German photographer Max Leitner travelled to Warsaw, Poland alongside an urban gymnast to capture this series of unconventional architectural shots that possess an air of optical illusion.
Fstoppers jumped on the phone with Leitner to discover more about his project, entitled “Misleading Lines,” which was created in conjunction with Nikon. Armed with a Nikon D850, he completed his kit for the trip with the following four wide-angle lenses:
- AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR – Ultra wide-angle, vibration reduction
- AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED – Extreme wide-angle, fast aperture, edge-to-corner sharpness
- AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED – Ultra-fast aperture, wide-angle, sharp even in low light, large maximum aperture and a Silent Wave Motor for fast, quiet autofocus
- AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G – Wide-angle, single-focal-length, fast aperture, superior resolution, and contrast
Leitner tells me about his early preparation for the project. Explaining that research ahead of the trip was “very social media heavy,” he cites Instagram as his favorite place to seek out images of potential locations he may be heading to. Mostly thanks to images he’d seen on the social media site, it turns out Warsaw was one of the places he had most heavily marked out on Google maps by the time planning of this trip was underway.
Shortlisting a number of other locations to pitch to Nikon, it was the locations based in Warsaw that generated the most mutual excitement. Following the decision to base the project in Poland, Leitner got to work familiarizing himself with local knowledge – something he believes is crucial to becoming acquainted with given the short time frame they had to shoot the project. He and the team had just three days in Warsaw, but plenty to cram in. Before they left, Leitner wanted to have pinpointed exactly where each of his selected locations were on the map, as well as in relation to each other.
So what qualified a building to serve a part in the series?
We had a very strict brief as to what the locations should portray. Because I shoot a lot of this type of photography, I could start to picture how the architectural lines would work. I wanted to keep it very modern, contradicting the opinion that lots of people have that Warsaw is an old Eastern town – we wanted to show a complete different side. We focused on the modern, the symmetrical, and went heavy on the glass, concrete and steel. Those were the qualifying factors for shortlisting locations.
Although the series was centered on architecture, Leitner also enlisted urban gymnast Benni Grams as the subject of his images. In searching for the perfect candidate, Leitner recalled working with Grams on a number of previous shoots. “I wanted Benni to be a part of this project because I knew we were on the same level, both socially and creatively – I’ve worked with him enough that he understands what I’m trying to get out of a photograph.” Leitner says it was crucial to have him on board; given the strict three-day timeframe they had to complete the entire series, Grams was the guy he best felt could accomplish what he was envisioning. Any photographer working with a human subject can tell you the importance of building a rapport before shooting, and there’s certainly no greater instance of this than when you find yourself in the predicament of flying to a foreign country to shoot a gymnast in an optical-illusion-esque photo series. “In trying to capture the photo, we would both understand why each other was being a certain way at any given time. We already had that friendship, which lets you be on point both creatively and strategically for what needs to be done,” he says. The project was shot guerrilla-style – entirely without a permit – only strengthening the necessity of a pre-established connection between Leitner and his subject. Often shooting within public spaces, there was a desire to attempt perfecting the shot within minutes of arrival at the designated location.
I was interested to know more about the selection process for Leitner’s chosen equipment. “The whole project was shaped around wide angle lenses,” he explains. “I wanted to stay wider than 35mm – that’s the edge to a normal perspective. I wanted to also open up the space, make it bigger, make it wider.” Detailing his desire for variation zoom, he cites the 14-24mm as his personal go-to lens and the one with which he has with him on every shoot as well as his travels, thanks to the way it works with space.
The 16-35mm gaps that bridge. With its small zoom variation, it caps at Leitner’s preferred maximum of 35mm. This was his choice of glass during the daytime when there was a more physical distance between he and Grams – particularly useful when trying to capture shots in a way that was wide enough, whilst still being far away enough to avoid making it look like a big shoot production on the streets of Warsaw. The 14-35mm served as the backup, with its shallow depth of field working wonders during daylight, whilst helping to keep ISO down during nighttime shoots.
Many of the shots were pre-planned, as Leitner mentioned during his research process. But as we all know – especially when shooting in an unfamiliar territory – shots don’t always go to plan. I was keen to know how many of the shots had been spontaneous, or deviated somewhat from what Leitner had originally had in mind. Initially, there was a shortlist of 20 locations. 12 shots made it into the final selects – although four of those had been sporadic. Leitner tells me of one example with a subway station; upon approaching it they found the glass entrance they planned, but none of the shots worked out as envisioned. Venturing to another nearby station, the team discovered a star shape silhouetted roof above them, which happened to be wider and taller than the last – and it was perfect. There were several unexpected locations that worked out when Leitner and his team were looking for something else. Which, Leitner says, “is the greatest thing about photography.”
All images used with permission.