I had never really pursued caffenol seriously because some of the first examples photos I had seen were less than impressive. Frankly, the “unpredictable flaws in film are cool” aesthetic has never particularly appealed to me. My impression of caffenol had been tainted, and I never looked into it again. That is until now.
Last week when I developed a roll of film I had shot, I found that my developer had gone off. Not sure why. It had not been sitting for a long time but my roll came out underdeveloped and unusable. Thinking maybe I had underexposed by accident or the light meter in my Leica M6J was wonky, I shot a test roll. I buy 35mm film in bulk 30m reels, and wind them in magazines myself, so it is no big deal to load a magazine with six or twelve frames for a test. Turns out it was the developer and not me or my camera. Frustrated at having to dispose of four litres of developer, I began to wonder if I couldn’t just make my own developer at home. I knew about caffenol and decided to check it out again. And I really wished I had done so earlier!
I discovered photographers have been using caffenol and other homemade recipes to produce fine art. Yes, that’s right. Fine art! The results they are getting are astounding. If you would like to see some outstanding work, download The Caffenol Cookbook. The photographs in the book really got my attention, and I decided I had to try caffenol for myself. A PDF link to The Caffenol Cookbook is here. The book includes not only the photographs, but also the developer recipes.
For those who are not familiar, caffenol is a developer made from three primary household ingredients–instant coffee, washing soda, and vitamin C powder. Now I am no chemist, so I will leave the chemistry explanation to others, but the key chemicals are as follows.
Instant coffee contains polyphenols which are found in a lot of foods and spices. Coffee is only one, but chocolate, red wine, some kinds of berries, rosemary, thyme, mint leaves, and curry powder all contain polyphenols. You can use any of these and more to make developer. Daniel Keating has a good 35mmc article on alternatives at the link here.
Washing soda’s chemical is sodium carbonate, not to be confused with sodium bicarbonate, which is baking soda. Washing soda is no longer commonly used, but you can still buy it. If you can’t find any, a link to a good video on how to convert baking powder to sodium carbonate by heating it on a stove is at the link here.
Vitamin C powder is ascorbic acid. I have read that you can also crush vitamin C tablets instead of buying the powder form, but in any case vitamin C powder is not hard to find.
None of the ingredients listed are that hard to come by. I purchased washing soda and vitamin C powder on Amazon Japan. Instant coffee, you can get anywhere.
After some experimentation, the caffenol recipe I have settled on is below.
To make one litre of developer mix…
40 grams instant coffee. I use Nescafe, but have also used Illy. Brand does not seem to matter, so why not go for the least expensive?
40 grams of washing soda
16 grams of vitamin C powder
Water. I’ve been using tap water in Japan, but some people use distilled water.
Most recipes recommend room temperature of 20C for the solution, but it’s summer as I write this and room temperature has been 24C~26C. The higher temp has not seemed to be a problem.
I develop for fifteen minutes, agitating first for thirty seconds and then inverting once every thirty seconds. My film is Kodak T-Max 100, and I have been shooting at ISO 650. Push processing with caffenol works.
The results seem to be more contrasty than I typically get with other developers and T-Max 100 film, but that does not bother me. I like the look. To me the contrast appears akin to say Neopan Acros 100 or Tri-X 400, but judge for yourself.
I took all the photos in this piece in the Tsukiji Outer Market, Higashi Ginza, Ginza, and Yurakucho areas of Tokyo using with Kodak T-Max 100, shot at ISO 650, and developed with caffenol. I shot with a Leica M3 and a 35mm f/2 first gen Summicron, and a Minolta CLE and a 40mm f/2 Leica Summicron-C. I have written about the Leica M3 for 35mmc and the link is here, and about the Minolta CLE for 35mmc here should you want to know more about the gear.
I am a street photographer who lives in Japan. If you would like to see more of my work, have a look at my website bleisteinphoto.com, or my Instagram @sbleistein.
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19 thoughts on “Caffenol for Breakfast – My First Experiments with Homemade Developer – By Steven Bleistein”
Fascinating. Will try it when I get back to shooting black and white film.
Good excuse to take up monochrome film again!
The caffenol look suits your style, Steve! Impactful work, as always. I continue to marvel at how close you get to most of your subjects. In this, the first week of the Olympics in Tokyo, I hope you and your family are well and safe.
Thanks, Floyd! All safe and well in Japan. Just watched the women’s road cycling today. Dramatic finish!
I would say you got excellent results! I went through a several month caffenol phase myself last year. It is fascinating. My problem with it was my inability to achieve consistency. Sometimes it works, other times the negatives were a mess–the biggest problems were grain and contrast. I think for certain subjects, such as street photography, it’s good. For other things, such as landscapes and “quieter” images, I think it tends to play up grain and contrast a bit too much for my taste. I love the idea of using an environmentally friendly developer, but for my work, I had to go back to the commercial stuff.
Take a look at the Caffenol Cookbook PDF. There are a few photographers doing outstanding landscape work. Check their recipes.
Cafenol is brilliant. I used to always use the stand dev recipe and it gave the smoothest grain. I ran out of potassium bromide and moved away from it…fantastic post!
Actually, you don’t need potassium bromide for lower speed films, say up to about ISO 400, from what I have read. You might give it a try!
Fantastic! I really like the look of these B&Ws. I’d given ip on film due to the cost of development (had a stroke and forced to share my home with family who hate/fear developing chemicals) but heard of this method and your experimentation has me daring to try this out! Thanks!
When I first tried this, my wife asked me why she is smelling coffee!
I still use Ilford Rapid Fixer. You can make your own fixer using sodium thiosulfate, which is used for among other things cleaning swimming pools. You can buy it in powder form. It requires some careful handling. I have not tried making my own because I thought handling and storing the sodium thiosulfate is more trouble than it is worth. There is a good video on how to make fixer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRiZDbbcoDo. I have also read that you can use table salt as a fixer, but that fixing takes days. Not sure that is worth it, and I wonder whether 35mm film would deteriorate sitting in liquid for so long.
Wonderful article, inspired me to finally try it out. I love that there’s no tricky chemicals to handle or store, and the look you achieved is amazing. I also have googles on my M3 so no excuses
Excellent! Get out there and shoot! And share your photos if you care to!
I almost exclusively shoot B&W and semi-stand develop with Caffenol CL at 20C (this has a little potassium bromide added). My go to films are HP5+, Kentmere 400 plus Foma 200 and 400 for slower shooting. They all come out well with Caffenol development. I’m also experimenting with using sodium thiosulphate 10% as a one shot fixer (10 minutes with periodic agitation) and that works well too. The cheaper the instant coffee the better it seems to work – just go for a budget brand rich roast. I tend to semi-stand now to avoid bromide drag, so a couple of agitations/inversions at the start and one half way through – 60 mins plus 10 mins per stop if pushed. All very relaxed and reasonably green – the used fixer gets dumped in a bottle full of steel wool to capture the silver before being disposed of.
Really good info here. Thanks for sharing!
If you make 1 liter of Caffenol developer, according to your recipe, how long is it good for or how many rolls can you develop with it before disposal and re-mixing a fresh batch? I would store in the fridge, in amber bottles, and warm up to room temp with water bath prior to use.
Not sure. I have not tried reusing the developer. Would you like to try reusing and report the results?
I’ve only tried reusing my developer once (Caffenol-C-M), and it didn’t turn out all that well. Not sure if this is because I didn’t compensate the development times properly or what but I’d probably just mix a new batch if you want to do more than however many rolls your tank can accommodate at once.
Super results, very impressed!