Danica Thomas is a film photographer and artist living in Tacoma, Washington. Her work is a lively, nostalgic mix of old neighborhoods, glowly golden hour, old cars, and classic sights of the Pacific Northwest shot exclusively onto 35mm film.
A fellow camera collector like me, it was such a joy to get to chat with her, swap stories about our collections, and give each other bits of advice. I related so much to her story from learning how to shoot film just a few years ago to trying to figure out how to make half functioning thrift store cameras work while barely understanding film itself. Even though we had never talked face to face before, it felt like getting to catch up with an old friend.
I hope you pour yourself a nice cup of tea and tuck in to this lovely conversation. Enjoy!
To start us out, can you give us a brief introduction to yourself?
I am based in Tacoma, Washington, about forty minutes or so south of Seattle. I’ve been into photography since I was a teenager. I found Flickr, remember Flickr back in the day? And I would scroll for hours and fell in love with it and was like “I wanna do this, I wanna learn how to do this.”
I was pining after all these cameras for so long but couldn’t afford them, but then eventually my journalism teacher in high school let me borrow a Canon Rebel. I don’t even remember the model. And I would take photos for the school newspaper and then when it was time for summer break he let me take it home which he wasn’t supposed to do. It was how my interest for photography grew, and I’m so thankful for him because he really hooked it up!
So, was that digital when you started photography in high school or was it film?
That was digital. Film is relatively new for me. I’ve only been shooting film for about two years now. Digital I’ve been doing on and off since I was about sixteen years old.
In high school when you were starting out on digital what was it that sparked your interest to keep going? What made you gravitate towards that artform?
I definitely consider myself an introvert. Definitely someone with a lot of social anxiety. And photography was this cool way for me to do something independent. When I would start to get noticed for photography it just felt really good but it felt like I didn’t have to fully put myself out there in a way, like I could hide behind my photos. So I kind of liked that very specific kind of being noticed without being too much in the spotlight.
I love how photography is as solitary or as social as you want it or need it to be. Just feeling very much like I can just have my camera and don’t necessarily need anyone else if I didn’t want to. It was very natural for me as far as art goes. It’s always been hard for me to collaborate, put myself out there, to be in the spotlight. It just worked well with my introversion.
Since you mentioned it can be solitary, would you say now you still prefer shooting on your own or do you like getting to go out and shoot with others?
I definitely prefer shooting on my own, though I’m always kind of pining for a more social element of it, too. But I kind of get Imposter Syndrome, we all do. My confidence in my photography is kind of like a pendulum where sometimes I really feel on it, but then I’ll feel like I don’t know anything about cameras or compositions or settings. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
I like doing it on my own. I don’t feel like I’m having to perform for anyone. But I do think that if I were to work with other people we could probably make some really cool stuff. There’s some great photographers that are in the film community on Instagram that live around the corner from me. I’ve been meaning to do photo walks with them, getting up the courage to do it. As for now though, having it be my own thing, just going on a walk is most comfortable right now.
You started on digital, but what made you jump to film?
I’ve always loved that film look that people talk about. I had been wanting to get into film for years but I never made it happen. Then a couple years ago I was at a yard sale and I got this amazing deal on a Minolta X-700 [see our review here] and a Canon AE-1 [see our review here] and several lenses for $30. I was like “Alright cool, let’s do it!” Just stumbling across those cameras right in front of me with a deal I couldn’t turn down was really how I actually finally started to get into it. All of my cameras are thrifted, yard sales, gifted to me, or found so I’m very fortunate I’ve come across quite a handful.
How has the learning process been for you? Did you feel like it was a struggle or were you able to find good resources?
Kind of both! I definitely got this idea that if I really wanted good photos with certain beautiful colors, and I think this is pretty common, that I had to shoot Kodak Portra 400. So as I was learning I was only buying Portra 400 which is insane because it’s so expensive! And there’s obviously so many wonderful film stocks, and people have their feelings about Portra being overrated or whatever. And it is a great film stock but I had it in my mind that I had to learn on this film stock. If I could go back I would just get some Kodak Colorplus and call it a day.
I remember I would just watch a lot of YouTube videos and try to learn that way. Every roll was trial and error. Getting to know each camera I was using. Because I buy them all from yard sales or thrift stores, I just shoot them in the condition I find them so almost all my cameras are broken in some way shape or form. Learning not only how to shoot film, but learning how to deal with the different shortcomings of each broken camera I insist on using and not fixing.
