I Photographer: Model Railroad Shooter Paul Dolkos

This photographer and model railroader brings model trains to life from behind the lens

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Douglas Sonders

What led you to photograph model trains?
Some grow up liking girls and beer—I also liked trains. In terms of photography, that was my father's hobby—he had lots of nice cameras. Popular Photography was probably the first magazine I ever read. I started taking pictures for the high school newspaper, with a little compact 2¼x3¼ Speed Graphic. Once I started building trains, I got to know other model railroaders. One was a professional photographer, and he urged me—back in the '60s—to start taking pictures of models, wisely advising me to "do it in color." One thing led to another; I sent an article into Kalmbach Publishing and started doing some work. That was 1975.

Describe your approach.
I take pictures of real trains. When the typical person takes a picture of a locomotive, it's usually a three-quarter view, and they all look alike. How do you tell the story? I ask, "What environment is this railroad is in? What does it do?" I take the same approach to a model—I try to capture scenes. For my Boston & Maine New Hampshire division layout, I tried to include the unique architecture up there. It's different than suburban New York—the amount of Greek Revival architecture. I found it very attractive.

How do you light your scenes?
Everything is taken on a tripod using continuous light sources. I use Lowel Tota- and Omni-lights—you can shoot under fluorescents, but the lighting is very diffused. With hot lights, you can create shadows, like the sun.

What equipment do you use?
I don't need a lot of horsepower, as far as cameras go. I started with a Rolleiflex and I had a Linhof 4x5. Now I use a couple of very basic Canons. I started shooting digital several years ago with the first EOS Digital Rebel. I decided I needed a backup, so I just bought a Rebel T1i with the 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 IS kit lens. It's perfect for model railroading. It focuses close (9 inches) and stops down to as much as f/36, which is very important. We're taking photographs of things fairly close up, and you need the depth of field to go maybe six feet back. You can't just have the front of the locomotive in focus and have everything else fuzzy.

Do you achieve your depth of field solely in the camera?
I use software called Helicon Focus for extended depth of field and focus-stacking. You take several photographs at different focal points, and the software takes the sharpest point of each exposure and combines it into a single exposure. That means I can have a finger practically touching the lens in focus, and 20 feet away have the wall in focus. If it's a routine picture that won't get blown up, I'll stop down to f/29 or higher to get the depth of field. But if it could be on the magazine's cover or a double-page spread, I open the lens up where it should be, f/8.

Are you primarily a photographer or a model railroader?
I really think I'm both. Over the years, I've done everything from weddings to news photography, but now I specialize in model-railroad photography. It would be tough to do model photography without also being a serious model railroader. I want to inspire others to improve their modeling skills. The ideal photograph, a guy looks at it and says, "Oh, I didn't know that was a model." When you do that, you know you've done it well.

Paul Dolkos, seen above with his Baltimore layout, has shot model railroad layouts for decades for magazines such as Model Railroader_. You can see his work at PopPhoto.com/dolkos._

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All the images presented here are miniature models of outdoor scenes of everyday life during various decades. Model railroad photography reveals the fine craftsmanship practiced by many model railroaders. This scene was taken with a Canon T-1, EF-S 18-55 mm lens. Multiple frames with different focus points were combined using Helicon Focus software to increase the depth of field.Paul Dolkos
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The most popular railroad modeling scale is HO with 3.5 mm equaling one foot. In this view a HO scale diesel switcher model is on a turntable prior to being run into the roundhouse for servicing. Helicon Focus was also used to create this image.Paul Dolkos
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The Chesapeake & Ohio railroad that served the coal regions of West Virginia had graceful cantilevered signal bridges and distinctive lineside architecture that makes it a popular prototype for modelers. Lowel Tota-light halogen hot lights are used to create the sunlight effect.Paul Dolkos
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In the 1950s the Canadian Pacific and Boston & Maine railroads had a joint passenger train, the Alouette, which ran daily between Montreal and Boston.Paul Dolkos
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As in Mother Nature, model scenes with snow are great to look at, but are problematic if you also want to run the miniature trains. The snow here is marble dust applied temporarily for the photo, then vacuumed up.Paul Dolkos
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This miniature farm scene was based on a New Hampshire prototype.Paul Dolkos
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When the walker sees the moose he treats it with respect and stands back.Paul Dolkos
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Model railroads with 1/4 inch scale Lionel trains and similar models tend to be more whimsical and often feature lighted buildings as seen in this model downtown street.Paul Dolkos
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This large-scale layout is based on a Miami industrial park, the scene here representing a CSX railroad crew working a siding after a brief afternoon shower.Paul Dolkos
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The location and era are established on model railroads not only with train models, but also with the right model road vehicles of the selected period.Paul Dolkos
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A 3/16-inch scale narrow gauge train runs along a cove in the costal region of Maine.Paul Dolkos
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Ship models are also frequently incorporated into model railroad scenery.Paul Dolkos
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Among the smallest commercially available model trains are Z-scale models, which are 1/220 the size of the prototypes. Model locomotives may be less than two inches long. On this Z-scale layout two trains meet in the Swiss Alps on an approach to the Goddard tunnel on the border with Italy.Paul Dolkos
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Steel mills provide a lot of rail traffic so this activity is a popular theme for modelers to depict. The haze was created with a diffusion spray can, not by using Photoshop.Paul Dolkos
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Streetcars and interurban electric railways provided local transportation in the first half of the 20th century. This scene modeled in O-scale portrays an Indiana Railroad interurban rambling down Mulberry St. on the northern outskirts of Muncie, Ind. in 1940.Paul Dolkos
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This O-scale model accurately depicts the prototype Denver South Park & Pacific railroad locomotive servicing facility as it appeared in 1880s in Como, Colorado.Paul Dolkos
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Looking down Park Ave. circa 1916 on the HO scale Aiken, S.C. Visitors Center Railroad Station museum diorama.Paul Dolkos
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Deep in the Colorado mountains a 3 ft. gauge train works a coalmine siding on a 1/4-inch scale model railroad.Paul Dolkos
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A lone traveler waits for the afternoon passenger train at a country depot on a chilly November day.Paul Dolkos
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A passenger train with a streamlined steam locomotive (left) and a coal train being pushed up a mountain grade meet on double track in the Virginia mountains.Paul Dolkos
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