If I didn’t know Oscar Nilsson and strictly relied on what I had heard, I would have imagined a dramatic Liam Neeson style abduction story: “Man Taken to America Against Will, Documents Harrowing Escape via Instagram!” But the story is not that dramatic, as the Swedish expat behind “OscarWasTaken“ is here voluntarily. The truth is, he was so taken by the west coast’s natural beauty that he taught himself to capture it with photographs.
I first met Oscar a few years ago—before he owned a camera or had a respectable Instagram following—but, even then, it was clear he had an artistic eye and penchant for adventure. It was a rare sunny day in San Francisco and he was casually walking across a slackline above a crowd of picnickers. I’m not a betting woman but I guessed he was a traveler (good odds based on the map and hot air balloon tattoos) and, it turned out, he was fresh to the states from Sweden, a country I have always had romantic visions of.
Oscar came to California to study advertising at the Academy of Art University in 2013. As a student, he not only immersed himself in his coursework but in the beauty, and balance, of the West Coast. While his studies and work focused on creative strategy, he picked up photography to capture some of the moments that were making his time in California so incredible. He started by signing up for a class but quickly realized the course wasn’t right for him. Instead of writing off photography entirely, he felt more inspired by teaching himself in his free time, at his own pace. He read about the basic techniques online and started attending meet-up events. The group of local photographers he connected with would get together somewhere in the San Francisco to experiment with different photography styles and teach each other everything they had learned. Soon, he understood the mechanics and started working on more thoughtful compositions. After graduation, Oscar started working at an advertising agency and his boss to a liking to his photos. He told Oscar he showed a lot of potential, gave Oscar a fixed 35, and instructed him to “just keep on shooting”
In the two years since then, Oscar’s images have inspired travelers around the world and earned him praise from major travel publications. Signature to his style are elements that make the viewer feel like they’re in the moment. He uses whatever he can find—flower petals, friends, even his own limbs—to create dimension, scale, and movement. Whether it’s a quick hike to a new city view, a weekend road trip to a national park, or a long holiday to a foreign country, Oscar makes the most of every opportunity to explore and brings his camera with him.
OscarWasTaken puts you in his shoes (or his girlfriend Isabelle’s hats) and it’s like you’ve hit the road together.
Oscar sat down with Resource Travel to discuss his adventures, his passion, and his inspiration.
What’s your muse?
To me it’s all about capturing beauty wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.
My main mission now is to try to think of where I can adventure to every month or year. That’s of course challenging with work and everything else but, especially in California, there are so many places we can go on weekend or day trips. There’s so much beautiful nature all around.
Where do you shoot?
For the most part I’m in San Francisco so I’m shooting a lot in the city and trying to capture the beauty of hidden adventures. In my feed though, you’ll see a lot of shots from national parks because out in nature is where I like to be.
How do you see the same place in new ways?
Photography is something that has changed the way I look at things, the way I travel and experience places. It gets me off the couch a lot of times and inspires me to explore more.
My friend Garrett and I decided to try to capture 100 sunrises this year and we’re at 35 sunrises so far. We’re in the city and get into this every day grind, you know? You just aren’t appreciating the place you’re in, in the same way as when you travel. When we started, it was always dark when I got out of work and it got us out during the weekdays shooting.
I love the light and the way it behaves, reflects, and flairs, especially during sunrise and sunset. Because we’re on the west coast sunsets are over the water and by nature more beautiful over here. So you don’t see as many sunrise photos from the west coast which I think is interesting too because it makes it different.
What’s your style of travel photography?
When coming to a new place, I’m trying to show in the photo how I’m present. There are these completely peaceful shots, just capturing nature like no one was there, but I like to feel the presence of a person in it (without interrupting composition). It builds a feeling. Like how I felt when I was sitting on a ledge watching a waterfall.
How do you capture those moments?
I was in Oregon at Salt Creek Falls this year. It was really pretty but then it was so moody as well. I ended up climbing a fence and sitting right next to this huge 293ft waterfall. I just wanted to take a photo from this angle that I had found and then there was so much else happening; there was fog all over the place and I could feel the mist coming off the falls. No one else was there, just me and my girlfriend Isabelle.
It felt very intimate but impossible to capture entirely, so I tried to add elements that symbolized that feeling for me. I took photos of the falls and then I tried adding human elements. For those shots, it was me taking the photo (my original composition) and capturing where I was in it.
Does capturing the moment take away from the trip?
Since I started dating Isabelle we’ve taken a lot of trips together and I’ve thought about whether photography is interrupting the way we experience nature. Sometimes it’s nice to put the camera aside and just appreciate a place for what it is. But, as you’re capturing a photo, you’re also thinking about what’s around you and appreciating it a lot more. If you weren’t looking for that shot, you may not be looking at all. Capturing beauty with my camera is one of my biggest inspirations to travel now.
Do you focus on the journey or destination?
For me, it’s about turning the journey into a whole experience and appreciating the trip from leaving your door. That’s how traveling has changed a lot for me and, by doing so, it has allowed me to find new places not as many people have found and experienced.
If you’re going to Zion, for example, there are so many amazing spots getting into the valley. If hiking Angels Landing was my only priority and I rushed to experience it, I’d miss out on all the beauty leading up to it. It’s interesting how photography changes the way you look at things. I now add about half a day just for enjoying travel.
When did you pick up photography?
It was just two years ago that I started taking photos. I signed up for a class but it didn’t work out—the teacher wasn’t competent or engaging, in my opinion, so I didn’t go through with it and taught myself. Now, thinking back, I wish I’d have captured more of my early travels and life in Scandinavia. I want to revisit places like this little hut I found in the middle of nowhere Norway. I’d want to capture places like that again for myself and to share them with other people.
What camera do you use?
I started out on a Canon 5D Mark 2. The creative director at my old work saw some potential in my shots and sold me his old camera. I started shooting with that and I had that one fixed 35 lense. For a year, to a year and a half, that’s all I used. Then I switched over to a Sony Alpha 7 Mark 2 and that’s what I shoot with now. When I went to Oregon I rented lenses to try them out using Lumoid—I have a partnership with them so they’re cool and helping me out. I also just bought a drone which is a fun, different addition to be able to experience environments from above. I think my next lense will be something a little with a zoom lense to capture wildlife because that’s what I’ve been missing with shooting wider.
What do you find difficult to capture?
I’m trying to photograph people in the city more. I have a lot of photos with people in them but they’re often for scale and a human element. But when I take closer up portraits, I’ve found it’s a lot harder, but fun, trying to capture human emotion.
When you’re taking a photo of a national park, it’s already beautiful. You have time to align, to find your angle or perspective on a place. Even if it has been photographed a thousand times, you find your own take on it. A person is ever changing—what the person is wearing, their emotions and facial expressions too. It’s about a moment and capturing a person is so much more… personal.
What do you want to shoot more of?
Nature for sure. It takes so much patience to get the shots you want with animals in the wild. There’s this one guy in Finland who spends hours in the woods waiting for animals to come to him, Konsta Punkka, and he’s just amazing.
I also want to extend what I’m working on. I know a lot of people doing street style photography here in the city and, while it’s fun, it’s not really me. If I’m looking at my work as a portfolio, it suits my lifestyle—my personality, my vibe—and that’s being out on the road.
Where is your favorite place in SF to shot?
Kirby Cove because it’s so close but isolated, I’ve never seen anyone there for sunrise.
What’s your next big trip?
Ooo! I shouldn’t jinx it but we’re trying to make Yellowstone happen this summer and I just booked a trip to Korea in August!