How-To: Develop Film with Coffee and Vitamin C (Caffenol)

Uploaded by makemagazine on Jun 30, 2011

Browsing around the web recently, I came across a community of photographers who make their
own black and white film developer out of coffee and vitamin C, which they call “caffenol.”
Now, I couldn’t quite believe it at first, so I had to try it for myself. Here’s how
to do it.
First let’s take a look at what you need. You’ll need a film development tank and
reel, which you can get from a photo shop that sells darkroom supplies, a can opener,
some measuring cups and spoons, and a pair of scissors.
For materials, you’ll need instant coffee, vitamin C powder, washing soda, which is also
called soda ash. You can find it at a pool supply store or online. Some room temperature
water, it doesn’t have to be distilled, some photo fixer, which can also be found
in a photo shop with darkroom supplies, dishwashing detergent and some clothespins.
Oh that’s right, and an exposed roll of film. I wouldn’t recommend using this method
for taking photos at an important event unless you’ve tested it thoroughly. So for your
sister’s wedding, I’d stick with your trusty digital camera.
Any of the more uncommon items, such as the development tank, reel, washing soda and fixer
are all very inexpensive and can be found online if you don’t have a store that sells
them locally.
The first step is to get the film out of the canister, which must be done in absolute darkness.
So find a windowless room in your home and tape up any light leaks around the door. I’m
going to be doing it in daylight for demonstration purposes only.
Use your can opener to pop off the bottom of the film canister and remove the film.
Cut the tapered end off the roll. If you’re using plastic reels like this one, you’ll
insert the end of the film where the tabs are and feed it through with your fingers.
Then you’ll rotate the flanges of the reel back and forth to draw the film through it.
At the end, you’ll cut the film at the core and feed the rest of the film into the reel.
Insert your reel into the tank. This tank takes two reels, but I’ll use only one for
film. Then put the top on. Now you can turn the lights back on since the film is protected
from the light.
Let’s make the developer now. In 6 ounces of water, mix 5 teaspoons of instant coffee.
Do not use decaffeinated. It just won’t work.
Then add a half a teaspoon of vitamin C powder to that solution and stir.
In another cup of 6 ounces of water, mix three and a half teaspoons of washing soda. After
it has dissolved, mix the solutions together.
Be warned, this solution has an absolutely foul stench. In fact, it smells worse than
a garbage can of rotten Limburger cheese inside the Holland Tunnel.
Set the developer aside to make the fixer. The bottle you get will have a concentrated
solution, so check the packaging to see how much water to add. This particular brand calls
for 3 parts water for one part fixer. So I’ll take 9 ounces of water and pour in enough
fixer to bring it to 12 ounces.
The next step is to pour the developer into the tank and start a timer. The film should
sit in the developer for about nine minutes. Seal the top and agitate the developer for
the first minute. You can see that I am not only flipping the tank upside down and back,
but I’m also giving it a quarter turn each time. After the first minute, agitate the
developer three times every minute. Give it a tap on the table to loosen up any bubbles
that may form on the emulsion.
After nine minutes, quickly pour out the developer. Thne rinse the film after the caffenol is
poured out. Pour in water, agitate three or four times, and dump it. Repeat this rinse
step twice more.
Now pour in the fixer from before. Let it sit for five minutes, agitating three times
each minute.
You don’t have to dump the fixer down the drain since it’s reusable, at least for
a little while. Now you’ll rinse the film four times, agitating the water in the tank
more and more each time. On the fourth rinse, add a drop of dishwasher detergent, which
ensures the film dries spot-free.
After you’ve dumped out the water, open the tank and remove the film. Hang it from
a string or clothesline to dry. This particular negative turned out really dark, due to being
in the developer for too long.
The first time I tried this, I had the film in the developer for 12 minutes, and got the
dark negative on top. I then tried 8 minutes, and you can see that it looks much better
on the negative below that. The temperature of the developer is also a factor, so keep
that in mind when you’re tweaking your method.
Here are some scans from the negatives. As you can see, even the over developed negative
can produce an image, albeit a very grainy one.
This image was developed for eight minutes and shows a much finer grain and more contrast.
Here are a few more of my test images.
So I admit, I was skeptical about this homemade film developer called “caffenol,” but
it actually works, and quite a bit better than I expected, actually. Now, if you’ve
ever tried any of the online recipes that are out there, post your favorite in the comments
and post your caffenol photographs to the MAKE Flickr pool. Until next time, so long!