Northbound Union Pacific – Wolf Lake, Illinois – April 4, 2016

Orthodoxy states that a train picture should be taken during the bright light of mid-morning or mid-afternoon, the photographer shooting with the sun behind and the subject brilliantly lit. The photo should be taken at a shutter speed sufficient to stop a moving train dead in its tracks, literally, and the subject should be in sharp focus. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’ve taken my share of such images.

However, I believe in throwing the orthodox out the window as well. Sunrise is a great time to throw the traditional train picture on its ear. The rising sun combined with partial cloud cover can make for a beautiful image, particularly in a rural region.

It was April 4, 2016. I had been watching the weather forecast and looking for just the right combination of sun and clouds to do some sunrise photography. Too little sun and it is just gray; too few clouds and there is no variety in the sky.

This morning looked promising, so I headed to the tiny community of Wolf Lake, Illinois. There is something of a lake at Wolf Lake, though I’d be more of a mind to call it a pond. Whatever— it is a body of water next to the tracks of Union Pacific’s Chester Subdivision.

Just as the sun was nearing the horizon, a northbound UP bound for St. Louis charged up the line just north of town. The colors contrasting with the clouds, along with the sliver moon, seems akin to a scene from the artist’s canvas. Call it mother nature producing a watercolor in a fraction of the time.


I figured it would make my usual engineer shake her head to see me trackside while on vacation.

Union Pacific 8110 – Savoy, Illinois – June 11, 2016

Two months later I was doing a weekend at the Monticello Railway Museum. I figured on driving the fifteen miles from Monticello to Savoy, just south of Champaign, to catch Amtrak’s northbound City of New Orleans approaching its stop at the home of the University of Illinois. Most Saturday mornings, I would in fact be the conductor on the train, and I figured it would make my usual engineer shake her head to see me trackside while on vacation.

I’m easily amused by such things.

Unsurprisingly, 58 was running a bit tardy. The reason why soon became clear as southbound Canadian National symbol A437 came into view with a pair of Union Pacific locomotives on the point. Once again, mother nature provided a perfect mix of cloud and sun to set the scene.


Northbound Union Pacific 3905 – Gorham, Illinois – November 25, 2017

This three track signal bridge has stood at Gorham, Illinois, for decades. It dates from the days when the Missouri Pacific owned what is now the Union Pacific’s Chester Subdivision. Even as older signals are replaced by modern types with the installation of P.T.C. systems, the old MoPac bridge seems likely to remain due to the track layout for southbound trains here, even if the signals are likely to be replaced.

On a cold November morning in 2017, a northbound train diverging onto the line to Chicago is seen passing below the bridge with the sun about to peek over the horizon behind.

Mary McPherson Photographs and text Copyright 2019

4 thoughts on “Sunrise

  1. Beautiful pictures and you are so right about what most of what is taken does seem to be on bright days! As to your engineer shaking her head I’m sure it is the same at your crew base as it is in all the terminals I worked int and out of, your no supposed to like your job 🙂 but I enjoyed it very much worked with some very good people and had a great time 95% of the time. Keep taking pictures and enjoying what you do.

  2. I really enjoy sunrise and sunset photography. Getting up early and getting trackside is one of my favourite things to do. I agree that the traditional “well lit” train photos are good but I do love the silhouettes and the “dark side” of train photography. Great photography and great advice.

  3. Mary, those early morning and evening times are amazing, as you have shown with your photos. Today’s digital cameras make it possible to capture low light images that were not possible in the past, as you have demonstrated. Stay with railroading for your career. I didn’t, and regret it every day.

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