We love German Christmas markets and make time to visit a new city every year. This year (November 26-28, 2016) we embarked on a weekend city break in Berlin which features sixty different Christmas markets.
Christmas is a time for gift-giving and, it turns out, gift-receiving. Over the past couple months, I inherited a hand-me-down DLSR camera from a friend at work, my very first camera that can shoot RAW. Another friend with a strong interest in photography gave me a set of portrait lenses so I could take my photos to the next level.
I'm normally used to shooting using a lens with a variable focal length. For our visit to the Christmas markets in Berlin, I opted to travel light and just bring my new and shiny 45 mm portait lens. As a result, I was forced to see the world much closer up and in much greater detail than I sometimes do when we travel. Here are our impressions of the Christmas markets in and around Berlin with an eye toward the festive details.
Shiny Christmas Gifts
The Christmas markets in Berlin feature a variety of arts and crafts to satisfy every gift-giving need. I loved the colorful star-shaped paper lights adorning a stall at Schloss Charlottenburg and the shiny beads spun into stylish jewelry.
Berlin's Handmade Crafts
Knitted mittens and socks are also a staple of the Christmas markets in Berlin. I spotted this lovely knitted snowman at Berlin's Christmas market on Alexanderplatz.
Festive Treats at the Berlin Christmas Markets
Ginger cookies styled into festive shapes were another highlight for us. The cookies are often heart-shaped with feel-good slogans written on them. I especially loved this edible Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer peering at us sheepishly.
Roaring Fires at the Christmas Markets
It was cold when we visited Berlin so we definitely appreciated the opportunity to sit in front of a roaring fire. I could have watched the crackling logs for hours.
Architectural Details In and Around Sans Souci
Potsdam is just a 45 minute ride on the S-Bahn train from central Berlin. Potsdam features bright yellow Sans Souci Palace. While my eyes drank in the entire landscape, my camera focused on the details. The palace seemed to be propped up by dozens of dramatic sculptures.
On our way to the palace, we passed through a church and garden. I love how the light trickled through these parallel columns.
Palaces are all about bling and Sans Souci was no exception. Just to the side of the main building, we were astonished by this golden sunburst. There is so much beauty when you take time to see the details.
Dutch Influences in Potsdam
Potsdam is a city of international influences. We wandered through Potsdam's Christmas market which was situated near the old Dutch quarter. A uniform front of step-gabled buildings greeted us as we explored shops and restaurants along the street.
These houses with squared off roofs seemed to be a more modern take on Dutch architecture.
Once again, I really loved zooming in on the details with my new portrait lens. The colorful shutters made for a wonderful contrast on the brick facades.
Jabba the Hut?!
As we wandered through the Christmas market in Potsdam, I trained my camera on something surprising. What's this? Jabba the Hut? Some kind of Christmas monster? If I hadn't been focusing on the details thanks to my 45 mm fixed focal length lens, I may have missed this guy entirely.
Berlin's Ornamental Reflections
One of my favorite techniques with my new camera and lens was to attempt to focus on a scene reflected in various Christmas ornaments. As an added bonus, this gave me the opportunity to practice my manual focus technique.
Stained Glass Used in Non-Traditional Ways
While not strictly a portrait, I couldn't resist taking a photo of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Bombed during World War II, the church remains unaltered as a reminder of the horrors of war. The new church was built alongside the original and features countless panels of blue stained glass.
Steaming Mugs of Glühwein in Berlin
Plunging into the Christmas market in the shadow of Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, I was excited to find a mug in the shape of a Christmas tree. With my new portrait lens, I managed to capture the steam rising from the glühwein as it began to thicken and condense in the cold air around it.
Christmas ornaments and lights look entirely different when you zoom in on the details. One of the buildings near Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church looked entirely gift wrapped in lights. I was also able to focus in on the beauty of colorful Christmas orbs with just a hint of what's going on in the broader market around us on Alexanderplatz.
Knights in Shining Armour in Spandau
Spandau is about a 30 minute ride from central Berlin on the S-Bahn train. Spandau features a medieval Christmas market. Once again, on past trips, I would have taken in a cursory overview with my eyes and lens. This time, I enjoyed experiencing the details. I just love this suit of armor guarding the entrance to Spandau's medieval Christmas market.
Spandau's Talented Christmas Market Musicians
What good is a portrait lens if you don't take a few pictures of people? I took the opportunity at the Christmas market in Spandau to photograph the musicians entertaining the crowd with Christmas carols and modern favorites. The piano player was a major Elton John fan and serenaded the crowd with a rendition of "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" (sang as "I Get That's Why They Call It the Blues"). Regardless of him mis-remembering the lyrics, it was a lovely rendition of a classic song.
Berlin's Wrought Iron Embellishments
Central Berlin has plenty of wrought iron embellishments. I enjoyed photographing the architectural details as we made our way from one Christmas market to the next.
Berlin's Pensive Statues
Most of the time when I photograph statues, it's in the broader context of the scene around me. In this case, with my trusty portrait lens, I got a great shot of a pensive leader looking out over Unter den Linden. When you look closely, you see things differently.
Nutcrackers are a staple of the Berlin Christmas markets. I loved looking at the colorful wooden creations and seeing their expressions and personalities up-close.
Fun and Games at the Berlin Christmas Markets
So many colors abounded at the Christmas markets in Berlin. I loved the bright signs advertising rides on a vertigo-inducing Ferris wheel and the cars against the backdrop of the city's architecture.
I also noticed (only because I took the time to see the detail) that the skill crane at the Alexanderplatz Christmas market was dubbed "Meeting Point of Winners". There was something just gently ironic about it given how difficult it is to actually extract a prize with a skill crane!
Colorful Tents of the Berlin Christmas Markets
Normally, the tents protecting stall owners from the cold and wintry weather fade into the background of a broader scene. Not so this year. I enjoyed photographing the golden stars and bright red stripes that are critical to projecting just the right atmosphere at the Christmas markets in Berlin and getting visitors into a festive mood.
Thanks to my new camera and portrait lens, I was able to experience the Christmas markets in Berlin in a way I wasn't able to access before. What a world opens up when you take time to explore through a fixed focal length lens.
If you're interested in checking out my new kit, I was shooting with an Olympus EP-2 body with a 45 mm M.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 lens.
Update: A few weeks after we visited Berlin and mere days after this post was published, a Berlin Christmas market was targeted in a terrorist attack. Our thoughts are with those who were impacted by this tragedy and our hearts go out to the people of Berlin during this difficult time.