04 September 2021
Andy York looks at how we might better set the scene on our layouts. Don’t just go for an off the peg solution, he says, but make something that suits your part of the railway world.
It’s fair to say that the worst kind of backscene is no backscene at all. Perhaps your mind’s eye can screen out the rest of the world behind the baseboard. However, if you have an exhibition layout, something is very definitely better than nothing. Even at home, some kind of backscene would be better than the floral curtains or the bookshelves...
If you are not artistic, or you don’t wish to go the expense of a bespoke backscene, even plain-painted boards or a roll are better than nothing. Some layouts feature simple neutral sky tones, which can be useful for urban environments with spaces between buildings. This is preferable to something that might not look right from the perspective of the viewer.
A can of a pale blue spray paint and a white primer works well, but maybe experiment on a large piece of paper first. Try to use paler tones at the bottom of the scene graduating to darker shades at the top to give a sense of distance.
There are some very good ready-made backscenes – Gaugemaster stocks a wide range to suit different environments and various scales. An 8ft length starts around the £8 mark, but think about how you will join the sheets and what to mount them onto. I suggest using a spray glue, which allows the paper to be re-positioned. Always start at one end and use a cloth to smooth the paper down onto the boards so that you don’t get ugly bubbles and wrinkles in the sky!
Why not have a go at painting your own backscene? It’s not as difficult as you may think, as a lot can be achieved with emulsion paint and big brushes for the sky and sponge and brushwork for vegetation. BRM August 2015 (See pocketmags.com/BRM) includes numerous tutorials, hints and tips from someone I regard highly in backscene art – Ron North of the High Wycombe & District Model Railway Society.
Ron North’s ‘Sheerness’ backscene makes great use of a low horizon and big skies to give the feel of flatlands around an estuary.
There’s nothing better than a backscene that is readily identifiable with the location being modelled. If you are not great with a paintbrush it may be worth tackling it from a more technical perspective and making your own photographic backscene. This certainly worked on the BRM/RMweb project layout ‘Black Country Blues’, with many people saying “I know where that is!” Here are a few tips to get you started:
- A bright but overcast day can often give good results, but strong or low sunlight can give awkward shadows to deal with.
- What season do you want the backscene to represent? There’s no point in taking a series of pictures in winter if all your trees on the layout are in full leaf, for example.
- Consider the extreme left and right positions of the scene you want to capture and take your photos when the light is behind you.
- Work out the exposures needed to correctly capture each frame of the scene. Choose the most appropriate exposure that you can use for the whole scene without changing it.
- Mount the camera on a tripod to ensure that all of the shots are level and the horizon lines up as accurately as possible.
- Zoom in as much as you can, but try to include the upper and lower limits of the scene to capture as much detail as possible.
- Manually focus on a fixed distance with a narrow aperture (i.e. a high F-number) to gain the best depth-of-field. All of the scene needs to be in focus.
- Use a shutter-release cable, or the camera’s timer, to minimize any vibration or movement. This will reduce the risk of blurring, which is especially important at long zoom lengths.
- Take the first shot on the left and include what will be just ‘off-scene’ as a reference point. It can always be cropped out later.
- Move the camera to the right in stages, overlapping the previous shot by about fifty percent. This is so that the software stands the best chance of aligning the pictures.
- Take the final shot on the right to include what will be just ‘off-scene’. Once again, this can be cropped out later.
- Re-take all those shots again, just so you have some spare frames if needed. It’s easier to do this now rather than having to return on another day.
- Re-take the scene with slightly different exposures – a little under and a little over, to make sure you have enough back-up shots. This might also reveal a little more detail in the sky or landscape.
‘Copenhagen Fields’ layout makes excellent use of forced perspective by modelling buildings into the distance, at diminishing scale and with muted colours. The scene feels as though it is miles deep, rather than just a few feet.
Once you have your pictures transfer them to the computer. You’ll need some software to blend them together. Microsoft’s Image Composite Editor is free to download – just search for Microsoft ICE.
The software compares all of the images and blends them together giving you the base panorama. After that you will need some image editing software to crop the image, adjust brightness, colour saturation and sharpness. Adobe Photoshop is the industry standard, but free alternatives such as GNU Image Manipulation Program (also known as GIMP) are easy to download and install.
If you have the digital version of this issue I have made a video to demonstrate the following steps:
- Create a blank image of the size of the backscene you want to make, such as the overall length plus the depth of the two ends of the layout.
- Import your saved panorama into this and re-size it to the dimensions of the backscene. Don’t worry about what’s outside the scope at the top and bottom, just concentrate on what is visible across the width of the scene.
- Adjust the exposure, colour balance and sharpness to suit.
- Drop in additional layers to haze or subdue the backscene. You don’t want it too vivid if you are trying to suggest distance.
- Adjust the horizon height to suit what will look best with your layout, and the height it is to be viewed from – but don’t make the backscene horizon too high!
- Edit out elements that are obtrusive or incongruous.
- Consider the sort of material you want the backscene printing onto; paper to stick to backboards or a vinyl which can be unrolled and hung for exhibition usage.
- Phone around some printers to get prices for printing the scene.
Want to learn more about model railway scenery? Take a look at the BRM Techniques page for all our latest guides and advice articles.