My First use of Caffenol

By Roger

There is lots of advice on this on the web but here is some more, in case it is helpful to anyone.

I recently started to use film again and, as it was inexpensive, invested in a pack of Agfaphoto APX100 (the new one) and, after sending a few films to a professional lab, I bought a bottle of Rodinal and some Agfa fixer and started developing my own again (I still have a developing tank I used in the pre-digital age). That was great and made using B&W film much more affordable–not that much more than the cost of the film. Several posts here illustrate the results I was getting. However, as my bottle of used developer accumulated, because I am not sure of the best way to dispose of it, and as I read more and more about Caffenol, I decided I should give it a try. I was also wondering whether it might give me any finer grain. Grain is fine, and even a merit, in some shots, but there are situations where fine detail is the priority. Maybe Caffenol would help.

I also acquired some rolls of expired FP4 from a friend, and decided to try one of those to test whether I could get Caffenol to work. Yes, I know that to test the developer I should use the same film, so I know what is causing any differences, but I was sufficiently unsure about it working first time, that I did not want to waste a fresh film on it. So I loaded a roll of expired FP4 into my OM4Ti (my go to for normal 35mm, because its exposure meter seems to work well and I have a choice of lenses for it), and on a visit to the supermarket went to the town centre to take a few random shots, purely to test the developer. I took several shots twice, once at box speed and once overexposed by a stop. In the changing bag I cut off the first dozen or so exposures and loaded them into the tank. Then the fun.

The recipe I used was “Delta STD” on caffenol.org, with quantities halved for simplicity (next time I will work out the quanties for 300 ml which is enough to cover the film):

  • 9 level teaspoons of instant coffee (Waitrose Essentials, at £1.20 a jar)
  • 16 level teaspoons of Soda Crystals (again Waitrose, 1.5 kg for around £2.75)
  • 1.5 teaspoons of Vitamin C, purchased on eBay for £5.99 (it is much more expensive at a local health food store )
  • Water to make up 500ml.

Total cost approximately £10. I haven’t worked out how many films it will do or the cost per film, but it looks to be a large number, meaning it will not be very expensive.

Someone posting on Flikr recommended (for FP4) 12.5 minutes at 20 degrees C, with 60 second agitation for the first minute and 3 inversions per minute after that. Given the age of the film must be a decade past its expiry date, I decided to increase that to 15 minutes. Of course, to test the developer I should have used fresh film, but I haven’t seen recommended times for APX100, the only fresh film I have at the moment.

The only glitch was that when I looked at the film after pouring out the fixer, I realised that my fixer was exhausted, so the film was quickly back into the tank (I took a look before removing it from the spiral), and with some fresh fixer (with no time to calculate the correct amount, I just put two tablespoons of powder into 300ml of water and poured it in quickly). The film soon cleared.

What of the results? The first thing–it works, and is not a myth, not that I seriously thought it was! The negatives are  thinner than I am used to, but usable. That could be the developer or the expired film. Where I bracketed the exposures (if taking two shots counts as bracketing) the ones with more exposure seemed a bit better, though the differences were very little. Enough for me to over-expose the 10-year old FP4 by a stop, or even two, next time I use it.

First, a few pictures.

These show that it worked. These were scanned on an Epson V700 at 3200 dpi, making the types of adjustment I would normally make – start with auto levels and then tweak the tone curve quickly so that there is a bit of detail in the shadows and the sky. Yes, I know that means images will not show under/over exposure. I then tweaked the tones a bit in Photolab and in some cases used the repair/clone tool to get rid of a few dust spots.

My first reaction was that there is more dust than I expected on some of the negatives. At web resolution it is hard to see, but this one was the worst and there are white specks all over. (The previous one of the same view was a different negative, exposed 1 stop more or less, and happened to have fewer spots, though I did clone out one or two.)

Seeing the number of spots made me wonder whether it was dust. Could it be the result of the bubbles in the Caffenol or soda crystals that had not dissolved? But maybe dust is more likely given that the spots are pure white.

The second issue is that the images seemed softer than I expected, even though the grain seemed very good. To show the grain here is a 100% crop from the second photo above.

For comparison, the next shot was taken (on the Severn Valley Railway), using APX100 developed in Rodinal 1:50. A 100% crop follows it. The distortion is because it was taken with a fisheye lens.

