Posted by: kerryl29 | June 4, 2018

Cataract Falls

A couple of weeks ago I took a half-day trip to Cataract Falls.  Located on a stretch of Mill Creek in west-central Indiana, less than 10 miles south of the small town of Cloverdale, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area is a bit more than an hour’s drive from my Indianapolis-area base.  When a day with a (mostly) favorable forecast came up, I decided to make the ride out there.  I got a mix of clouds and sun, but enough clouds that the trip proved worthwhile.

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

I knew it had been awhile since I’d been to Cataract Falls, but it wasn’t until I checked my files on the evening of the shoot that I determined just how long:  six years.  I had photographed at the falls for the first time in the spring of 2008 and then again in the spring of 2010 and the fall of 2012.  One difference that I noticed immediately when I arrived at the falls–the water level was the lowest I’ve ever seen at this location.

Mill Creek–at least at this point of Mill Creek–has the feel of a full-blown river.  There are two main areas of falls–the Upper Falls and, about a mile downstream, the Lower Falls.  The Upper Falls area–which consists of a number of smaller cataracts and cascades and then a 30-foot drop–has the larger number of photographic possibilities.  The Lower Falls area provides the better opportunity to take in Mill Creek itself.

Upper Falls Area Black & White, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

There are some “up top” viewing spots revealing the Upper Falls area, but I invariably make the relatively easy climb down into the gorge.  With my knee-high rubber boots I can wade into the creek itself and, with the water level down on this visit, I was able to access a few spots that would ordinarily be unmanageable.

When I reached the Upper Falls area I discovered that a huge tree had dropped into the creek at some point and was partially lodged over one of the ledges, several hundred feet above the main Upper Falls plunge.  I’m not sure how long this tree has been in place; it certainly wasn’t there six years ago and there was enough bark still left that I doubt it has survived more than one winter, if that.  A good-sized flooding of the creek will surely wash the log downstream, but in the meantime I tried to utilize its presence as a compositional asset, since there was really no avoiding it.

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Upper Falls Area Black & White, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

There’s a covered bridge at the Cataract Falls site.  The bridge was taken out of service and replaced with a modern concrete span for traffic 30 years ago, but it was fully restored about 15 years ago.  I’ve looked this bridge over every time I’ve been to Cataract Falls and 10 years ago I photographed the interior, but despite walking around it extensively, I’d never photographed the structure from the outside.  Until this visit.  Due in part to the lower water flow, I was able to reach the area just above the waterfall depicted in the above images.  If you look at the first photograph in this post, you can see my access point.  I was able to walk around the rocky slab you see near the upper right-hand corner of the image.  I was standing in water just below ankle level; it was moving swiftly, but there wasn’t enough of it to create much force.  From that point, I had a fine view of the bridge’s span, as you can see below.  (The roots of the downed tree are visible on the left-hand side of the frame.)

Cataract Covered Bridge, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

How much lower was the water level?  Here’s an image that I made during my most recent previous visit, in October of 2012.  Note the rock with the leaves sprinkled on it, near the center of the frame.

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Now compare what you see above with the image below.  That’s the same rock!

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

I played around in the Upper Falls area for a bit more than an hour, and checked out a number of spots but kept returning to the fallen tree, due to its value as a quasi-abstract element.

Upper Falls Area Black & White, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

A paved road leads to a parking area near the Lower Falls.  By the time I got there, there were some rumblings of thunder, though no thunderstorm ever materialized.  The drop at the Lower Falls is about 30 feet overall, with the main waterfall–Lower Falls proper–in the area of 15-20 feet.  Prior to this visit I had never photographed the Lower Falls itself.  Much like the covered bridge, I’ve looked at it each time, but have never found a composition I liked.  This time, for some reason, it was different.  I did my usual “oh yeah, have to look at the Lower Falls” exercise but this time I found something to like about the rocky foreground of the promontory on the east side of the creek.

Lower Falls, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Just as I was ready to produce this three-image focus bracketed sequence, the sun popped out and a quick glance at the sky indicated that it was going to be at least five minutes before I had the benefit of another cloud serving as a giant diffuser.  Since there was no one else around, I left the camera in place on the tripod and ran up along the creek bed to check out the rapids above the Lower Falls.  I’ve had a lot of success in that area and I wanted to see how the lower water levels would impact shooting opportunities.  When the cloud bank began to cover the sun again I returned and executed the sequence.  Then I picked everything up and moved back to the rapids.

Mill Creek Rapids, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

This is probably my favorite single spot in the Cataract Falls area.  I always check it out and I always end up making at least an image or two (as you’ll see if you check out my website’s Cataract Falls gallery).  There are spots where it’s possible to stand in–or very near–shallow water and have the feel of being right in the middle of the action.

Mill Creek Rapids, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

In all, I was on site for about three hours.  I expect it will be less than six years before my next visit.  This day trip had an added bonus; it was my first in-field experience with the Sigma 24-35 f/2 lens that I purchased late last year.  In fact, all of the images accompanying this post were made with that lens.  I’ll have more to say about the lens itself in a future post.


