May 21, 2023
The complete Caffenol process.
For more than 100 years film dominated the world of photography and was the most common way for people to capture memories with ease. In the last 20 years however, capturing memories on film has fallen out of fashion due to the rapid advancements made in the world of digital photography. Just as DVD killed VHS and Compact Discs killed Compact Cassettes, digital photography killed film. Or did it? With VHS and Cassettes, the technology that replaced them were objectively superior. DVD’s and CD’s have higher quality video and audio respectively and since they are digital formats they do not degrade like the tape based cassettes and VHS. This clear advantage seen with DVD’s and CD’s cannot be said for Digital photography however. With the advent of Digital video, the resolution at which consumers captured photos and video decreased greatly.
For reference, 16mm is equivalent to about 1.5K, 4-perf 35mm to 6K, 65mm to 12K, and 15 perf 70mm IMAX clocking in at a whopping 18K of resolution making it more than double the resolution of current 8k digital technology. This means that 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has a higher resolution than any film released by Marvel (assuming you are watching it in a theatre with a 70mm film projector).
While the first two thirds of the 2010’s were a sad time for film, in the past five years film has made a comeback in a surprising way. For whatever reason, the youth have fallen in love with capturing memories on film. The film renaissance is upon us! Rejoice! Rejoice! But wait, there’s one big problem: Cost.
Yes, film is back, but at a cost. Fifty years ago film was the only option so the cost of film, development, and prints were lower than today. In the past two years, the cost of a roll of 36 exposure 35mm still film has gone up from around $5 a roll in 2019 to $15 at the time of writing this. The price of film coupled with the cost of development and then getting either prints or scans has, for me at least, put the cost of shooting a single roll of film around $40-50.
Due to this insane price tag, some people have taken to developing film at home, but how does one accomplish such a task? Easy: Instant coffee, vitamin C, and washing soda. I don’t know why it works, but it does. This DIY developer, which has been dubbed “Caffenol,” was created in 1995 by students at the Rochester Institute of Technology who were challenged to create a film developer using only household items. While the addition of Vitamin-C came later and allowed for greater image quality, the basic concept was born. So now that we know what we need, let us begin.
What you’ll need:
Instant Coffee (NO DECAF)
Washing Soda (NOT Baking soda*)
Vitamin-C powder (if you can’t find powder you can crush up pills)
Fixer (I recommend Ilford Rapid Fixer)
*If you cannot find washing soda you can put baking soda on a sheet pan in an even layer and stick it in a 200f oven for 30-60 minutes to convert it from sodium bicarbonate into sodium carbonate.
How Much You’ll need:
1L Water (use distilled water for best results)
12 Leveled teaspoons of Washing Soda (32 if using crystals)
3 teaspoons Vitamin C
18 teaspoons instant coffee
I like to mix my developer and fixer in empty CLEANED gallon milk jugs as it makes pouring easier.
First add the washing soda as it is easier to see if the soda is completely dispersed if you do this before adding the coffee.
After the washing soda is dissolved, add in the instant coffee and vitamin C and mix until everything is dispersed.
After mixing everything together, let the mixture rest for about five minutes to allow any air bubbles to rise to the surface. This step is important as if you don’t let it rest, microbubbles can cause uneven development of the film.
For the fixer just follow the instructions on the bottle. For Ilford Rapid Fixer it’s a 1:4 ratio. I usually do 250ml fixer in 1L of water when developing photo film as one reel is only about 5ft long. Use distilled water for best results.
Developing (Method 1: Makeshift Darkroom)
To create your own dark room you’ll need a room with no windows and some electrical tape or any other kind of tape that will block out light and not remove paint or leave a sticky residue behind.
Start by gathering everything you’ll need to develop your film. I’ve made a list of everything I bring in with me:
- Water (just use tap if in a bathroom)
- Something to pry open the film canister with (I usually use a spoon)
- Developing vats (I’ve used steel mixing bowls, plastic storage containers and plastic jugs meant for iced tea with large openings at the top)
- Something to use as a timer (make sure it doesn’t have anything on it that emits any light)
- Rubber gloves
Whenever I develop film using the makeshift darkroom method, I usually phone a friend and have them start and stop timers for me. If you choose to keep time this way, make sure you phone your friend before removing the film from the can and once you’re on call with them, cover the phone’s screen with electrical tape and place it face down somewhere or in a drawer where you’ll still be able to hear the person on the call. Under no circumstance shall you look at your phone or let the screen light leak into the room as this would be detrimental and potentially ruin your film once it is out of the canister.
