It’s been several years since the Caffenol craze took the online world by storm. And by “online world,” I mean “a tiny little corner dedicated to film photographers who develop their own black & white film.” And by “storm,” I mean “a collection of forums, blogs and Flickr pools that cumulatively number more than one.”
Caffenol is a home-brew alternative to commercial film developers. It was first formulated in 1995 by Dr. Scott Williams and the students in his Technical Photographic Chemistry class. Their goal was to devise a developing technique using only commonly available household ingredients. The original recipe used coffee, baking soda and potassium hydroxide, but over the next decade others would tweak and tune the ingredients to increase the developer’s effectiveness. Recently, the popularity of blogging and social media helped to further spread awareness of the technique — involving more people in the experiment, and even giving the substance its hip caffenol moniker.
In March 2010, Rheinhold G. launched a caffenol-focused blog to track his progress with various formulas and techniques, and to solicit opinions and alternate methodologies from his readers. For the next several years, this blog became one of the central repositories for caffenol knowledge.
Unlike commercial film developers, which are created by the calculations of pointy-headed lab geeks, Caffenol is an empirical developer derived from the experiments of pointy-headed film geeks. There are no corporately produced data sheets for Caffenol development — only blogs and forum postings. In November 2012, Bo Sibbern-Larsen gathered much of the information threaded throughout Rheinhold’s blog (and others), and published the free Caffenol Cookbook for all who wished to partake.
The Big Bang
For the past couple of years, I’ve been developing all my film using either Rodinal or Diafine — a combination that’s kept me happy as a pig on a vegetarian’s farm. These two developers are cheap, have long shelf lives and produce radically different results — meaning I can choose which developer I need for which particular look I seek. Caffenol intrigued me, but it just seemed so… nerdy.
But a few weeks ago, I found myself smack dab in the middle of Nerdy Town. I was immersed in writing an epic series of articles discussing the B&W capabilities of the Foveon-based Sigma DP-Merrill cameras. I was weary, and needed a break from all those bits & bytes.
“Take a photo walk,” I told myself before quickly adding, “and take a film camera — I don’t wanna shoot no stinking pixels.”
I checked the Rodinal stock — nearly depleted. “Best not waste it on this,” I thought.
I looked out the window. Sunny. “Not a good day for the extensive speed pushing characteristics of Diafine,” I opined.
So, with my nerdy side in full bloom, I reached the only logical conclusion — it was time to try Caffenol.
I’d been following the exploits of the Caffenol crowd since some time in 2009, and not once had I read an article about anyone blowing up their kitchen; much less catching their eyebrows on fire. And I’m fairly certain, given that its primary ingredient is coffee, that someone somewhere was probably dumb enough to taste it — yet I never once read of anyone succumbing to Caffenol poisoning. From this, I leapt to the obvious conclusion that Caffenol manufacturing was entirely safe — even for me.
So I did a quick read through of The Caffenol Cookbook, made a shopping list of the “readily available” ingredients required, and substituted a walk to the local grocery store for the originally planned photo walk.
Turns out these so-called “readily available” ingredients aren’t exactly readily available. The most basic Caffenol formula (Caffenol-C-M) involves only 3 ingredients: Instant Coffee, Powdered Vitamin C and Washing Soda. The instant coffee was easy — I grabbed some Folgers, which was the cheapest jar on the shelf, and took off for the laundry aisle.
Its shelves were stocked with a bewildering variety of detergent brands — each brand encased in a brightly saturated plastic tub of eye-piercing color. I donned my sunglasses and perused the labels: not a single one contained “washing soda.” Nearby, a stock boy pretended to be busy haphazardly rearranging shampoo bottles. “Where might I find the washing soda?” I asked to his obvious chagrin. He pointed to the Tide, then waived his hand to-and-fro across the rainbow coloured shelves. No help there.
Next, I went to the vitamin aisle, where I discovered there are at least 73 different brands of identical Vitamin-C capsules for sale. You’d think one of those brands could have distinguished itself by actually making a powder. They didn’t. I briefly considered hunting down my shampoo shuffling friend, but assumed his solution would involve pointing toward the hammers in the housewares aisle. I left the store with only the coffee, and proceeded to walk a few blocks to the next-closest store.
That store also failed to stock either Washing Soda (sodium carbonate) or Vitamin C powder (Ascorbic Acid). So I went to another, and another, and another… until I finally got smart enough to think of a better solution than wandering aimlessly from store to store. I remembered the “smoothie bar” inside my local Dietary Supplements store. They sell milkshakes for exorbitant prices, which they justify by mixing in spoonfuls of powdered vitamins — thus enabling them to market ice cream treats as “health food.” Perhaps they would have powdered Vitamin C? Eureka! A quick exchange of cash, and one jar of pure powdered ascorbic acid was mine.
Next I did some more research into Washing Soda, and it seems to be a product championed by people who are drawn to the term “all natural.” So I went to a local grocer that specialized in “natural” products and, sure enough, big heavy bags of powdered washing soda were available for a mere couple of bucks.
