The three foot rule in model railroading generally means that if a model or scene looks good from three feet away, it’s a good enough piece of work. An alternate definition comes from a Linn Wescott article and defines the three foot rule as the distance the average person can reach comfortably into their layout to perform needed tasks.
Model railroaders aren’t the only ones who define and categorize viewing distances from a model. In RC aircraft terminology there’s what’s known as a stand-off scale. At model aircraft competitions the judges need to stand-off a certain distance (6 feet, 15 feet, etc.) from the models to view and judge them.
It’s not all about just viewing distance though; of course we have our rivet-counters. Generally these are people who are obsessed with the tiniest of details; right down to… you guessed it, the rivets. In digital photography folks like this are called pixel-peepers, someone who magnifies digital photos on their computer screen to micro-examine their photos.
In some ways it’s not a bad idea to pick one of the above neurosis and call it your own, at least as it applies to your modeling as it can add consistency to you work. If, for example, you know you’re going with the three foot rule you know how detailed your work should be to give your Z scale work a consistent look.
There are just a couple of things that can throw a major monkey wrench in to this sort of planning: inexpensive cameras with decent macro capability and the way Z scale models are often photographed. Let’s start with the second point first… how Z scale models are photographed, in a word… bigger than life!
When you see Z scale photos online, the models are often bigger in the photos than they are in real life. Right there this puts a lot of pressure on Z, we’re zooming in on the details right from the get go. Any minor imperfections, often not readily visible to the naked eye, are highlighted and exaggerated. In digital photography today macro tends to mean that in a displayed image, the subject is life-size or larger. If you think about it then, many times when you see a Z scale model online, it is life-size or larger so it’s actually a macro shot.
In the larger scales online photos are usually smaller than the actual models. This has the opposite effect of Z scale photos in that these larger scale models tend to look crisper and more detailed in online photos. While it’s true the larger scale models can be more detailed, some of what we see online is an effect of the size of the photo.
Back to the other monkey wrench thingy as it applies to Z scale photos… digital cameras with macro capabilities. I think in Z scale we tend to shoot more macro shots than in the other scales and this really puts the pressure on our models and our modeling skills. A single fiber of loose static grass can look like a sapling in the right light. A stray hair or bit of dust that settle on a model can look huge in a photo yet be almost unseen to the naked eye.
A goal for my own finished work is to hold up well at less than the three foot rule and as a result, using the macro capabilities of a camera during the building of a model has become a habit. It can take a bit of extra time, photographing all the in-progress photos and making changes as I go along but I find it helps my modeling in the long run. The macro lens can be a harsh critic but more often than not it’s a great tool for improving your work.
I do think having a consistent finished look is important whether you’re using the three foot rule or your own personal standard. Being consistent could be negatively interpreted by some as being predictable, being unimaginative. In the case of model railroading I look at consistency as following a very general outline… locomotives are a certain size, tree heights fall within a certain range, ground cover accurately represents the area you’re modeling, etc. Within these wide guidelines however there’s a ton of room for variation and your own personality to shine.
As always here at Ztrains, leave a comment and let us know what you think!