The grain is much more pronounced but the image seems sharper. Some of this may be due to processing (use of the microcontrast slider), but even without that, I think there is a difference. The problem, of course, is that the difference could be due to the developer or to my using FP4 instead of APX100. Someone suggested that the softness might be due to the scanner, so I then decided to try other methods.

I scanned at 6400 dpi on the Epson, and then took a photo using a Sony A7R3 (using an ancient Olympus slide/negative copier with OM Zuiko 80mm macro lens). Crops are shown ( put the original crop in the middle).

V700 @ 6400 dpi (100% crop) (above)
V700 @ 3200 dpi (100% crop) (above)
A7R3 (100% crop)

My reading of this is that, unlike with the APX100/Rodinal combination, there is a bit more detail in the higher resolution scans, because of the less pronounced grain, and that the Sony copy is possibly marginally better than the 6400 dpi scan, though there is not much in it (I think the ee in All Day Coffee is clearer).

So what do I conclude from all this? The results are better than I expected, and they persuade me it’s worth doing a bit more experimenting. In particular, I need to try Caffenol with fresh film, to tell whether to blame the expired film or the developer for effects I don’t like such as the softness; or I should put the rest of the roll of FP4 into some Rodinal. Maybe more post-processing will sort it out, though probably not. I also need to decide what is causing all the spots, perhaps improving my drying technique to get less dust. The film was handled more than usual being got from the camera to developing tank spool, though I would expect dust at that stage would be washed off in the developer. Or are the spots due to the way I used the Caffenol (eg should I agitate if less, or give the soda longer to dissolve, or should I let it stand for a bit longer before pouring into the tank?). Until I have done a bit more experimenting I won’t use it for anything serious.

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Comments

John Fontana on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 27/06/2024

second lot agressively sharpened
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John Fontana replied:

Comment posted: 27/06/2024

Roger, I have only just read your interesting article and have certainly not posted any comments on it. The quote of ‘second lot aggressively sharpened’ has not come from me nor would I ever make such a non-constructive criticism. Beats me how my name got attached to it.

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Roger replied:

Comment posted: 27/06/2024

We have these incomprehensible IT issues. One I have is that one of my email clients lists 35mmc email notifications as coming from another blog I also subscribe to. They have the correct header in other email clients, so it’s as if the iPad software is somehow changing the sender field of emails that come in. However, I did not take offence at the comment. Honest, frank critical comments are invaluable, even if not always welcome. Having said that, it is probably that the Nik preset I used because I like the overall effects, has rather too much clarity/micro contrast built into it.

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Ralph Turner on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 27/06/2024

Great stuff, Roger! Superb results. I've been using caffenol exclusively for the last couple of years and love the stuff. I've settled on the Delta recipe, giving the film a bit longer than they recommend (around 16mins for Kentmere 400 as an example). I, too, suffered with spots, but found filtering the dev before it goes in the pot helps a lot. For me, the results I'm getting are good enough that I have no need or desire to use anything else. All the best to you for future adventures with the 'home brew'
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Gary Smith on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 27/06/2024

Articles like this could end up putting me back into developing my own film again. Thanks!
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Roger on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 27/06/2024

Thanks for the comments. I guess the aggressively sharpened ones were the result of a preset in Silver Efex I used to get the tones right. As for the spots, I have since taken to putting the soda through a coffee filter, and that cures the problem. I thought about putting everything through the filter, but filtering the soda seemed to be enough. I used a small quantity of boiling water to dissolve the coffee before adding ice cubes. I have wondered whether what is caught by the filter is soda that has not dissolved, or impurities in the crystals.

As for grain, fresh FP4+ seems a bit better, but I now have some slower film: Ilford Pan F and Ortho Plus, though I have not finished a roll of either yet.
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Ralph Turner replied:

Comment posted: 27/06/2024

Glad you've solved the problem. I don't know about you, but I find the whole caffenol process,making something from the ground up as it were that also does the job exceedingly well, rather satisfying. I've also tried the C-H recipe, which seems to yield quite dense, contrasty negs. They still scan very well, though. Thanks for sharing your experience with it.

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Gary Smith replied:

Comment posted: 27/06/2024

Roger - what do you use for a fix?