I now had everything I needed to prepare my first batch of simple, basic Caffenol-C-M.
The First Roll
I spent so much time researching Caffenol and hunting for ingredients, that the deferment of my Sigma review had turned from dalliance to negligence. But I was too far down the rabbit hole to stop now. I had a burning need to develop something — anything — in Caffenol.
I’d read that most people experience about a 1-stop push from Caffenol-C-M, so I decided to start there. I wasn’t pushing film in any of my currently loaded cameras — so I needed to load another camera specifically for testing. I chose the Hasselblad Xpan for two reasons: First, its extra-wide negatives meant I could fill a roll with only 21 shots; and second, its optics are impeccable — meaning any “issues” I saw would be related to developing, and not due to the camera. I loaded the Xpan with my “go to” (aka, “cheap”) test film — Kentmere 100, pushed the ISO to 200 and took off on a 90 minute walk to expose it.
Here is the Caffenol-C-M recipe I used to develop this first roll of film:
- 500 ml filtered tap water (24 deg C)
- 27g Washing Soda (V.I.P. brand)
- 8g Vitamin C Powder (Organika brand)
- 20g Instant Coffee (Folgers Classic Roast brand)
I added the ingredients in exactly the order listed: First I added the Washing Soda to the water, stirring to dissolve. Next I stirred in the Vitamin C powder, then the coffee.
At this point, I was convinced something had gone wrong. I’d read that the addition of Vitamin C causes massive amounts of foaming — yet I had no foaming at all. Also, I’d read tales of Caffenol’s horribly unpleasant smell. Mine had a faint odor — but nothing nearly as offensive or pungent as my Ilford Rapid Fixer. And, unlike the fixer, the Caffenol smell doesn’t linger.
I pre-soaked the film for 5 minutes in filtered tap water, poured it out and poured in the Caffenol-C-M. I inverted the tank 10 times to begin, then 3 times each subsequent minute. Because my water was 4 deg warmer than the specified 20 deg C, I reduced the suggested 15 minutes of developing time down to 10 minutes and 50 seconds. When the alarm sounded, I dumped the syrupy coffee solution down the drain.
I next filled the tank with filtered tap water, which served as a simple, acid-free stop both. I agitated for 30s, then let the water sit for another 30s. I repeated the stop bath with a second tank of filtered tap water — mostly because the Caffenol was so thick, I was afraid it would contaminate my fixer.
I then fixed with Ilford Rapid Fixer for 5 minutes — inverting for the first 30s, then performing 3 inversions every minute thereafter. I washed the film using the standard Ilford washing technique, and hung it to dry.
When I first pulled the film from the tank, I panicked — the entire roll was black. But when I held the negative up to the sun, I could see there was indeed some kind of latent image buried within all that blackness. Never, in my long history of developing film, had I ever developed a negative this dark nor this dense. It was darker than a demon’s soul, and denser than a partisan, party-loyal politician. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to scan it.
But surprisingly, I was indeed able to scan it — and by “scan it,” I mean “photograph the negatives with an Olympus OMD-EM1 camera and a 60mm Macro lens.” I did have to adjust the base exposure that I normally use when photographing negatives — the caffenol negatives were about 5 stops darker! But buried under all that coffee stain was a full-range negative with a pleasing tonality.
In spite of some initial uncertainty about my choice of ingredients, and in spite of the darkness of the developed negative, my first foray into Caffenol was a success. Some of the shots from this first roll are included with this article. The only thing that gave me pause was the grain — Kentmere 100 doesn’t have the prettiest grain, and when pushed to ISO 200 it turns downright ugly. So what if I were to use Caffenol on a better film — one with a grain more conducive to push processing?
And thus the seeds of experimentation are sown, and ULTRAsomething will play host to my ongoing caffenol experiments; my logs; my caffenologs.
The Xpan is now loaded with a more expensive film stock — Neopan Acros 100 — and is waiting patiently on the shelf for the next time I feel nerdy. Stay tuned for Part 2…
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS:
When you’re wandering around aimlessly, trying to blow through a roll of film as quickly as possible, you tend to look for “themes” to pull you along. In this case, I chose stairways. Three of these images make up the “Cruel Stairways” triptych, while several others populate the roll but remain unpublished. All were shot with a Hasselblad Xpan, a 90mm lens, a roll of Kentmere 100 and the mixture of Caffenol-C-M outlined in the article. I was also inexplicably aware of the presence of sleeping men — each napping with his beverage of choice, be it coffee or something with a bit more kick. The “Downtown Park” sleeper was shot with a 45mm lens, while the “Downtown Plaza” fellow was photographed with a 90mm lens. Business establishments also served as handy test subjects — their immutable nature conducive to careful exposure, and thus controlled fodder for analyzing developing techniques. Both “Vancouver Art Gallery” and “Slightly Uninviting” were photographed with a 90mm lens on that same Hasselblad Xpan with that same Kentmere 100 film… And you thought all these photos were just boring and random, didn’t you?
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