Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Bring in the Photographers!

Full disclosure: all photos here are mine documenting the weekend, not the shots the pro guys made.

Well, that was an interesting weekend. As part of preparations for the NMRA 2021 National Convention, Rails by the Bay, I got a chance to get my layout photographed for articles about the convention. Model railroading’s a lone wolf hobby for me, so I’ve never had anyone else doing serious photos of the layout. I instead got to sit and see how others thought of my layout, and how they worked to get great photos. I also changed a bit how I think about the layout as a result.

So let’s talk about aiming for good photos in terms of planning, preparation, and the photos.

If model railroading taught me anything, it taught me project management. Building a model railroad always involves a long effort to build something significant: deciding what to build, sequencing all the work, rolling with the voluntary and involuntary changes, and ending up with a completed model railroad. I found out about the photo sessions at the beginning of the year, and realized I had some time to finish a couple scenes that had been lingering. I used my usual tricks for deciding what to figure out what to do: fix what annoyed me the most, and fix what I was in the mood for.

Two projects won. First, long suffering Glenwood’s scenery finally got redone. I’ve written a bit about that previously, but to recap: it has the potential for an eye catching scene, the prototypical curve makes it easy to stage reproductions of historical photos, and who doesn’t like model trains in mountain scenery? I’d first ripped out the old scenery and fixed some notoriously unreliable trackage near and in the summit tunnel. I redid the hills and Glenwood Highway to better match the terrain. I then covered the area in trees. Normally, I try to build trees from Woodland Scenics kits, but this time I bought from Grand Central Gems at a recent train show, and had a redwood forest ready in days. I ballasted track, detailed the former turntable pit, and built a quick reproduction of the Glenwood station from styrene. (I’ll talk more about the station another time.). Glenwood needed a water tank, so I quickly grabbed one of the venerable Atlas kits and put it into service.

By the time the scene was done, COVID-19 had hit and the original deadline for the work - the Prorail operating event had been cancelled. We rescheduled the photoshoot for August, which gave me motivation for another project. This time, I decided to go after downtown Campbell. The Campbell scene’s always been a focal point for the layout, but the scenery and structures have been half-done for years. I’d built the station model years ago and scenicked the station side of the tracks. However, the opposite side of the tracks was still temporary buildings and little scenery. That included downtown Campbell, Sunsweet, the Hyde Cannery, and Ainsley cannery. This area provided some great scenes - space to photograph long trains, switching action, and lots of canneries. I started on a big push a couple months back to redo everything. For downtown Campbell, I redid the road and building bases, and started trying to pull all together.

I’d already done four of the five buildings for the downtown Campbell Ave., but had held off on the most impressive of the group - the Growers National Bank building that had been downgraded to the local movie theater by the 1930’s. (The building still exists in 2020, though I think they're still fighting about whether to allow it to become a night club.) I’d made a couple attempts at starting the bank, finding a suitably regal plastic model, but the space on the layout was tiny - only about twenty feet wide - and the model wouldn’t fit. Unable to do things perfectly, I just gave up and decided I’d do the model another day.

That day finally came as I cleaned up Campbell Ave. I tossed out my ideas of a "perfect" model and decided to just start building and see what turned up. Like the Dutch signal box, I finally got annoyed enough to just start building. Like that model, I used styrene sheet primarily. Again, large dimension styrene rod worked really well - the 2 foot inset for the doorway was simply 0.250 styrene bar, simplifying the construction. A leftover door and window served for entry. I used brick sheet for the walls; the detail along the roofline were strips of board-and-batten siding standing in for carved stone. I crafted the theater sign from styrene sheet. I would have liked to 3d print it to get the lettering perfect, but my older SketchUp software doesn’t seem to want to render 3d characters.


