Discovering caffenol

FOLLOW-UP: Since writing what follows, I have tested this recipe on four more films, none of which turned out as well as the first despite my efforts to replicate the conditions exactly. I’m forced to conclude that this method does not give consistent, reliable – or even usable – results, which is a shame but it’s hardly surprising.

I HEARD about the possibility of developing black and white film in coffee a few years ago but I never took it particularly seriously.

One old-time newspaper photographer told me that they had used the technique to entertain groups of schoolchildren visiting the office. Somewhere I read about stained negatives and excessive grain. So it was with no great expectations that I got out the coffee jar, a pack of citric acid and a box of soda*.

One reason for the experiment was that I had several rolls of Ilford Pan-F Plus which I didn’t trust because every roll I had sent for development ended up covered with blotches, apparently caused by humidity.

I found a blog that recommended using 40g of coffee (Nescafe Red Mug), 30g of washing soda and 5g of citric acid with 500ml of tap water. The solids were kept separate and each was dissolved with some of the water before all being mixed together and allowed to stand for several minutes to allow bubbles to clear.. The mixture was then cooled to exactly 20C.

The film was loaded as normal (which means with a certain amount of difficulty) into a Patterson tank, and then developed in the usual way for 13 minutes, agitating for about 15 seconds every minute.

At the end of the development, the “caffenol” was poured away and the film was washed repeatedly with tap water until there was no longer any sign of coffee. For the final rinse I added a splash (maybe 5cc) of white vinegar to the nearly full tank and sloshed it around to prevent any remaining alkali carrying over into the fixer.

Fixing was carried out with normal photographic fixer in the usual way. Apparently there is no substitute for it.

The result astonished me. Instead of a dirty, grainy half developed image I had a strip of perfectly good negatives that could have gone through professional development.

Don’t believe me? Well look at the results. This is the whole frame from a 6×6 negative:

And this is a crop from that frame, full size as it came out of the scanner, after scanning at 1,200 lpi.

Grainy? I wouldn’t say so. In fact, it looks better than most of the images I have developed in conventional chemicals.

The blurriness of the out-of-focus areas is nothing to do with the development, it is because I reverse mounted a Nikkor 105/2.6 on the Pentacon Six to take this shot and the lens isn’t designed for that… but that is a different story.

On the basis of this experiment, I will be perfectly happy to use “caffenol” any time I don’t have regular developer available. However, different films will need different development times.

In fact, I may make it my standard developer, since it is difficult to get chemicals where I live and it is easy to make this up in one-shot quantities, which eliminates the need for stock solutions that are liable to oxydise.

Coffee is marginally more expensive than developer at about £1 or $1.50 per shot whereas Fomadon P would cost about 60p/90c per roll. With the washing soda and citric acid the cost is probably double that of a cheap commercial preparation.

Obviously, different types of instant coffee may give different results and the development time will vary from film to film. Cheap coffee is said to work best, decaf won’t work at all. Fortunately, there is already a lot of information on the Net about various coffee mixtures and development times for different films.

* As it happened, I didn’t have washing soda (sodium carbonate) available so I made my own out of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). All that is necessary is to put the sodium bicarb in an ovenproof dish and heat it for an hour at about 200C (350F). This drives water and carbon dioxide out of the chemical converting it to washing soda. It is perfectly safe and is what happens when you bake a cake.

As some brands of washing soda contain a lot of water (and soda in the form of crystals does) using baking soda to create pure, anhydrous sodium carbonate is a good way of ensuring you know that what you are using is pure.

About ambientimages

Paul Cowan is a former journalist turned full-time photographer.
This entry was posted in Black and White film, Caffenol, Film, Ilford Pan F Plus, Photography, Processing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Discovering caffenol

  1. Darren Addy says:

    Great post. I’ve been curious about Caffinol and find some results just stunning. Like this one (not my shot, but a favorite):

    I’m curious to try it with some 120 film negatives (have Mamiya TLR, and a Rolleicord V available at the moment).

  2. Sebastian says:

    Sorry to point that out, but using citric acid is the reason for the inconsistent results you mentioned. Use only _ascorbic_ acid (Vitamin C), and you’ll be just fine.

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