  1. Beautiful photographs!!! Love the rock comparison! Pretty amazing; we don’t tend to think of nature as aging. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks very much!

  2. So glad to see the full complement of images from the trip after my sneak peek. You made great use of the fallen tree in your compositions. It’s a good lesson to look at it as a positive rather than a negative. The covered bridge was an unexpected bonus…and how thoughtful of whoever made the decision to paint it red! I may have asked you this before, but when you are standing in the creek, I assume the tripod is in the water as well. Does the flow of the water create unwanted movement or is it not something to be concerned about?

    • Thanks, Ellen!

      Regarding the matter of potential tripod movement and water flow the answer, unfortunately is “it depends.” Depends on the depth of water, the velocity of the flow, the sturdiness of the tripod (Including the innate heaviness of the support, the added weight of the camera-lens combination and surface the tripod itself is on).

      I was standing in the water on three different occasions on this shoot and using the same tripod-camera-lens combination in all three instances. What did change was both the speed and depth of the water as well as the surface upon which the tripod was planted. The shot of the covered bridge (and two of the images in the Upper Falls area) had me dealing with some pretty fast moving water, but it was extremely shallow; the tripod was planted on solid rock. There was no movement, but if the water had been deeper it might well have been a different story. The images where I was shooting with the downed tree branches moving away from me…the water was a bit deeper but it was almost still where I was standing; the tripod anchor points were jammed in amidst some rocks on the creek bed. Again, no movement, but if the water had been moving faster, that too might have been a different story. Finally, the horizontal image of the Mill Creek rapids above the Lower Falls I was standing in fairly shallow (a bit above ankle level) water that was pooling…not as fast as in the first instance, but faster than in the second; the tripod itself was anchored on solid rock. Again, no movement, but with either deeper water or more velocity or both, I might have had a problem.

      So, basically, it’s a case-by-case kind of thing and, of course, if I can’t keep the tripod stable then I either relocate my position to a spot where I can eliminate movement or I don’t make the image at all.

  3. Fine photos of a cool place!

    I suspect you used focus stacking with the bridge photo, but wonder if the moving water at the falls presented any difficulty when merging the exposures. Was Helicon able to produce the final result on its own, or did you have to take the wheel to help things along?

    • Thanks, Tom!

      You’re correct about focus stacking with the covered bridge image (in fact, roughly half of the images in this set are the result of focus stacking), but it was not only stacked, it’s also a faux-HDR image. The short answer to your question is, once the pair of images was fed into Helicon Focus I was able to use my (custom) default settings to stack the image without any additional work. I do a lot of focus stacking and I have never run into an issue where moving water creates a problem.

      Thanks for asking the question. I just realized that while I do this sort of thing all the time (combine HDR and focus stacking) it may be worth spelling out the considerations behind the approach and explanation of what it entails. It may be my next post.

  4. Lovely images, as always! The covered bridge composition was utterly charming.

    I like your take on the “compositional asset”, or perhaps your ability to make such inspiring lemonade (if you catch my drift?) Going back to a familiar location can be fascinating in so many ways. I haven’t been back to Bandon in years. I’m wondering if I might see a new view with fresh eyes, or ??? I find one of the biggest advantages for shooting the coast, or any area, is proximity which provides the bonus of being there when the stars align.

    • Thanks, Gunta!

      It’s a pretty good haul from Gold Beach to Bandon (I speak from experience 🙂 ). It’s a much shorter trip to Myers Beach (and it’s less crowded to boot).

      When I first read your comment I was going to respond that one of the nice things about an ocean beach is that it’s always going to have a different vibe, no matter how many times you visit, due to all of the elements that are constantly changing at the seaside–tides, surf, wind, light, etc. And then I realized that, to a greater or lesser extent, that axiom applies to just about every type of setting. Look at my Cataract Falls experience, with the lower water level, the fallen tree, etc. I think you’ve inspired another post. 🙂 (That’s twice today that a comment has led to a future blogging topic.)

      • The current beach vibe is primarily that nasty wind coming from the north. If I remember right, you experienced quite a bit of that during your last visit. We tried a short walk at the beach last night and the sandblasting was simply too much. So… not always the most pleasant vibes this time of year. Pity the tourists who come expecting warmth and pleasant sunning on the sands.

        I’m happy to have inspired what I expect to be a great post! 😀

        • I had almost a solid week of stiff north winds the last time I was on the Oregon coast (May, 2015).

          “I’m happy to have inspired what I expect to be a great post!”

          Uh, oh, now the pressure’s on. 🙂

  5. […] I routinely use the technique today.  In my most recent previous blog post–covering the day trip to Cataract Falls–roughly 3/4 of the included images were produced using a focus stacking approach.  Knowing […]

  6. […] to use the lens in the field when I visited Cataract Falls back in May.  If you check my Cataract Falls post, you can see some images produced with the Sigma 24-35.  As you might imagine, when I was […]

  7. […] engaged in a brief exchange with Gunta, of the Movin’ On blog, in the comments section of a post detailing a trip I made to Cataract Falls State Recreation Area in west-central Indiana last spring.  The discussion centered on the ever-changing nature of the […]

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