Campbell Theater

Bank of Camera Close-up

With Campbell Ave. in, and the road glued down, my next project was fixing the Ainsley Cannery. The Ainsley site’s had a posterboard mockup ever since the layout was built; I still remember Byron Henderson complimenting me during an early operating session because the freight door spacing matched my 40 foot freight cars. Back in 2006, I had a great solution for the cannery - I’d found a YesterYear Models “fruit packing house” - actually a former Sunkist packing house from Riverside, California. The box has been gathering dust ever since as I waited for just the right inspiration to use it for the cannery. This was finally the time to pull the kit out of storage. The overall shape of the buildings are similar - both were a row of wooden barn-like buildings. Like Sunkist, the Ainsley cannery had an office in the end closes to Campbell Ave, and a loading dock dominating the front of the building. As a result, the rough arrangements of windows and doors would work fine as-is. One big difference was that Sunkist’s building had two joined wooden sheds, while the Ainsley cannery had two corrugated iron sheds and two wooden sheds in a line; historic accuracy went out the window in order to get a "good enough" model done as I ignored the corrugated iron sheds. I ended up cutting the Sunkist building in half, and using both ends side-to-side, and ignoring the different materials in the various sheds.

The Drew Cannery, formerly Ainsley


All that major work took me up to last week. However, I still hadn’t done much of the preparation work, so I kicked into a big cleanup mode. Our photographers recommended doing a serious cleaning so extraneous dust or debris visible on photos. I also got rid of all the little problems I'd ignored over the years. Some was operating session damage - having folks handle models is always going to trigger a bit of damage. I fixed broken signs and bumped trees, repaired damaged cars, fixed scratched paint or bent grab irons, and filled in ballast holes triggered by past cleanups. I dusted off a set of “good cars”, and stashed away cars that were the wrong era or had visible damage. I fixed long-lingering projects -holes in scenery I’d never addressed, half done patches, and rough surfaces. Some were really quick - I’d never patched scenery when I’d rearranged the Wrights tunnel. Some were larger, such as finishing half-done spackling in the Meridian Road scene.

Most of the preparation work was the same I’d do for an operating session. For operating sessions, I’d also be worrying about reliability, cleaning car and locomotive wheels, testing that engines were working fine, testing couplers and trucks. None of that sort of work mattered much here - the trains would be stationary in the pictures. I was pretty relieved not to be doing a serious cleaning. Serious cleaning's always a huge time sink, and I always want to over-prepare - I’m always worried before operating sessions whether a balky engine or dirty track will make for an unpleasant operating experience.

Another great advantage of photos is that locomotives don't need to run well. The real Vasona Branch likely had small 0-6-0s switching the canneries. On my model, larger 2-8-0 locomotives instead get the job. I really like the little 0-6-0s, but can never use them for operations. They tend to be balky runners and stall way too easily. When operators are focusing on how to solve a switching puzzle, the last thing they want to do is deal with a stalling or broken locomotive; it interrupts the illusion of working on the railroad, and usually ends up with waiting for the layout owner to clean track, fix the engine, or provide another locomotive. With photos, however, a balky or stationary locomotive isn't a bad thing, for the trains don't need to move in a good photograph. I cleaned one of the rarely-used 0-6-0s, and it got a few chances to be on center stage. To be fair, it's still good to have working locomotives if only to quickly pull cars around the layout to a new photo site, but a photo session removes a lot of the worry of mechanical problems.

While some tasks such as wheel-cleaning and locomotive tuning don’t make sense for photos, other tasks not needed before operating sessions were needed. I’m usually a bit hesitant about putting detail on the layout. It’ll often get damaged during operating sessions. I’ve hoarded some details so they’re available when I need to fill in a scene to be photographed. The layout hasn’t always been at a stage where it’s ready for detail.

But hey, if the layout’s going to get photographed for real, this is the time for all that detail. I pulled out my box of various details I’ve hoarded during my time in the hobby. Every Woodland Scenics pallet I’d ever gotten from a detail kit went on the layout. Extra parts from a Fine Scales Miniature kit that couldn’t handle more crowding. All the 3d printed boxes, bags, lugs, and can stacks I’d printed went on any available loading dock. I plopped down figures where they were appropriate. I took a pair of 3d printed flagmans shanties and phone booths and placed them wherever they’d fit. I took the large fruit bins from the YesterYear kit and made a box yard for Del Monte #3, just as can be seen in photographs.

