Coffee and Photography = Caffenol

Two of my greatest loves are coffee and photography. Along with roller derby, of course. Some years ago, I was delighted to learn how to combine the two: Caffenol is less toxic than traditional development chemicals, containing just caffeic acid, ascorbic acid and sodium carbonate – or in layperson’s terms: instant coffee, vitamin C, and laundry soda. It’s also much cheaper than branded chemicals, largely being stuff you can get from your supermarket, and (if you’re anything like me) far more fun. So, playing with Caffenol has been on my to-do list for a fair while.

Unfortunately, I’ve not had much time to shoot anything but roller derby in the last few years, and I’ve been too afraid to shoot film for derby, as it’s all too often played in dimly-lit sports halls… and whilst the mindful approach required to shoot with film is what I love about the medium, it is precisely that that has so far got in the way of me using it for derby. There’s no instant gratification, no checking that my exposure is good, and little opportunity to plan the perfect shot, either – great sports photography requires you to have your camera ready, pointing in the right direction, at the right moment. So, if you set your camera up for a great action shot in the well-lit corner of the room with an aesthetically pleasing background, you can guarantee that there’ll be no action there at all. Sod’s law.

But, last weekend, at EuroCup, I decided to give it a go. I still had some monochrome film left in my camera from visiting a friend in Devon in February, and from wandering around Heaton Park in the snow the week afterwards. (You can develop colour films in Caffenol, but it would result in a sepia tone, which isn’t the look I want for the Fuji Eterna Vivid that I had in my camera beforehand.)

I’ve been planning this for a while, and over the last few months, I’ve gradually bought in what I knew I would need: I replaced the Paterson Super System 4 that I gave to a friend in 2012, believing I’d never use it again. A few weeks ago, I added some cheap instant coffee and laundry soda to my grocery order. Finally, as most over-the-counter vitamin C is bulked out with a similar compound to the sodium carbonate, I went with eBay for the ascorbic acid (finding also that searching for the chemical name resulted in much cheaper results). At the same time, picked up a bottle of Adofix to finish the job after the Caffenol had done its magic.

I finished the roll of film on Sunday, and ordered the last thing I needed – negative sleeves to safely store the finished product, which arrived late on Monday evening. With two 12hr shifts on Tuesday and Wednesday, I opted for an early night, and set the project aside until yesterday.

The Caffenol Process

Huddled up under my duvet with the lights off and blackout curtains pulled to, I fought open the cassette, resolved to acquire a tool for the job before destroying my fingernails again, and fed the film into the reel. Click-click-click-click… and suddenly, I was transported to the darkrooms at uni a decade ago. (If only there’d been a bed in there, too. Although I’d probably have never left, so maybe it’s for the best that there wasn’t.)

With a flick of my wrist, my Fitbit lit up, brightly and not remotely the red colour of a safelight. I buried my wrist under the pillow, unbuckled the strap, and flung it out onto the floor, hoping it wouldn’t have destroyed the film.

Click-click-click-click-click.

I pulled the film from the end of the cassette, trimmed the end, and sealed it into the tank.

Downstairs, I made up the solution – mixing the soda crystals and the coffee with their measures of water separately to ensure everything was fully dissolved, allowing it to sit so that the bubbles all popped, and then I went back upstairs to get my thermometer from my old Billington.

It wasn’t there. I must have given it away with the rest of my equipment all those years ago.

It turns out that it’s really hard to find an analogue thermometer in any of the brick-and-mortar shops that are open at 20:30.

I found a meat thermometer (good temperature range, but no indication of whether it would accurately measure liquids, and also £12) and several cheaper digital thermometers, that could be used orally (and therefore presumably to measure liquid – but only between 32ºc-44ºc).

I decided to wing it, and went home empty-handed. The liquid had cooled to about room temperature, and since I keep the house at 17ºC, I calculated a new time with the Digital Truth converter, and went ahead.

Halfway through, I realised that I was meant to constantly agitate the tank, not approximately once every 6 seconds (and definitely not with large gaps to multitask making my dinner). I sped up my agitations, and after a while, the timer went off to indicate it was time to flush the tank.

I emptied the Caffenol down the drain, and placed it under a running cold tap, in lieu of a stopbath. Another few minutes passed, whilst I finished eating and made up the Adofix dilution, then I emptied the tank out again, poured in the fixer, and waited, Googling whether or not to agitate as I did so – discovering again, too late, that it was meant to be several minutes of constant agitation. I gave it an extra minute, to be safe, and then poured out the Adofix (having accidentally made double the quantity, and not wanting to contaminate the unused portion.)

I took a deep breath, and opened up the tank. The film was thick, black. At first, I thought my watch had ruined the negatives, exposed it in that brief moment for too long to the wrong kind of light. But then, holding it up to the fluorescent light in the kitchen, I saw some stripes of a ref jersey, and breathed a sigh of relief.

An underdeveloped film processed with Caffenol

The images were there – grossly underdeveloped, but present – although it seems I did lose the photos of my friend’s farm and beautiful dogs to the light given off by my watch.

Lessons Learned

I don’t know what temperature the mix was at, but given that I followed the timings perfectly for development, it must have been colder than 17ºc; I’ll need to acquire a thermometer alongside the cassette opener before doing it again.

And I’ll make sure I take my watch off when turning my bed into a darkroom next time, too.

What next?

Caffenol was a fun experiment, and much easier than I anticipated – this isn’t the end of my kitchen science stories for sure! And in the meantime, I’ve kept the ruined portion of the film in my art box, should I want to use it in a mixed media piece in future, and the best negatives are in my file, for when I acquire the means to scan them in – I’m still undecided between a flatbed, or a more gadgety smartphone scanner – now remarkably much cheaper than “proper” scanners, on eBay at least…

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