Many film photographers learned the medium alongside basic darkroom skills in some sort of school setting, while for others, the developing process has always remained unseen and unknown. Regardless of which camp you fall into, chances are your current relationship to processing extends only so far as the counter at your local print shop or post office—which, in the time of COVID-19 quarantines, are increasinly off limits.
Truth is, processing film requires chemicals that are toxic and temperamental. But given the inherent effort that goes into shooting film in the first place (plus some recent subpar processing by past local labs), I felt compelled to research and refamiliarize myself with the process. And to find an at-home alternative.
Enter Caffenol, the incredible liquid concoction that develops black & white film using instant coffee and washing soda to replace the nasty chemicals found in traditional developing agents.
"By the end of this article, you’ll have all the steps needed to develop film at home with instant coffee and water softener."
I am not the first and won’t be the last to use this method, but after stumbling across it, I felt it deserved far more attention than it was getting. The benefits outweigh the cons in so many regards, and the simplicity of it all leads to the question of why traditional developing chemicals are still being used.
To give you an in-depth look, the following is a documentation of my personal experience with this alternative developing process, its many benefits, and how to educate yourselves on properly disposing harmful artifacts found in developer. By the end of this article, you’ll have all the steps needed to develop film at home with instant coffee and water softener.
Caffenol: What You Need to Know
Starting with the basics, Caffenol is a term used for the chemical combination of instant coffee crystals, washing soda, water, and optionally, vitamin C powder (referred to as Caffenol-C). Composed of products that are exponentially less harmful for the environment, it is an effective alternative to powder or liquid developer.
Caffenol is a simple, environmentally friendly process that should save you a number of trips to the lab.
The general consensus is that Caffenol is safer to handle and dispose of than its alternative.
Methyl chloroform, ammonia, and formaldehyde are just a few of the chemicals you’re replacing with Caffenol. Not only are these not safe to pour down drains, they will harm any surface they come in contact with. The only option for proper disposal of these chemicals is delivering them to a designated waste facility. Powder-form developing agents are even worse, as they pose a threat of poisoning by inhalation.
Caffenol was born of the DIY spirit, and is constantly evolving and taking on new forms across the community that uses it. Through wider experimentation, practice, and all the crowdsourced recipes available, new doors will continue to be opened for even better alternatives.
Caffenol is restricted to B&W film. You could use it on color negative stock, but you would end up with a sepia tone across all your negatives.
Trace deposits of silver halide collect in the leftover liquids from the developing and fixing process, preventing Caffenol from qualifying as completely “green.”
It is an unregulated and untapped process, and as such, I cannot personally recommend any single process for safe disposal of the required compounds. See article footer for suggested disposal methods.
Caffenol presents a promising future for environmentally friendly developing, and I hope to see it fully reach its safest potential with a minimal amount of harmful products used. Aside from the few downsides, it has been an extremely fun and rewarding method to use for developing from the comfort of my home.
4 Must-Read Caffenol Developing Tips
Be sure to research which caffenol process suits the film you are using. There are endless combinations of recipes listed at Caffenol.org, including processes that use beer and wine as alternatives to coffee. I have only developed rolls of T-Max 400 with my own recipe so far, and it’s been a great combination.
There will be “happy accidents” along the way, as the process is more or less an experiment. Consider it knowledge gained for the next roll, using each batch to learn more about film while doing more to help the environment. Forums at Caffenol.org and KEH Camera are great resources on the process and for discussing your own findings.
Make sure that all the washing soda crystals dissolve before developing. Left over crystals can scratch the film as it dries, leaving flecks and white streaks, as you can see on a few of my photos in this article.
Double check your measurements on all the ingredients used. Having too much or too little of any one of them can greatly impact your end result. Thankfully, black and white film is among the most forgiving as far as developing goes, so you’ll most likely be able to save it in Photoshop or Lightroom if something does go awry.
Caffenol has opened up the door to developing for myself and many others, and I hope you the reader will attempt it in the near future.
Step-by-Step Caffenol-C Recipe and Process:
In one container, mix 12 oz of tap water (room temp), ¾ tsps vitamin C powder (1000mg), 5 tsps instant coffee crystals (cannot be decaf), 3.5 tsps washing soda.
Stir until all powder and crystals dissolve.
Pour into sealed developing tank and agitate slowly for one minute, then agitate 3 time per minute for the following 11 minutes. Pour out Caffenol mix.
Place tank under running water for 1 minute to stop developing process. Have the water as close to room temp as possible.
In another container, mix 2 oz of fixer with 6 oz of water. Pour this mix into tank and agitate slowly 3 times per minute for seven minutes.
In another container, mix water with a few drops of dish soap. Mix slowly to limit bubbles formed. Fill tank with this wash mix and agitate 3 times. Pour out wash and repeat process agitating 6 times. Pour out wash and repeat process agitating 12 times. Pour out and open tank.
Pull out your film and hang to dry. You're all done.