Christmas markets in France and Germany

This Christmas I visited the Christmas markets in Strasbourg and Kaysersberg (France) as well as in Gengenbach (Germany). Although originally a German tradition, Christmas markets are also very common in the Alsace region due to its German heritage. With more than half a million inhabitants, Strasbourg is the Alsatian capital and the seat of the European parliament. It markets itself as the Christmas Capital (no less!) and it is not really much of an exaggeration. During the months of December and early January almost the entire city centre is an ocean of Christmas lights and decorations against a backdrop of medieval half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets. As a result, thousands of tourists flock to the city during this time and especially over the holidays the going can get tough in the narrow lanes of the old centre.

Strasbourg Christmas Market

Strasbourg Christmas Market

The villages of Kaysersberg (France) and Gengenbach (Germany) appear like some quiet little backwaters in comparison. Both have a mountain setting with Kaysersberg in the southern Vosges mountains near Colmar and Gengenbach in the wine growing region of the central Black Forest near Offenburg. Both villages are quite charming and make for a less crowded experience than Strasbourg.

Kaysersberg Christmas Market

Kaysersberg Christmas Market

Apart from the obligatory hot wine (Glühwein/vin chaud) the culinary delicacies include Tarte flambée or the German equivalent of Flammenkuchen/Rahmkuchen, sausages, Schupfnudeln (a tasty combination of gnocchi style pasta with sauerkraut and bacon) and of course large quantities of sweets, ginger bread, nuts, chocolates, and biscuits in all shapes and sizes.

Gengenbach Christmas Market

Gengenbach Christmas Market

The images can be found in the Alsace and Black Forest galleries or by searching for Christmas market.

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New Photos from Girona are online

This weekend, I went to Girona, a small town of about 100,000 people in the NE corner of Catalonia. The city has a rich history. It was the site of a Roman citadel and changed hands between the Moors, the Aragonese kings, and even Charlemagne. Despite having been under siege for a total of 25 times, the old town is surprisingly well preserved. At its heart, up upon a hill, stands the impressive Gothic cathedral of St Mary. A visit to the cathedral also includes the romanesque cloister and museum with exhibits from the treasury including the Tapestry of Creation which dates back to the 11th century. The church itself is also quite impressive from the inside and its nave is considered to be the widest (22m) in all Christendom.
The images have been added to the Catalonia and B/W Spain galleries and can be seen by clicking on New Photos in the top menu of the main site.

Girona old town

Girona old town

Cloister of the Girona Cathedral

Cloister of the Girona Cathedral

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General Strike in Spain

Today there is a general strike in Spain. Hundreds of thousands of people are on the streets in all major cities protesting against cuts in public spending, the continued privatisation of public services, and the degradation of services such as health-care, education, and welfare. According to the media, about 76% of people participated in the strike. Nevertheless, all TV channels except 1 are showing soap operas, re-runs of old movies or game shows. This appears very strange to me. If 80% of people in a country are on strike, one would expect this to be on all the major TV channels, all the time! Not so in Spain. This is already the second general strike in Spain this year. The first one on 29 March was entirely ignored by the current president Rajoy. Presumably the strategy is that a strike that does not feature on TV or the political debate is not happening.

The following images were taken during the first strike on 29 March 2012, when some of the mostly peaceful demonstrations escalated into violence.

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Evaluating the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III

After over 6 years of service, I recently retired my EOS 5D and replaced it with the 5D Mark III. The Mark II never appealed to me, since I did not consider the new features worth the investment but when the Mark III came along, I decided to finally upgrade. You can check out the specs of the Mark III here.

Canon EOS 5D and 5D Mark III

The Canon EOS 5D and 5D Mark III

I received a number of emails asking whether the Mark III is worth the price tag of currently about €3,000 so I decided to share some of my impressions here since I already had the opportunity to test the camera for a few months now. This will neither be a very technical nor a very systematic review, as there are plenty of those out there already. It is merely a comparison between the Mark I and Mark III, from the perspective of a travel photographer who has more than 6 years experience with the Mark I.

While the original Canon 5D Mark I was certainly a good camera, it had its limitations, especially in low light photography. It produced usable images with acceptable noise levels for ISO speeds up to about 1250 but for higher settings the images would become very grainy and noise was very apparent. The new Mark III has a standard ISO range from 100-25,600 which can be extended to a whopping 102,400. While this sounds very impressive, I was very sceptical in the beginning but after using the camera in a wide range of light environments now, I have to say that I am very impressed by the quality it delivers.

The shot below was taken in a palace compound in Seoul which was very dimly lit.

Deoksung palace

Hand held shot of Deoksugung palace. Camera settings: 1/6s, f/8, ISO 12800, 41mm (28-135mm IS USM)

Apart from this being a rather impressive example of image stabilisation on the part of  the Canon 28-135 IS lens, the shot also shows very little noise, especially after applying some noise reduction in Adobe Lightroom as can be seen on the 100% crops below.

100 percent crops

100% crops

The image on the right shows the image as it came out of the camera. Noise is apparent. The image on the left shows the processed image with luminance noise reduction set to 50% in Adobe Lightroom. While the loss of detail is unavoidable, the noise is reduced to very acceptable levels.