I’m broke and obsessed with this expensive hobby. One day I will buy a camera and make sure the lightmeter works, is calibrated correctly, and everything is all good and sealed up the way it’s supposed to but I’m not at that place yet so I’ll just deal.
Speaking of learning on Portra 400, a lot of your current photos are shot on Kodak Gold 200. Could you tell us a little bit why you use that film stock and what you like about it?
I think I just tried it out because I was like, “Oh let me try something less expensive.” I was getting a little more confident in my work and I had also realized I didn’t need Portra. That wasn’t really what was making my photos good or not good. And the combination of shooting Kodak Gold at golden hour, I just fell in love with it. Once I switched to primarily shooting Gold then I started seeing more of a cohesion in my photos with the nostalgic vibe and the beautiful gold tones it brings out. I just love that film stock and it’s cheaper. People either really love it or it’s completely dismissed. I feel like there’s no going back. That’s part of why I’m so sad it’s been so overcast these days because overcast weather on Kodak Gold doesn’t turn out great. I feel like I’ve really started to narrow my style since shooting primarily Gold, and some Ultramax, but mostly Gold.
You always have such great variety in your subjects! How do you choose what to shoot?
Tacoma is such a cool city. It’s about a forty minutes drive south of Seattle. But it really has its own culture, very rich history. A lot of really beautiful architecture and very old historic neighborhoods. I’m lucky enough to live around the corner from the historic district. So I love to just walk around and see these gorgeous houses that are so unique looking. I just love to walk around the neighborhood and see what catches my eye. I definitely have a thing for cars, I don’t even care about the cliche, I love them. And if I just stumble across a car or house in a certain light especially if there’s some foliage or flowers I can subframe it with then that’s a go to type of framing and composition I’ll use every single time cause I love it. I really love the feeling of looking through something, that frame within a frame composition. Anything that catches my eye in the old suburbs of this city with the correct light I’ll try to shoot it. I’ll try to do that scene justice.
Do you still shoot digital at all?
Almost never. I have a Canon 80D somewhere and it rarely comes out anymore. Every now and again I’ll do senior portraits for somebody I know. I’m not ready to get rid of it, but I also don’t really like it anymore. I feel I’m not a good photographer with digital. It’s heavy. It’s clunky. While you can have that instant feedback knowing your exposure is correct, your focus is on point, my composition is way lazier because you can just shoot and shoot and shoot. With film you really have to think about it. You have 24 or 36 chances. And I feel like I don’t take my time to make sure I’m taking the shot I want when I have digital so I don’t really use it much anymore these days.
Has transitioning to film changed your shooting style at all or what you choose to capture?
Yes. When I started shooting film I made an Instagram just to have a place to put my photos and I wasn’t really expecting to have many followers on it. I just wanted to put my work somewhere. But because of the Instagram formatting I almost exclusively shoot vertically now to fit into that 4×5 ratio, where I didn’t do that before with digital. Most of my digital photos never really made it anywhere. So I’ve been thinking recently how my composition might change if I was shooting horizontally all the time and I almost never do that. Which I kind of hate. Well, I don’t hate it. But that was something I started doing because of Instagram and it does feel kind of weird. And then I think that my film photography is way more creative with it. I put way more thought into the images I’m trying to create than with digital.
So what keeps you shooting film?
The whole process. I love everything about it. I love the very tangible, physical feeling of capturing an image. That clink sound that it makes. Winding the advance. Just how much you feel it. Whereas with digital, the cameras are super fast and quiet; they might do a little chirp if you have that setting on. I just really love how you can feel the mechanics of these cameras that are older than me, older than my dad. I love that part of it. Also I love the surprise of dropping off a roll of film and getting it back and forgetting about certain photos and those turning out to be some of my favorites. Feeling like I have this constant archive of these things I’ve seen in my life in the form of negatives that hopefully I’ll hold on to forever.
I love the different moods and vibes you get with shooting different film stocks. Which feels different to me than with digital using certain presets. Film is just so fun for me and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. Though every now and then I’ll shoot two or three rolls in a row that are just bad, in my opinion. There’s a lot of rolls I shoot where none of those images ever see the light of day because I’m not happy with them for whatever reason. And then I’ll get kind of discouraged and in a slump, but I always come back.
