Friday, June 20, 2014

Caffenol Film Developing Part 1

One of the really exciting spin-offs of getting back into film shooting is the many 'alternative' processes that you can explore. Let's face it, half the fun of film is that it's 'hands-on' and encourages experimentation.

If you shoot film for any period of time, you will eventually want to develop your own. Black & White film development was an institution for the hobbyist photographer - almost a right of passage - and a magical experience if you've ever actually done it yourself. And really, it's dead easy. Some water, a few chemicals, a blacked-out room or film changing bag, a film developing tank, some measuring jugs, and hey-presto, you've developed film!

In fact, it is so easy that it wasn't long before inquisitive photographers and amateur chemists began to concoct their own developers. One of the more intriguing (for me at least), is Caffenol - and yes, the clue to one of the main ingredients is in its name. Caffenol is a developer made from Coffee (together with  two other main ingredients), although this isn't your regular shot of early morning expresso. What you need is caffeine, and plenty of it! None of your wimpy de-caf brews here thank you very much. Make it strong, and make it pure. The cheapest (strongest) instant coffee you can find at the supermarket should do the trick.

There are dozens of recipes for Caffenol on the interweb, all of them probably as successful as each other. What varies, it appears to me (and hence why you will need to experiment for yourself), are the differing brands involved in making a successful formula. We all know that not all coffee is created equal. So it would seem that to a certain extent, hitting upon a successful 'brew' for you will be dependent on the brand of the coffee you use - as well as the purity of the second main ingredient; washing soda.

Washing Soda (Soda Ash, or Sodium Carbonate) comes in various guises as well, but will usually either be in a powder, or crystal form. What you need is the powdered form. The crystal form indicates that it contains water (is hydrated), and apparently this is a no-no. So powdered it is then. And fortunately, this can be found fairly readily at most supermarkets or laundry retailers (I got it at my local bulk goods store).

The third ingredient is Vitamin C powder - ascorbid acid. Again, many supermarkets or health food stores should have it. If not, the chemist is another option.

And that's it. Coffee (the strong cheap stuff), Washing Soda (water free), and Vitamin C powder. The only 'real' photo chemical you actually still need is fixer to 'fix' the image permanently to the emulsion.

Kodak TMax 400 developed in Caffenol
I recently brought a Ricoh KR-5 Super (see last post), and had loaded it with Kodak TMax 400 B&W film. I was experimenting with cameras and film, so I thought 'what the heck', why not experiment with developing as well?

After checking out a few blogs, I came up with a recipe I wanted to try - and a development time to begin with. I used 150mls of tap water (I didn't bother to check the temperature) with 6 heap teaspoons of coffee, 200mls of tap water with 4 level teaspoons of washing soda - mixed these both separately, then added them together and stirred in 2 heap teaspoons of Vitamin C. Watch out for the smell (not terrible, but not great either), and the frothing up of the 'soup' when you add the vitamin c powder.

I let this mixture sit for 5mins, and pre-soaked the film with continuous running water in a Patterson Developing tank. When the 5 minutes was up, I poured the water out, and the Caffenol developer in. Then I developed for 11mins - agitation for the first 30 seconds, then 3 times each minute. Caffenol is a one shot developer, so when time was up I poured it down the sink (it's non-toxic), and gave the film a water rinse a few times until it ran clear. Then I fixed for 5 minutes (same agitation routine as the developer) in Ilfofix, poured that back in the bottle to be re-used and did a final agitation wash cycle. Then I used some Acuwet washing agent, squeegeed the film partly dry between my fingers dunked in the wetting agent solution, and hung the film up to dry on a clothes rack in the lounge :-)

That was the process. And for my troubles I got... very thin negatives :-(

Kodak TMax400 in Caffenol for 11mins
I wouldn't say that the negatives are unusable (see images above) - but they required a heck of a lot of work to get anything halfway decent out of them. They also had some pretty awful 'scale' type of pattern through them - which may be a combination of things. It could be that minerals in the tap water somehow reacted with the Caffenol developer? Or maybe it was simply the lack of development time? Or maybe the Ilfofix I'm using is too old (it is really old - maybe 10 years over its 'use by' date)? Whatever the cause, it doesn't look great on the negatives.

Was I disappointed? Well, yes - and no. I would like to say that my first foray into using Coffee as a developer worked out perfectly. But it didn't. I'd like to say I was thrilled with the results. But I wasn't.

But I wasn't discouraged either. Because, thin or not, I did actually get an image from the films - and to begin with I wasn't even sure I was going to get that! So it had worked. I just needed to figure out a way to make it work better next time. And anyway, I had said right from the start that this was going to be experimental - so I certainly wasn't about to give up.

With thin negs, what I figured I needed was more development time. So, armed with a freshly shot roll of Fuji Acros B&W 120 medium format film, it was on to Caffenol experiment part two...


  1. While I'm sure it's no Exxon Valdez level disaster, but used Caffenol has dissolved silver in it, which is poisonous. I wouldn't be dumping it down the drain. Save it and take it to a film lab . They will reclaim the dissolved silver and dispose of the rest appropriately. Alternately, take it to you local hazardous waste place every few months. Nice work on the blog and the images!

    1. Hi Randy. Thanks for the 'heads-up'. Hadn't really thought of it,but of course you are right...


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