I also put in a bunch of telegraph poles along the right-of-way. I’ve had these on the layout before; they tend to get a lot of abuse, but they’re eye-catching. This time, I spent an evening assembling and painting a set of telegraph and power poles from Rix Products and Atlas. I also painted them a bit more carefully than before. Previously, I’d just painted the telegraph poles a quick brown and added a bit of green for insulators. This time, I made the colors stronger than last time - darker posts, silvery supports, green insulators. In place on the layout, they really catch the eye. For the Meridian Road scene, I also made a point of doing a power/telephone line paralleling the road which helps to make the scene even more realistic.

And thanks to some crazy times at work, I crammed a bunch of this work into the last week, and into a mad three days. We were also in the middle of a serious heat wave here in San Jose, so the hardest part was avoiding heat stroke in the garage, but on the plus side the matte medium dried really, really fast. The roof of the Ainsley cannery got painted just as soon as the glue holding the paper tarpaper on appeared to stick. I laid ballast in a bunch of places that had never been ballasted, and managed to paint and clean the rail in time. I decorated new scenes - bushes hiding a farmhouse along Meridian Ave, a path to the bathroom around the edge of the Rio Grande gas station, and a row of posts to keep parked cars away from the Campbell depot. I was bouncing back and forth between touching up scenery, weathering cars, and touching up structures. When I was checking old photos to get the sign on the Ainsley cannery declaring it to now be the Drew Cannery, I noticed a speed limit sign, and quickly printed up several of those to control the HO scofflaws. I was still touching up ballast and fabricating a set of stairs for the Glenwood depot a half hour before the photo session.

I never completely believed those model railroad magazine articles where someone built a well-detailed layout in a year or two. I couldn't imagine they had time to decide on models, do the construction necessary, or add the details. This week's mad rush convinced me it was possible. All I needed was some definite ideas of what should be built, an urgent deadline, a bit of wiggle-room on what counted as "good enough", some well-stocked supplies, and way too much manic energy.

And the Photographers Arrive

Dan and Doug, the photographers, were spending several days just photographing layouts in the Bay Area. They've also done this before for previous conventions and other layouts, and came fully prepared. Although I've read about model photography in magazines, this was my first chance to see pros in action.

They came prepared: lights, power cords, and various secret photographer paraphenalia. The extension cords helped when the breaker blew on the garage circuit - our 1960's house wasn't designed for this kind of model railroad lighting, and we quickly found another circuit to share the load.

Dan also had lots of cool tricks so he could get into the scene with his SLR - mirrors to capture scenes the camera couldn't reach, beanbags to hold the camera steady on the layout, high tripod for the upper level photos.

And they took photos different from me, too. Some of that was expected: they visited the Vasona Branch for only a couple hours, so they were very careful to make their plan of shots, then slowly move around the layout to hit each.

Big difference number one from my attempts at model photography: they bring in lots of light. The Vasona Branch has a mix of lighting: the garage lights are cool white fluorescent strips, but I've got various cool white LEDs and warm white fluorescent fixtures lighting the lower deck. I'll usually just use the existing lighting when I take photos; if I'm really taking care, I might borrow a couple bright lights from one source or another. As a result, my photos often have weird colors if a scene has a mix of LED and fluorescent lights. Dan and Doug used two or three photo lamps. Their lights quickly overpower any layout lighting. They also didn't seem to worry about the narrow space between decks - bounce light off objects was enough to light the scene. Their biggest concern seemed to be getting the scene evenly lit, and avoiding shadows on the backdrop. In places where they couldn't get lights, they assumed they could photoshop in some sky into the black background of the garage door.