Do you feel like social media has played a role in your art? Has it changed your work or what you want to post online?
Definitely, more than I would like to admit I think. There was this time where I was getting really self conscious about those film cliches, you know like classic cars, ferries, basketball hoops. And feeling like that wasn’t what I should be posting even though I love shooting classic cars. It is super common and I definitely was like getting in head about that. Going through my feed thinking there’s too many, I got to break it up and post other things. It kind of comes back to what it’s for. I kind of resent the gatekeeping that you can find online. Ultimately if people are going out and taking photos, that’s amazing and they should shoot whatever they want to.
What one person thinks is worthy of posting or creating, that’s different for everyone. I hope that people don’t feel bullied out of taking photos they want. And I was definitely getting in my head about that. And still do sometimes, but I’m better about it now. Who gives a shit. I like this picture. It’s mine. I took it. And that’s good enough.
Since starting in film a few years ago, how has your experience been in the film community?
Really good, very uplifting and validating. I didn’t know there was such a robust film community. I didn’t know film was having such a moment, a resurgence. Digital photography always felt way more competitive to me than film photography does. I think maybe part of that is it seems like more digital photographers that’s their career more so than film photographers where it’s more like a hobby.
I love that everyone is constantly boosting each other up, reposting, featuring each other. That was not something I even knew was part of the online film community. It’s been really validating, and I love getting the support and supporting others. It’s really fun. I feel like I have my Instagram film friends. And people I feel like in a way I kind of know when I don’t really have any in-real life film photography friends so that’s my people right there online!
In a different direction, since you mentioned you love Kodak and most of your cameras are thrifted. We’re all trying to do this hobby as cost effective as possible. What are your feelings on the Kodak price increases coming our way?
It’s such a kick in the tits you know!? It’s already so expensive. I don’t know how to self-develop yet, that is coming, but right now I still use a lab to get my stuff processed. I don’t understand it because the demand is there. So many people are using it and want it, and are asking for more film stocks and lower prices and it keeps going up. And it feels like there’s such loyalty to Kodak. And it’s just really hard to see. I actually tried to get Portra the other day for the first time in several months. And I went to get a 5-pack which I think I used to pay $50 for and now it’s like $75 or something like that. It was like, absolutely no. This is why I shoot Gold. Thanks for reminding me. But yeah, it’s really hard. And I don’t know a trick to get cheaper film. I know I can buy expired stuff online and that’s like a roll of the dice. It hurts. It hurts the old wallet. [For some advice on how to mitigate the cost of shooting film, see our article here.]
Going through your photos I see you only shoot 35mm. Is there a reason for that? Do you specifically gravitate towards 35mm? Do you have plans to shoot other formats?
Yeah, I’ve never shot medium format. I’m definitely interested in it. I still feel like I have a lot of work to do to really be as good as I can with 35mm before I move to 120 and spend more money. I definitely have an interest in that. But I have this big collection of cameras I’ve been cycling through as they break beyond responsible repair or when there’s one I feel like trying out. I went from Minolta X700 which I LOVE that camera. And then to an AE-1, an AE-1 Program, Canon Canonet [reviewed here], and now my Nikon FM2 [see our review here] which is fully mechanical which is cool and kind of a challenge but good. But yeah I would love to get into medium format some day, I know it’ll happen.
I know you love the X-700, but do you have any wishlist dream cameras?
I’m not really great about camera specs honestly. If I move to medium format, a Pentax 67 would be really cool [yeah, we reviewed this one, too]. I guess I’m a sucker for the images shot on a Contax T2 [plenty on that camera here, as well]. I’m always looking for one of those in thrift stores. Never found one, never even close! But always hoping to stumble across one.
But nothing specifically. Honestly, I would like to invest more in my glass and have some different lenses to swap out. A really cool thing with my Nikon FM2 is that the body of it was given to me by a friend of a friend and I didn’t have a lens for it. I was really excited about it, so I posted about it on Instagram. And just like a testament to how dope and supportive the film community is, someone reached out to me and offered me an extra Nikkor lens they had. I offered to buy it from them but they refused, and just shipped it to me. And that’s amazing because without that I couldn’t have shot that camera.
So yeah, I don’t really have any cameras on my mind right now that I’m looking for. Just some more lenses and maybe just investing in the cameras I currently have and getting them repaired and properly taken care of.