Once you have gathered your materials and have figured out how you’ll set timers, make your way into the darkroom to be and get comfy as this will be your home for the next 30-40 minutes.
Start by sealing the door shut by taping off the entire door frame. While you’re taping up the door frame, check that no light is getting through by turning off the lights and checking the whole frame. I would recommend checking the seal in this way at least twice before starting.
After the door is sealed up, check the room for any other light sources. If you are using a bathroom, check your plugs as all bathrooms have at least one GFCI-protected outlet and some of these outlets have an LED indicator. If yours does have the LED make sure you cover the entire outlet as light can seep through the socket holes and the edges of the outlet.
Before turning out the lights, pour your developer into the vessel you’ll be developing in and put the jug with your fixer in a spot you can easily access. Once all this is done, put on your rubber gloves and turn out the lights as it’s time to begin.
Start by using your prying object of choice to open the film canister. I find the easier way is to use something like a spoon or a knife and wedging it into the slit that the film comes out of and twisting the prying object to bend the canister open.
Take your film out of the container and submerge it in the developer. Make sure that the film is spread out as this will ensure that everything makes contact with the developer.
Start a timer for 11 minutes. For the first minute, agitate slowly continuously. After the first minute, agitate three times per minute until the timer is finished.
After the 11 minutes is finished, rinse the film in clean water for one minute to stop the development process. If you are using a bathroom just run it under the tap for a minute. If not, make sure you have a separate container filled with water to rinse the film in. Get the water as close to room temp as you can.
After rinsing, dump out the water (or if you’re not in a bathroom use a different container) and pour your fixer into the empty container.
Place your film in the fixer and set a timer for seven minutes. Gently agitate the film three times per minute until the seven minutes is up.
After seven minutes is up, wash your film in clean water, agitating three times before replacing the water and agitating six more times before once again replacing the water and agitating 12 more times after that.
Turn on the lights and see your results!
Developing (method 2: Paterson Tank)
The second developing method follows the same times and steps as the first method but is done in a developing tank. The benefit to using a tank is that the only part that has to be done in complete darkness is loading the film which can be done in either a darkroom or a change bag. The other benefit to using a tank is that you get cleaner results without scratches. You can get a paterson tank for around $50 locally from places such as Kerrisdale Cameras and Beau Photo Supplies. If you decide to pick up a tank, you can find some really great videos on youtube on how to load your film onto the reels. I recommend the channel Analog Resurgence as it’s a great source of information on all things film.
Other than loading the film, everything else works the same. You just pour the chemicals into the top of the tank and follow the same steps, but with the benefit of not having to sit in a darkroom alone for half an hour.
The end result of developing in Caffenol is a black and white negative image. While it is intended to be used on black and white film, it can be used on color film but will still give a black and white image. However, if you do develop color film with Caffenol, you’ll have to do a bit of tweaking digitally as most color negative film has an orange base which causes color film developed as black and white negatives to have a cyan tint when made into a positive.
Developing Motion Picture Film
The Caffenol process can also be used to develop motion picture film be it 8mm, Super 8, 16mm, 35mm or 65mm. When developing motion picture film, know that most color negative motion picture film has an additional layer known as Remjet which requires an extra step to remove. To remove Remjet, wash your film for about five minutes in a bath of baking soda and water. I don’t have an exact measurement that I use, I just make it strong. If you use a tank, just keep rinsing with the baking soda solution until the liquid comes out almost clear. After washing off the Remjet, rinse with water quickly before developing and fixing as usual.
Fujifilm 500 ISO motion picture film developed in caffenol using baking soda to remove Remjet
When developing a larger length of film like a 50ft roll of Super 8, your results will be scratchy even if you use a paterson tank as they are only meant for a few feet of film and in order to fit a whole roll of Super 8 in one you have to cram it in. If you have the desire (and funds) to home develop up to 100ft of film at once without scratches, online on places such as Ebay you can find old soviet Lomo tanks which can hold up to 100ft of 8mm, 16mm, or 65mm depending on the model you get. Lomo tanks tend to cost around $200-400 so you may be better off talking to Cineworks downtown about getting long lengths of film developed if you want scratchless images.
That’s all from me folks. Now you know the complete Caffenol process and can join in the elation of the film Renaissance with the best of us. Good luck on all your endeavours and we encourage anyone developing at home to send their scans in to firstname.lastname@example.org so we can appreciate and share your efforts as well!