How to Develop Black and White Film Using Instant Coffee

This tutorial was written for and published on the 500px ISO blog and is reproduced with permission.

“Finally!” my friend, a former chef and barista, exclaimed, “a use for instant coffee!” While I am not about to argue over the virtues of instant coffee vs. freshly-ground beans, I will say that the instant stuff does a surprisingly good job of developing black and white film. 

Whether you’re a film beginner or a devotee, using instant coffee to develop (with a recipe known as caffenol) is easy, cheap, and still amazes me with just how well it works each time. Like so many things when it comes to photography, there are a million different variables, from film stock to brands of instant coffee. The following process is simply my favorite, and works best using medium format (120) Fujifilm Neopan Acros 100 film.

What you will need

There are a few bits and pieces you will need to gather together before you can develop your film, but these are readily available and can be pretty cheap if you look in the right places. You may even have most of the equipment already.

  • A dark bag to load your film (I’ve even used the linen cupboard on occasion!)
  • A developing tank with a reel
  • Scissors
  • Three jugs
  • A thermometer
  • Washing up liquid
  • A coat hanger
  • Film clips (or clothes pegs will do)

The recipe

In each of your three jugs, prepare the following solutions, bringing their temperature to 20°C. Black and white film is pretty forgiving, so you really only need to be in that ballpark.

Jug 1: Caffenol

  • 24 ounces of water
  • 10 teaspoons of instant coffee (I used Nescafe Blend 43)
  • 7 teaspoons of washing soda (try your grocery store’s laundry aisle)
  • 1 teaspoon of vitamin C powder

Mix until all ingredients are dissolved.

Jug 2: Stop

  • Stop solution made up to 24 ounces

Note: You can use one part white vinegar to four parts water if you don’t have Stop solution, but in the long run, actual Stop is cheaper. 

Jug 3: Fixer

  • Fixer solution made up to 24 ounces

Step1: Prepare

This is the tricky bit, and why I’ve been known to use a space like a linen closet, where you have a little more room and the film doesn’t collect condensation if it takes extra time to load it onto the reel. But if you do, you need to get your film wound onto the reel and into the light-proof tank in complete darkness. Once it’s in the tank, you can work in the light and see what you are doing! Depending on the film you use and the recipe, you’ll need to check out something like the Massive Dev Chart via Digital Truth to research your timings.

Step 2: Develop

Set your timer for 15 minutes, then pour your coffee mix into the film tank and, sealing it, continually rotate the tank for one minute to agitate the solution. Do the same thing for 10 seconds after every minute following. I usually give the tank a little tap on a table to dislodge any bubbles. In the case of my Fujifilm, this process takes about 15 minutes, but may vary for different film.

Step 3: Stop

As you approach the 15-minute mark, pour out the coffee solution and pour in your Stop. Agitate the tank again for one minute, then pour out the Stop. Both the caffenol and the Stop can be re-used, though I prefer using fresh batches of caffenol.

Step 4: Fix and rinse

Pour in your Fixer and agitate, timing it according to the chemical’s instructions. In the case of Ilford Rapid Fixer, I fix for five minutes. 

At this point, I should note, normal chemicals, such as Fixer or Developer, need to be disposed of correctly. The beauty of caffenol and vinegar is they can both be poured down the drain. Fixer can be re-used a number of times, so pour it into an appropriate and well-labelled bottle for future use. 

I will then pour water into the tank, usually straight from the tap (again, as close to 20°C as possible), and agitate by turning it over 10 times. Pouring out the water, I use a drop of washing-up liquid in the tank and again fill it with water. Agitate five times, pour and re-fill, agitate 10 times, pour and re-fill, agitate 20 times, pour and done.

Step 5: The moment of truth

This is the exciting bit. Open up the tank, unclip the reel, and pull out the film. Hopefully, what you have is a wet strip of film filled with 12 beautiful negative images. Using two fingers, run down the length of the film to remove excess water, clip it to a coat hanger, and leave it to dry somewhere as dust-free as possible, like in your shower. Now you just need to decide whether you want to scan your negatives or print them in the darkroom!

In The Dark (Room)

Since really getting into photography, and particularly the film side of things, there’s always been that sense that something’s missing. I’ve now collected a lovely group of old film cameras, I’ve shot 35mm and medium format film and developed them at home. But, I’ve then scanned the negatives into a computer and shared my images online. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s that final step that I have always wanted to take, to close the circle, as it were, and complete an analogue process from start to finish.

Recently I was able to do that. At home, in my garage (and much to my wife’s chagrin), I developed my first images last week, working in utter darkness until switching on the light as the paper sat in a water tray and an image stared back at me.

Now, I’m not going to pretend it was any good. Indeed, the lens isn’t the right lens for what I need to do (most of my work is 6x6 medium format, the lens is suited to 35mm). But simply seeing that glossy face, shimmering beneath the water’s surface, was enough to really make me feel quite emotional.

The beauty of this game is there is so much to learn, and there will always be so much to learn. But it’s these little victories, the small successes that make you determined to carry on and improve and make the next print better than the last.

To the point that I am finally close to where I have always wanted to be - close to being able to supply my own prints for sale. Clearly, I’m not there yet. But, stay tuned. Hopefully that is the next stage, whether offering existing, numbered prints, or photographing, developing and printing something special, something handmade and, dare I say, crafted.

To that end, please stay tuned…

Hashtag: Winning

I have a confession to make; I think I’m addicted to competitions. And not for noble reasons. I like the kudos of doing well, I love the momentary gratification of a win when they come by (especially if it’s unexpected), and, sometimes, the prizes are pretty darn cool.

Take, for example, the latest GuruShots Man’s Best Friend challenge, where the above image was the Top Photo winner. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that it came out on top. Yes, it’s one of my all-time favourite images of my sister in law’s great dane puppies, but, I’ve got to say, it’s a bit of a nerve-wracking slog to make sure your image stays at the top of the pile. And with 18 days of competition, it’s a long time to be nervous! The prize, though, is a Diana F+ film camera, a retro, lomo, piece of plastic cool - and I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

But this isn’t (just) a brag about winning a GuruShots challenge - because I genuinely think there is more to entering competitions that the superficiality of winning or losing. Competitions, I think, can be a gateway to getting your name out there, wherever ‘there’ is. Okay, so I don’t actually think I’ve got work from winning a competition. And I’m not sure if I’ve made any sales on the back of them. But I am a believer in you having to make a noise if you want to be heard.

To that end I’ve been compiling a spreadsheet of competitions that run throughout the year, so if you have any that I should include feel free to drop me a line! But it’s also worth keeping an eye open: I’ve always been an advocate of 500px, who recently launched Quests offering some amazing prizes (the latest is US$1000, which would be handy!), while Camera House has a weekly, themed Photo Friday competition on its Facebook page with some great prizes. 

Of course, part and parcel of winning competitions is failure, because you’re going to lose far more than you’re ever going to win. I don’t care who you are, it’s just the subjective nature of the beast of being judged. And sometimes it can be crushing. If nothing else, if you don’t even have a few more photographs or don’t learn a new technique or understand your craft a little better, at least you should learn to deal with failure. I have to admit, I’m still a long way off - every failure still hurts.

But, essentially, and here’s your heartwarming conclusion, photography is all a matter of competition, even if only against yourself. Judge each image, critique yourself, and try and learn always how to improve. But above all, remember that the biggest prize is simply enjoying the art of photography. And, that way, you will always be a winner to me.

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