Caffenol: Eco-friendly film developing

Film developing is where the magic happens in analog photography. After shooting images, the only feedback to how well you metered and focused the camera comes out when you pull the negatives out of the developer. There is no preview screen on the back of a film camera 🙂

I’ve used a lot of cameras, a lot of film, and many different film developers over the last 30 years or so. Honestly I didn’t think much about the chemistry, as much as I thought about the end process.

What made me think more about the chemistry is the direction I am taking personally in my life outside of photography. I have always been eco-conscious. Over the last five years or so I have taken even more strides to make my life less impactful and kinder to the environment.

One way to be more environmentally friendly, is by choosing a film developer that has far less impact than traditional film developers. Fortunately there such a developer out there: Caffenol.

You may be asking, what the heck is Caffenol?

Caffenol is made of three common household ingredients. When they are mixed together they form a chemical compound that can develop film!

This concoction was invented by a group of students in a Technical Photography Chemistry class at RIT in the 1990’s. Their experiments with using caffeine as a developer led to a multitude of developer recipes built on their experimentation.

The two main ingredients in Caffenol are instant coffee crystals and washing soda (sodium carbonate). Another common third ingredient is vitamin C powder. I use this mixture for developing film in the recipe that follows: (reduce or increase depending on the volume of your tank)

1000 ml of water

54 g washing soda

16 g vitamin C

40 g instant coffee

This mixture when combined does not have a long shelf life. Therefore the ingredients need to be mixed and used immediately.

I use a triple beam scale to measure out each of the powdered ingredients and add them one at a time. Water needs to be at 68 degrees F /20 degrees C. After letting the mix settle for a quick few minutes, it is poured into the developing tank. After a stop bath and a traditional fixer step, the film is washed and hung to dry.

Results? Beautifully developed film negatives. There is a bit of a learning curve to get the negative densities correct. My advice if you are going to process in Caffenol, use a few test rolls to find the correct developing time for your emulsion. Bonus: reduce your environmental footprint while you are at it 🙂

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