An image of yours I love so much, it’s a very powerful image, is an image you posted last summer. It’s a photo of a woman with her face blacked out to protect her privacy, and she has her hand in the air while there’s a burning car behind her. It’s very emotive and intense. Can you tell us the story behind that image?
Yeah, for sure! That was taken in Seattle on May 30th I think of 2020 it was the first protest in response to the killing of George Floyd last year. I took the train up there. It was pouring down rain and it was super active down there. Cops were tear gassing, shooting rubber bullets at people. There was this crowd of folks that had some buzz about a fire and I walked in that direction and sure enough there was a Seattle Police cruiser that was on fire and this woman standing in front of it and she had her fist in the air. And that moment was amazing and it really felt very real, like why people were out there, what we were demanding.
How screwed up the system is that we had to do that in the first place. And yeah I definitely wanted to keep her private because the Seattle Police Department and police departments across the country were going on social media trying to identify protesters. But yeah that was a very powerful moment for me to come across. It’s a damn shame the photo is not in focus but you know, whatever. It was really scary to be up there. Pouring down rain. Hearing the flash bangs and the other things SPD was using. Then I continued to go up to Seattle for more protests. I just went up by myself, for the purpose of documenting it. It felt almost like journalistic, and like I had a responsibility to document it. Definitely super emotional as a black woman to be there and continue to go up every single day. But I brought my camera, and got a lot of images that I feel like really captured the feeling and the energy of what people were protesting.
Did you have any feelings on how the film community responded or handled that moment in time?
Sort of, yeah. Part of why I really wanted to go up is I wanted to document that as a black photographer and I wanted other black photographers and black artists to be the ones telling that story. And it was uncomfortable for me to see white photographers getting in people’s faces. It was just weird. I’m sure the intent was good but it was like, this isn’t for likes. And also I guess, not knowing what it was for. Like why are you taking this photo? To contribute? To document this movement? How self serving is it? I don’t know, it made me uncomfortable.
On the other hand though, there were tons of black photographers that were documenting and taking pictures and it felt really amazing to be able to see these movements unfolding in all of these cities across the country and really across the world. Yeah, there’s a lot of complicated feelings about seeing this played out on social media.
So on a more broader term, how do you feel like film photography has affected your life? Do you feel like it’s changed your life at all?
Yeah, I feel like film photography is my art medium and will be forever more. I never felt comfortable referring to myself as an artist until shooting film and still don’t all the time. It feels very much a part of who I am and how I show up in the world. How it’s changed me is I’m way more annoying to my friends! I think because constantly when we’re in the car I’ll be like “Oh, no. You gotta go back! You gotta stop, I gotta go out. I gotta frame this up and get my different angles!”
And I always try to have a camera on me no matter what it is. Right now I shoot a Nikon FM2 usually that’s with me but even some Fujifilm disposable cameras. I love those. I might have a little point and shoot. Since shooting film, way more than shooting digital, I’m always kind of looking for photos. Trying to be way more aware of my surroundings, looking up, looking underneath things, playing with different framing by getting behind things or under things. So yeah it changes the way I view the world more since I’m always trying to compose.
Are there any female photographers, current or historical, that you find inspiring?
Yes! Off the top of my head, I have a couple I can think of including @filmbyvee_, @deerlyalexa, and @ari.bonner. Those are just a few I can think of! But I love the female photography community. Photography is one of many hobbies that are white, male dominated. There’s a lot of women who are really doing that real work to elevate other women artists. We deserve that spotlight too.
Before I let you go, do you have any big projects lined up?
I really would like to explore portrait photography! And have more shoots that are styled and have a more creative element. I’m always going to do my photo walks and street photography. But really wanting to take photos of people and needing to overcome the anxiety part to get to that. But I think it will help me grow as a photographer so much.
I really would like to do a portrait series of people in Tacoma. There are just a lot of characters in this City who have really great stories to tell and interesting looks about them and I would like to highlight them as well.
And lastly, where can people find you online?
For more stories behind the images and photography from the community check out the many series we’ve published over the years below!
Featured Photophile – we shine a spotlight on amateur photographers whose work we love.
Photographer Interviews – in-depth discussions with professional and established photogs doing great work.
Female Photographers to Follow – get inspired by a monthly series focused on the beautiful and unique perspectives of female photographers.
Five Favorite Photos – a hand-selected examination of the oeuvre of ur favorite famous photographers.
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]