Posted by: kerryl29 | December 20, 2021

The Story Behind the Image: Lake Falls, Matthiessen State Park

Just a short distance from its better known neighbor (Starved Rock State Park) lies Matthiessen State Park, in north-central Illinois. Though it’s a small park, Matthiessen has several distinct sections, one of which is the Upper Dells. Matthiessen Lake, above the Upper Dells, is dammed and a stream flows from this point through the park’s canyons into the nearby Vermillion River. From the lake, the water drops over a canyon ledge to form Lake Falls, which can be seen both from an old bridge over the cataract and, if one is willing to do a little bit of hiking, from stream level, down in the canyon itself.

Water flow at Matthiessen is best in the spring and I’ve been there at that time of year on a number of occasions. I always bring waterproof footwear because otherwise, when there’s any meaningful water flow at all, it’s virtually impossible to spend any time in the Upper Dells without getting one’s feet at least a bit wet. Water depth varies, but unless there are true flood conditions it’s usually no deeper than mid-calf if you mind your step. (There are water holes that are much, much deeper than this but they are typically easily avoided.)

On the occasion of my visit connected to the image displayed here (early May, 2013), there was quite a bit of water in the Dells, but I sloshed my way upstream to the cavity that includes Lake Falls, at the very head of the Upper Dells. The waterfall was flowing quite nicely on this occasion, and I made my way to a stretch of stony canyon floor that was dry, lying as it did between two pools.

As I was sizing up the scene, trying to determine the best spot from which to photograph it, I noticed some slow swirling action in the pool of water immediately in front of me. I determined that a long exposure would bring out the swirls in an identifiable form. There was nothing moving in the scene but the water–the waterfall itself and the cascades and ripples in the creek below the falls. Everything else–the stone walls, several fallen tree trunks–was perfectly still, so a long exposure wouldn’t produce objectionable blur in any of the scene’s elements. It was still early in the morning so it was dark in the canyon, but it wasn’t quite dark enough for the exposure length that I wanted without a bit of assistance, so I slapped a neutral density filter and a polarizing filter on my 24-70 mm lens (set at 24 mm) and dropped the ISO to Low 1.0 (the functional equivalent of ISO 50). I set up my tripod very low to the ground, made certain with a test shot that I had enough depth of field to carry the scene and then fine-tuned the composition. I settled on a shutter speed of 13 seconds. I was prepared to try again with a different group of exposure settings if I didn’t like the first attempt (using the LCD screen on the back of the camera to examine the results), but one look told me that it wouldn’t be necessary to give it another go; the first try suited me just fine.

Lake Falls Black & White, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

For more views of Matthiessen State Park, click here.


  1. Love the interplay of lines among round swirls, crossed sticks, ledges and waterfall. Great comp — keeps the eye moving all around the image. Nicely done!

    • Thanks, Steve!

  2. Thank you very much for sharing amazing information about photography.

    • Thanks very much!

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