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Creating Montage Background Scenes by Philippe Coquet

S Scale Model Railroading in France - from Craig O'Connell's S Scale Model Railroading Homepage


Philippe has been developing two separate background projects - the first, Odessa, TX, which is still in progress at this time (June 2006), and the other, 1300 Railroad Drive, which is complete. The interesting thing is that, by using Photoshop, Philippe has created some 'montages' in order to demonstrate:

- how the model looks like without the backdrop (this layer has been created by assembling 3 pictures of the display)
- how the background (alone) looks
- how both foreground & background come together / look like when assembled.

Due to the large file size of the photos we have separated this site into four pages. This first page will serve as the main menu for the photos and the text by Philippe. The next three pages will show the photos themselves.

The photos of the background scenes can be accessed from the Menu below.


Menu of Backdrop Pages



The Text - Creating Backdrop Pages

Backdrops, as all modelers know it, are instrumental in enhancing (dramatically) the overall realism of any railroad layout. On the one hand, many modelers decide to go for painted backdrops, making it easy to design a backdrop perfectly tailored to layout dimensions and enabling also the creation of virtually endless scenes at once. On the other hand, others prefer buying ready-made posters (such as the Walthers product line – which I used in the past for our HO layout) struggling sometimes with its fit to the layout scenes. More recently, with the development of home computing and photo-editing software such as Photoshop, some modelers decided to go the ‘custom way’, creating their own photo montages from various digital pictures of the ‘real life’. My intent here is not to provide you with the full step by step recipe for creating such backdrops with Photoshop, for a great article was published in Model Railroader on this topic in the September 2005 issue (article by Rick Johnson). This short story is more intended at providing you with some hints from my personal experience.

First of all, I would like to introduce one of my fellow modelers : Jean Luc Collard.

Working as an art director in an advertising firm, Jean Luc has earned some “mileage” in using Photoshop, and he was the one pushing for using Photoshop for creating custom photo-montages for my S scale layout sections years ago. He also provided me with the first tutorials, as well as the 1st version of the 1300 Railroad Drive, backdrop, back in 2004. For the 2nd module Odessa TX (still a work in progress) I decided early in 2007 to “fly on my own” while discovering and learning more and more about Photoshop. Let’s be honest, my friend Jean Luc provided me with some more advanced hints and learning to fine tune the final backdrop.
Let’s review briefly some of the most important lessons learned from this project.

I'll be straight forward with you, it takes a hell of a lot of time to go this route, should you be a beginner in Photoshop (which was my case). However, it may be very rewarding as well.

No doubt, the more high quality ‘raw materials’ one can have at his fingertips, the easier it will be. Mid resolution files (e.g. 1-1.5Mb jpgs) are more than enough on average, providing the element you want to extract from the picture is not too far away in the background. Personally, as illustrated by the 3rd section of this page, I used a mixture of digital shots of recent travels in the U.S.A., as well as some older slides scans. I even used a couple of scans from books.

For my latest display Odessa TX, I would have liked visiting the original place and capturing the ‘real’ town. Unfortunately, I have never been in this region of Texas that I decided to model. Instead, I used some pictures taken by a friend of mine in El Paso. In the photos on my Odessa, TX page see the (large factory on the left) Cheyenne WY and (brick structures on the right) Trinidad NM.

For 1300 Railroad Drive, I used many pictures shot in a very nice small town in Oregon named “The Dalles” located nearby the Columbia River on the former BN line I visited in 2002. All 3 Railroad Crossings featured in my two displays come from this great small town. (although having quite a large collection of Railroad crossings pictures, none of the other images were having the proper street perspective I was looking for. This one had the right shooting specification I needed).

c) THE SKY: a paramount component!
In the September 2005 MR article, Rick Johnson chose to cut the outlines of his photo-montage and glue the image on a plain blue backdrop. For my layout sections are aimed at being showcased as stand alone modules. Therefore, I decided to go for a full montage, including a real sky picture in order to gain even more the feeling of the real thing. I chose from a selection of different sky pictures and made multiple tests. I found that the more plain and simple the sky, the better. Some trials with ‘heavy skies’ filled with big white/gray cumulus clouds although very nice as such, did not quite fit the bill Actually, the one sky picture I chose was shot with a conventional camera (slides) from behind the windshield of a car, in Quebec, while driving on a highway.

From experience, I would strongly suggest taking shots of the skies you would like to have featured in locations where the horizon is flat and does not include any foreground detail (structure, pylons….). This will save you a lot of hours, trying to get rid of those details on Photoshop later on. For those shots, a wide angle lens is the best choice, aligning the horizon with the bottom part of the frame. With today’s digital cameras, make sure you save the file in TIFF or RAW format, with the highest resolution available on your camera.

When editing your sky picture on Photoshop, you will need to enlarge the image to fit the actual size of your backdrop section. Mine are approximately 5 ft long (i.e. 1.5 meter). I suspect that with today’s 10 Million pixel digital cameras one can go beyond this length while keeping a decent resolution (i.e avoiding too visible “pixelization” of the image). As a rule of thumb, keep in mind that 150 dpi (dot per inches) is good enough resolution for a backdrop image.

Note also that today, one can easily find a printing shop which can provide you with “unlimited length’ printouts (using rolls of photographic paper) for a quite reasonable price (e.g. $60 for a 5 by 2 ft print).

d) Other hints for building-up your photo-montage

• Try to use as much as possible flat structures without too heavy a perspective. Actually, it is pretty difficult to have multiple matching perspectives close to each other, and furthermore, as for any backdrop, perspectives will only work well from one vision angle, and will turn very poor from some other angles.
• When cropping elements from your original pictures (structures, poles, street lights…), set your Photoshop cropping options to “progressive contour – 1 or 2 pixels”. This trick will help blend elements pasted into the final scene, avoiding too sharp outlines.
• Providing you have a large image bank to start with, try to include at least 2 levels of background in your montage. This will help creating additional depth.
• Do as many test copies as possible with a standard color printer and plain paper, and check how it looks like on your layout. Size of the buildings (controlled with the ‘edit/transformation’ function), as well as consistency of overall image density and lighting (image/tuning function) are key and need to be approached by trial and error method.

No doubt, this short article is just highlighting some of lessons I learnt from playing with Photoshop so many hours during Q1 2007, and it would deserve a much longer article in order to really be able to share with you all the do's and don'ts about photo montages. However, I hope that this article, together with the pictures featured on those pages, will give some of you ideas for advancing the ‘digital backdrop’ route.

Should you have questions, please feel free to drop me an e-mail., and I’ll try my best to answer it.

Comments on the images displayed on these pages:

The project being over, and with some ‘milage’ in using Photoshop, I found interesting and amusing to share with you the real look and feel of the finished layout modules (Odessa TX is still work in progress with a lot of street details, utility lines, signage, street light system… still to be modeled), mixing real models and virtual photo-montages.

- 1st image of each of the series is the model ‘on its own’, without any backdrop. For creating these images, I took a series of 3 pictures of each of the modules, walking perpendicular to the layout sections. I then assembled them and cropped the final image to keep only the layout and its structures (shooting the modules with a plain white background helps making the cropping much less time consuming).
- 2nd image of each of the series is the backdrop “on its own”, purely virtual, straight from the Photoshop software on the PC.
- 3rd image is simply the superimposition of the two first images, providing thus with a very accurate idea of what the final modules look like, when adding the backdrop, as if the picture would have been shot from some distance.

I hope you will agree with me that it makes quite a difference!


Edited by Craig S. O'Connell / Photos and text by Philippe Coquet

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