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Developing Analogue Film with Instant Coffee

Listening to German photographer Chris Marquardt’s Tips from the Top Floor podcast the discussion turned to an alternative green film developer from the standard dark room chemical developer generally used in the film developing process. The green developer under discussion 28 minutes into episode #495 was instant coffee – Caffenol.

I love black and white photography and have been wanting to explore film for a while. The idea of a green development process makes me wonder whether a part of our house will finally become a dark room (touch wood and kiss a fairy on the not-so-hairy bum).

Monica Andrae, Chris’ partner, had the idea of developing with a more environmentally friendly process for their recent Mount Everest trek. She would shoot with a 50-70 year old box camera using 120 medium format roll film that produces 6 x 9cm negatives. This camera has an uncoated superminiscus lens that creates a cloudy dreamy look. Monica’s dilemma was what film and developer to use given that (a) sherpas would probably ditch the old developer behind a rock on Everest; and, (b) the xrays at airports can make more sensitive exposed films develop with less contrast and fogginess, especially if it’s higher ISO film.

In short, she wanted to shoot and develop analogue film at 16000 feet with a lower environmental footprint.

After investigating the alternatives, she discovered that film can be effectively developed using either instant coffee or red wine. There are similar molecules within the industrial chemical film developers as in caffeine and the acid in coffee.

The basic ingredients for Caffenol are instant coffee, washing soda and vitamin C. The cheaper and stronger robusta bean works far better than arabica beans. Monica emphasises the importance that the coffee must not be decaffenaited and that washing soda is water free (as opposed to baking soda).

Also, the Caffenol recipe would work without the vitamin c component but the result would be a lower contrast and slower development time.

The basic recipe for Caffenol is to completely dissolve 50 grams of washing soda in 1 litre of water and only then add in 10 grams of vitamin C waiting until the bubbles disappear. At that stage you can dissolve 40 grams of cheap instant robusta bean coffee. And voila you have a green developer solution.

Monica says “It’s at least as good as industrial developer. Some of the films get even better with Caffenol… shadow detail [improves] especially because the coffee has the potential to develop even the not exposed silver parts of the film… also the grains develop which have only [been] touched by very very minimum amounts of light so you get very good shadow detail.”

She went on to explain that if you develop 400+ ISO films you would also put 1gm (for 1 litre) of potassium bromite in there. In former times potassium bromite was used as medicine to combat seizures so Chris pointed out that it shouldn’t make you ill through exposure.

The idea to develop film from coffee came from Dr Scott Williams – as discussed in his paper A Use for that Last Cup of Coffee: Film and Paper Development. He challenged a photography class to discover alternatives for the industrial developer solution they were using. The group discovered that a number of alternatives work to varying degrees but coffee works very well and they formulated the basic Caffenol recipe.

If you’re interested in working with that Caffenol developer recipe there is an online Caffenol community documenting their experiments with different films and recipe variants. While coffee isn’t an entirely footprint free product it’s at least a magnitude of degrees less hostile and unhealthy as the industrial alternative. This is something I’d be comfortable using and storing in our home.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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