Dan and Doug use mirrors and a hand-held photo light to capture a train approaching Alma station.

Big difference number 2: The big surprises for me was just seeing what caught their attention. I haven't seen their photos yet, but they understandably looked for interactions between trains and the world. Signals were a common tool to add some action, as were road crossings. My best guess is that model photos need the extra busy-ness and action, and really need some focal point other than the train. The Vasona Branch's semaphore signals were common places for photos. (That was also true on the prototype; one real photo that inspired me is a 1920 photo of a passenger train coming into Glenwood. That photographer, like Dan, made sure to catch the train as it "split the semaphores".

I also heard a bunch of interest about the farmhouse and orchard sitting in the blob where the tracks turn from San Jose to Campbell. This scene's always been half done and cluttered - details not glued down, ground not quite sloping correctly, the orchard too small to be realistic. I'd done a big cleanup of the scene in preparation for the photos - pulled out details, removed structures, and generally made it innocuous. But interest kept drifting back towards the farmhouse and barn. I'd started thinking about details as I was doing cleanup; I'd added a hedge to protect the farmhouse from the busier road. But the interest makes me think I should more seriously plan the scene out.

Dan and Doug also focused on the large details - freight cars and car models - rather than smaller details - not surprising because of the short time. They did spot one broken crossbuck that would have detracted from the scene; we pulled it out.

And that was pretty much it; they got ten good photos, and moved onto the next layout. I got to stare at the layout for a while; it's always fun to see the layout when it's been cleaned up for an open house or an operating session, and doubly-good when all the usual clutter in the garage has been relocated. Even though I'd crammed a bunch to get the layout in shape, I was still excited enough at seeing the layout in good shape that I finished off a couple projects that hadn't been done in time, replacing a remaining broken telephone pole, putting in some gravel around the Ainsley cannery, and fixing up the famous black walnut tree that sat at the start of Campbell Ave.

What did the photos show? I've seen the first photos, and they're great - Dan uses Helicon to combine photos taken at different focal lengths to get more depth of field. Looking at the photos, I see a few things to do differently.

  • I'm vertically challenged. In a few of the photos, it's obvious I've been less than good at making sure everything's standing up straight. They're close, but as soon as several objects are in a photo: semaphores, building, water tank, telephone poles - it's obvious each has a slightly different idea what "up" is. I'll need to work on this, both ongoing, and fixing the more obvious offenders before I next take photos.
  • Prepare for the story. I'd made sure to have cars set up in sample trains, but hadn't been good about choosing cars or trains to illustrate themes I'd want in an article about the layout. For example, large industries and lots of indistinguishable red boxcars is a big part of my layout, but I neglected to have a switcher ready at Plant 51, and also didn't make sure that the cars there were the uninteresting ones. I need to sketch out the story I want to tell beforehand, and share it with the folks doing photography.

What's next? The layout's clean and in good shape, and I'm excited to do some more building. Finishing Campbell is an obvious next step: the Hyde Cannery buildings are screaming out to be build. I'd held off on building the Campbell Theater and Ainsley Cannery because I wanted to make sure I did them right. However, my quick-and-dirty building rush seemed to work with these. Maybe I should just go build Hyde and see what happens?

The orchard scene's another obvious project.

Once both of those are done, there's obvious holes to fill. One advantage of cleaning the layout was that I got rid of all the building placed on the layout "temporarily" for lack of better space - a couple of farmhouses that never found locations, a drive-in market built for fun, a bunch of cars that needed repair. Now that the layout's opened up, I'm reminded that the area between Campbell and Vasona Junction is still completely empty. The Del Monte Plant #3 property's also still occupied only by foamcore buildings. There's also a stretch of bare plaster up on the upper deck near Alma. I'll need to take a pass on any of these scenes going forward.

If the last week's any indication, I know how to get those scenes done quickly: lock down my idea of the scene, build something that's "good enough" rather than waiting for perfection, and pull a bunch of all-nighters during a heat-wave.