Over the last year of staying in the USA I’ve tried to make the most of my time at home, but “the itch” for travel never went away. I wish I could say exploring Christmas markets in Goslar, Germany for a few days was enough to satiate my hunger for travel, but the trip went by faster than a car ride on the Autobahn and I can’t wait to hit the road again.
I loaded my camera bag with pretty much every lens I own when I shot a wedding last month. It was time to simplify in a big way, so I brought just three prime lenses: the ultra wide Rokinon 14mm f2.8, the medium wide Sigma 35mm f1.4, and the “normal” Canon 50mm f1.0L.
If you don’t care about the lenses, skip down to where it says Goslar below.
The ultra wide Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens
The Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens is seriously sharp, sharper than most of my Canon “L” lenses. It’s also one of the least expensive lenses I own. “Good” and “inexpensive” rarely exist together in photography. The Rokinon is thus one of the best deals out there especially when compared to Canon’s 14mm which costs more than 7x as much. The Rokinon is manual focus only, but focusing hardly matters at such a wide angle. Either everything is in focus, or nothing is.
The ultra wide angle dramatically distorts perspective, making things at moderate distances appear extremely far away. This means that you need to get very close to your subject matter to shoot anything worthwhile. The lens is difficult to use for street photography, but it’s a fun challenge to figure out what works at such a wide focal length.
The medium wide Sigma 35mm f1.4 lens
The Sigma 35mm is a new addition to my bag and I like it quite a lot. Optical designs are usually a compromise, where a desirable trait such as lens sharpness might lead to undesirable qualities like lens flare or chromatic aberration (my Canon 50mm f1.0L is full of awful quirks but the trade off is the insane speed of f1.0.) I believe that with this 35mm, there is no trade off. The Sigma f1.4 is the best there is in every category, even beating out far more expensive offerings from Zeiss and Canon.
The medium wide focal length of 35mm is perfect for all sorts of photography. It’s wide enough that you can capture street scenes, but it’s also long enough to produce some nice bokeh (background blur) at f1.4 as seen in the shot below. 35mm is about as wide as I like to get shooting portraits.
The “normal” Canon 50mm f1.0L lens
Shooting at f/1.0 only a hair’s width might be in focus. Even swaying backward or forward slightly while taking a picture is enough to ruin your shot. The challenge is worth it though, because backgrounds quickly melt away into a gorgeous, dreamlike blur.
This lens has a lot of, shall way say “endearing” qualities. Flare is rampant and chromatic aberration is common. Sharpness is not nearly what you’ll find in far less expensive 50mm offerings today (the “plastic fantastic” 50mm f1.8 is a fraction of the price and offers better sharpness.) The only real reason to shoot with this lens is for the signature look. Despite all the flaws of the 50mm f1.0, I absolutely love this lens because when you get down to it the overall look is the only thing that matters.
I also love shooting at 50mm because the focal length imparts a familiar, cozy feeling to images. That’s thanks to the natural perspective* which closely approximates human vision. It’s perfect for shooting Christmas markets where a cozy feeling is desired. It’s also great for previsualizing shots – without even looking through the viewfinder you already have a pretty good idea of how your picture is going to come out.
*While 50mm approximates the perspective of human vision, I believe that 35mm more closely approximates a person’s field of view. There is no lens that captures images identical to what we can see.
There are quite a few big name markets in Germany, but I wanted to avoid the crowds and the tourists. After logging many hours online with tripadvisor.com and google, I finally discovered Goslar, a small city about 3hrs north of Frankfurt by car.
While some cities might simply put up a Christmas tree and call it good, or open a few stalls and call it a market, Goslar does Christmas better. Each year an entire FOREST of Christmas trees is built right in the center of the town. The forest is surrounded by stalls selling everything you’d hope to find at a German Christmas market: decorations, souvenirs, brats, pastries, and of course delicious mulled wine called gluhwein.
Everything about the city screams German Christmas. Bricks line small alleyways, narrowed on each side by beautiful wood framed houses. Lights and decorations are everywhere, adding warmth to the otherwise chilly air. The city feels quaint and local, to the point that it is one of the more challenging European cities to travel in without knowing the language. I can hardly think of a better place in which to spend a few days in December.
I tried to impart an old school romance to the pictures because that’s how Goslar felt. I hope you enjoy them.