements to the billboard and back. Only after that initial overview, one begins to notice the little things. Even then, no single detail holds any more significance than any other.
From the luminous blue sky to the gravel strewn street, everything looks completely natural. Subtlety is the key. If one thing calls immediate attention to itself, it’s overdone. Many modelers mistakenly assume just the opposite. Remember, less is more. The imagination is a powerful tool. A few well placed foreground details and the mind’s eye will fill in the rest.