Other features that make my life as travel photographer much easier are and which I would like to mention are:

  • Auto-ISO setting: It is possible for the camera to automatically select the best ISO speed for the current light conditions. I tend to photograph mostly in aperture priority which means that I choose the aperture and let the camera calculate the correct exposure time for the available light. In the auto-ISO setting the camera also adjusts the ISO setting to the ambient light level. If there is not enough light available to produce an unshaken hand-held image, the ISO value is increase. The user can set both the ISO range that the camera is allowed to choose from and also the exposure time which is still considered “safe” for handheld shooting (for the given focal length). This feature is very handy if you frequently move between contrasting light environments such as dimly lit churches and the sunny courtyards outside.
  • LCD screen: Something that always bothered me on the 5d Mark I was the poor LCD screen. Especially in bright daylight, it was almost impossible to discern any detail from the LCD screen. In comparison, the new 1 mega-dot LCD screen of the Mark III provides crystal-clear previews of the images, even under direct sunlight.
  • Dual CF/SD card slots: While the Mark I only has 1 slot for a compact flash memory card, the Mark III features 2 slots which allow you to also use an SD memory card. Since most laptops have an SD card reader built in, having this option available saves you having to carry a CF card reader and although a saving of 150g might seem like very little, every little helps when you are lugging some 5kg worth of gear up the next mountain pass.
  • Live view feature: While this was already introduced in the Mark II, it was new for me as I had skipped a generation. The live view feature allows you to view the image on the LCD screen before taking the shot. Although I use it very rarely (as it complicates focusing), it comes in handy when you have to place the camera in awkward positions like at floor level or high above some fence that obstructs an otherwise clear shot.
  • Automatic sensor cleaning: This refers to the feature where the camera automatically cleans its image sensor every time it is switched on or off, removing any small dust particles which might have entered when you changed a lens, leaving ugly black spots on your photographs. While this is standard now even in most consumer level SLR cameras, it was not available in the EOS 5D Mark I. As I change lenses very often, sometimes in windy, dusty, or even rainy conditions, this is a very good feature to have. So far I have not had a single image with a dust spec on it which saves a lot of work in post processing.
  • HD movie mode: This is a feature which I use very rarely (mainly because I often forget that I have it) but it certainly adds another degree of creative freedom and allows you to explore another photographic dimension. The quality of the movies is certainly very impressive and if you add some not-so-standard movie lenses like fisheyes, macros, or very large aperture primes, it is possible to produce some very satisfying results.

Overall I have to say that I am very happy with this camera (and I am not paid to say this) and although it comes at a price, I feel that the investment was worth it as I will be happy with this camera for at least another 5-6 years again.

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South Korea Gallery is online

After travelling through South Korea this autumn, the images are finally online in the Chocolate Fish Photos Korea Gallery. Korea is really an interesting destination. Culturally it has influences from both China and Japan which can be seen not only in its architecture but also in the everyday life. Korea is also a surprisingly cheap destination. While being more expensive than some of the SE Asian tourist hot spots such as Thailand or Cambodia, it is considerably cheaper than neighbouring Japan, in particular public transport. October is a perfect time to travel through South Korea as the rainy summer season is over, the temperatures more pleasant, and the trees show their beautiful autumn colours.

Trees in autumn colour near Haeinsa temple

Trees in autumn colour near Haeinsa temple

You should plan at least 3-4 days to visit Seoul. The capital is home to almost 1/4 of all Koreans but it still maintains a pleasant and relaxed feel to it. You can stroll along the Cheonggyechon river, for instance, and almost forget that you are in a city with over 10 million inhabitants, were it not for the skyscrapers lining the river banks.

Cheonggyechon stream

Cheonggyechon stream in Seoul

Another option to escape is the Namsan park, which is actually a small hill in the middle of the city from which you have great aerial views over the entire city.

Seoul by night

Seoul by night

Another site worth visiting, especially if you have an interest in modern architecture, is the Seoul City Hall. It is a modern glass and steel construction that was only completed a couple of months ago. In its interior, it features these “Living Green Walls” which are used by architects worldwide now in an effort to reduce energy costs, while creating a more pleasant ambiance for the inhabitants.

Seoul City Hall

The Green Walls inside the Seoul City Hall

Apart from its buzzing modernity, Seoul also maintains some architectural relics of its 2000 year old history. One of those include the Bukchong Hanok village or the Changdeokgung palace, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the main palaces in the city .

Changdeokgung palace

Changdeokgung palace

I also visited Gyeongbokgung palace, which is particularly popular with tourists due to its colourful guards at the gates. Every day, rather bored looking actors perform the changing of the guard ritual while wearing colourful costumes. A great photo opportunity.

Gyeongbokgung palace guards

Gyeongbokgung palace guards

No trip to Korea is complete without an excursion to the mountains that straddle the entire Korean peninsula. I chose Gyeongju as my base as it is conveniently located to explore both Bulguksa and Haeinsa.

Seated stone Buddha at Yongjangsa

Seated stone Buddha at Yongjangsa near Gyeongju

Gyeongju itself is also worthwhile exploring as the many sights make it an open air museum. I also found the people refreshingly unaccustomed to tourists, which meant that the local market really still is what it used to be, a place where locals trade their home-grown produce. In many places around the world, these once traditional markets have become mere tourist attractions with more stalls catering to the wandering tourists rather than the local.

Octopus for sale at Gyeongju market

Octopus for sale at Gyeongju market

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Chocolate Fish Photos BLOG goes online!

Dear friends of Chocolate Fish Photos,

due to the many emails I have received I decided to set up this BLOG in order to provide some general thoughts and also the occasional small tutorial on photography and the travel photography business in particular.

I hope you will continue to enjoy this site and I look forward to receive your feedback and comments.

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