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Roger replied:

Comment posted: 27/06/2024

An Agfa fixer that happened to be available at the same place from which I bought the Rodinal. The downside of it is that it is powder, and the only instructions are that the whole packet does 5 litres or something like that. So last time I just put a couple of spoonfuls into 300ml, and I test it each time with the header from the film. Fix for double the clearing time and reuse it until the clearing time gets too long. If it clears, I regarded that as OK: if I am scanning, I am not concerned about longevity of the negatives. However, I am planning to try darkroom printing again, so I may change my mind on that.

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Geoff Chaplin on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 27/06/2024

I generally don't like making my own developers because of the combination of low darkroom temperature and getting all the chemicals to dissolve and stay dissolved. High street chemicals (washing soda, coffee) may have (possibly insoluble) impurities. Filtering before use is essential. The advantage of Rodinal (aka Adonal) but not R09 is it lasts forever. I used some from a near empty bottle maybe 15-20 years old with a solidified lump of something in the bottom and it worked perfectly. Rodinal at 100:1 dilution doesn't pose much of a health risk after disposal in a large volume of water. Personally I'm sticking to Rodinal whenever I can, but your caffenol results are good and it's a perfectly competent developer.
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Tony Warren on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 28/06/2024

I agree with Geoff being a firm believer in Rodinal but I am still mightily impressed with the results you have shown here. Rodinal really does go on forever. My first bottle, which also sold me on it, was almost twenty years old and inky black but still worked. The 6400dpi examples are interesting too. I digitise all my film nowadays by copying. When I used my now defunct Epson 2450 Perfection I often saw the sort of diffused result seen here. I think you have proved the benefit of copying over scanning well. It must be very satisfying to so successfully master such a tricky subject. Thanks for the interesting piece, Roger.
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Roger on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 28/06/2024

I am sure I will go back and forth between Rodinal and Caffenol, as I am still not convinced about which is best. My original reason for wanting to try caffenol, aside from being intrigued by it, was that I can pour it down the sink with a clear conscience. Advice about what can safely be put down the sink is mixed, with some people saying small quantities are OK - even with 1:50 dilution, it is just 6ml of Rodinal per film - but others say nothing should be put there. I once tried taking some to the local recycling centre, which has a chemical disposal facility, but it was refused on the grounds that it did not have the correct warning symbols on the bottle, and someone might drink it thinking it was milk! (It was in an old milk carton with the label removed.) So it came home and went down the sink. Since then I have improved my labelling.

As for copying, though I am very uncertain, I have wondered whether which is best depends on the negatives. A scanner seems to work with nicely exposed negatives, but there have been occasions when I thought that a camera worked better with underexposed ones. But there are so many variables, including settings on the scanner driver, and light source when using a camera, that I am far from certain about this. I use a macro lens, but have wondered whether using a modern macro lens instead of the ancient OM macro lens that I have to use with the Olympus bellows/copier attachment would be better, though that is probably wanting an excuse to try a new gadget (other reasons are that the Olympus device is very heavy and has no built in light source, though that is more of a problem with colour film).

Thanks for all the comments.
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Bob Janes on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 28/06/2024

very imformative - and impressive results!
I have the ingredients, but had lacked the confidence to actually give it a go - your results have given me confidence - many thanks!
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Juna on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 28/06/2024

Great, that you tried! As already mentioned, filtering before use helps, also to have it stand for another five minutes (for faster film the time can be used for a presoak). Also, you might like to try other recipes. You'd find some classic recipes in the Caffenol Cookbook or at Photrio, where they have postet a table of "Testing Caffenol" for ceveral kinds of film, as there is a shorter table of it at caffenol.org. Caffenol meant trying for a while until you find your favorite combination. Keep up the good work!
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Paul Quellin on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 28/06/2024

Great to read about more about Caffenol. I have only done it once so far, but I have all the stuff sat waiting for me to sum up the courage, or to stop worrying about having to use up some of the current batch of some commercial stuff. When I did use there were no feelings of guilt when I disposed of it and no need for using copious quantities of water to wash anything away.
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Roger replied:

Comment posted: 28/06/2024

I’ve still got plenty of Rodinal to use up, so I’m relying on its long shelf life.

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Bob Ashford on My First use of Caffenol

Comment posted: 18/07/2024

Great article, I too have had the ingredients sitting waiting to be used. Maybe I could try next week after a cold fishing trip in the lower South Island of New Zealand.
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