Lighting & Backscene Effects - How Backscenes Can Dramatically Change A Layout

Lighting & Backscene Effects - How Backscenes Can Dramatically Change A Layout

Setting The Mood Using Backscenes

Building a model railway is one of the UK's most popular hobbies,  which helps one learn new skills which will benefit you in many areas of life, not just your hobby. From learning how to do woodwork & carpentry, electrics etc, the number of skills you'll learn while creating scenery, painting & weathering models to kit building, and scratch building while pursuing this fantastic hobby is incredible.

Another aspect of the hobby is photography. Photography is a  medium that works in hand with model railways. From taking reference photos of buildings and scenery to the real trains themselves. Another aspect is layout & diorama photography.

Over the years customers like you have sent in, lots of fantastic photos of your modelling. We love seeing your modelling & creativity and this is one by Dave Richards really caught our eye. 

This particular example shows how the type of backscene used at the back of a layout can instantly affect the mood of the layout. By simply changing the photographic backdrop you can change the whole feel of a layout in seconds.

Models in a different light & scene 

In the photo above Dave Richards has built a couple of the download & print kits from our Railway Modellers Club, the half relief terraced house backs kits. As you can see Dave,  has added a photographic backscene with a lovely summer, countryside feel, complete with a viaduct & passing train. This straight away sets the scene, firmly placing the houses in the countryside on a nice summer's day. The addition of some extra in-fill lighting eliminates the shadows on the front of the houses, blending the scene nicely.  

The aim of the in-fill lighting is to blend the foreground models with the photographic backscene, creating in effect a seamless scene, in Dave's photo, creating the feeling of a lovely summer's day. However, as you probably know, one of our favourite things to moan about is the weather here in the UK. “Looks like rain" is probably one of the most popular phrases in conversations between neighbours, but it's something you rarely see modelled if at all on model railway layouts. 

In the photo below Dave has taken the very same low relief terraced house backs & changed the look of the scene completely, just by switching out the backscene and altering the lighting. This simple switch changes the mood of the scene rather dramatically. In seconds, how we feel about the scene completely changes… Think about the emotions it stirs within you now… how does it make you feel? 


As with all models, how we interpret a scene depends on our mindset, experiences and our general mood, and we'll all interpret a scene differently from the person standing next to us. This particular scene could be a shot from dusk to late in the evening. Or a huge storm moving in late in the afternoon and a hot & humid day, a passing shower with the weather brightening on the horizon, to a heavy downpour to a cold winter's day. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section on what impressions Dave's photo makes on you.

All Change

So how did Dave achieve such contrasting results? The first one of course is to change the photographic backscene. Switching from a bright, sunny scene with the trees all in leaf and blue sky to the dark & cloudy scene has the most dramatic effect. The second change is positioning & change of lighting. By altering the lighting we're effectively having control over the position of the sun!

By studying the clouds & any shadows in the backscene we can get an idea of the position of where the sun would have been when the photograph was taken. We can then use that to position our lighting at the correct angle. In the stormy scene, Dave has also turned the lighting in the room off to make it darker. Couple this with careful positioning of the in-fill light, it really gives the terraced houses a dramatic presence. 

This method could be applied to a complete layout or individual sections, along with some suitable background sounds such as rain falling, or a windy stormy day for example being played via a small hidden speaker in that area of the layout. This is something you'll be able to achieve with our forthcoming Modulus system that allows you to create lighting effects as well as play background sounds etc. (More details on the Modulus system will be released shortly).


Photographing scenes like Dave's is great fun, from experimenting with different fill-in lighting positions to simply shooting from a different viewpoint. Getting down low, or right up close gives lots of different viewpoints of the same scene.  This enables the viewer to see a different aspect of your models, giving it the feel of a real-life location, and letting them see all those little details that can often be missed when viewing a layout or model from normal viewing angles. It also helps us as modellers improve our scenes by highlighting gaps, wonky parts, unpainted areas etc that need a little extra attention.

This particular shot was taken at about the height of a miniature person standing up. This shows you, what a person would see if it were a real scene and it's a viewpoint I really like.

Getting Serious About Lighting

For the fill-in lighting, something simple as a torch will work for the more moody scenes. For brighter scenes LED photographic studio lights will always be the best choice but you don't have to spend a fortune on them these days. Budget versions are available relatively cheaply online these days.  For general layout lighting, L.E.D strip lighting with remote lighting effects controls are also worthy investments, to light up larger layouts from overhead.  I use one such L.E.D lighting strip with multiple lighting effects to light up my layout, which greatly adds to the layout & how it's viewed by the visitor.

WhatAbout Cameras?

You don't need a fancy camera (unless you are really into your photography). The cameras built into mobile phones feature some incredibly capable camera technology and they're getting better with each new release too. Mobile phones are ideal for getting low down & up close on your model railway layouts too with them being small in size. Plus there are apps which give you more control over the settings and capabilities of the such as shutter speed, exposure and more. So grab your phone or camera & explore your layout from a new perspective. 

I hope Dave's photos have inspired you to get creative with lighting, backscenes & photographing your layouts.

Useful Stuff

If you fancy creating a scene like Dave's, the download & print terraced houses kit that Dave used can be found over in the First Class members section of our Railway Modellers Club.

Alternatively, here's a short shopping list of kits that might fit the bill for creating your own row of terraced houses.

Happy modelling!