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Getting to grips with darkroom printing using Caffenol (and alternatives) – Darkroom alchemy by Kay Adams

Analog black and white film development and chicken soup. Enough internet for today?

An unusual combination, but according to an article I found online, chicken soup can be used to develop film. And the results shown were pretty decent! This find sparked my interest in alternative developers. So, I did some more research and found people trying coffee, tea, wine and even urine as a developer for film.

 

 

Getting coffee into my darkroom

Darkroom alchemy - Caffenol-C

Darkroom alchemy – Caffenol-C

After exposing my next film, I discovered that my usual developer had turned into a brown soup. Having all ingredients at home, I decided to give Caffenol-C a shot. The results were amazing.

I obtained a wide range of grays, dark black and a light brown toning for the highlights. I loved the results, so the next logical step for me was to try and print the negatives using Caffenol-C as a paper developer as well.

So I set up my trays, adding one extra tray of water right before the stop bath to wash away all the leftovers of my homemade developer. Since I don’t own any good scales, I decided to use tea spoons as a measurement unit.

You can get all the stuff you need at a supermarket or a drug store:

  • 500ml distilled water
  • 6 tea spoons instant coffee (use the cheapest one you can get)
  • 3 tea spoons vitamin c powder
  • 1,5 tea spoons washing soda

The result you get once mixing everything together is a pretty dark and strange smelling liquid. It will not only cure your coffee addiction but makes it pretty difficult to develop from sight as well. I decided to give the paper a quick wash every minute to check it.

Using RC Paper and stopping the clock at 4:30min (the development took quite long compared to regular developers). After 2 prints it took 5 minutes to get a good result, and after 4 sheets I had to mix a fresh batch.

 

 

Caffenol to Juicenol, Soupenol, Teanol and other experiements

Still happy about the results, I went grocery shopping and curiosity struck me again. I thought to myself, “If you could use chicken soup to develop film, what else could be used for paper?” So I decided to buy the weirdest things I could think of, resulting with me leaving the store with a variety of juices, children’s mouthwash, tea, hair tonic and buttermilk…yes, hair tonic.

Back at my darkroom I used a variation of the Caffenol-C recipe to mix up another batch:

  • 500ml liquid (tea, soup, juice…)
  • NO COFFEE
  • 3 tea spoons vitamin C powder
  • 1,5 tea spoons washing soda

Being scared of total failure, I started by trying the juices with some hard gradation paper. I had beetroot juice, grape juice and carrot juice.

 

 

Testing with beetroot, carrots and grapes

The washing soda made the strange smell of the beetroot juice even worse, and the viscous black soup made developing a pain.

I stopped my first try after 10 minutes with no result in sight. I threw the second sheet on the enlarger exposing it for an entire 10 seconds at f5.6. After a fearful 7 minutes of development I finally had a halfway decent low contrast print.

Darkroom alchemy - Beetroot

Darkroom alchemy – Beetroot

 

The carrot juice was to follow. It did not need as much exposure and 6:30 minutes later, I had a pretty grainy low contrast print.

Darkroom alchemy - Carrot Juice

Darkroom alchemy – Carrot Juice

To end the “juice-session” I mixed my grape-juice developer which instantly turned from red to green after adding the washing soda smelling almost like a nice wine. A lot of light and 7 Minutes later, I got a pretty dark and red toned print.

Darkroom alchemy - Grape Juice

Darkroom alchemy – Grape Juice

Looking at the picture right now, I have to say that I feel a little sad that all of the red faded by now due to exposure to sunlight.

 

 

Testing with soup, buttermilk, mouthwash and hair tonic

Working my way through my groceries I decided to use the tomato soup next. There was a nice Mexican smell in the air and I almost felt a little hungry. Both changed after adding the washing soda and I was more than happy that the print took “only” 8 Minutes.

Darkroom alchemy - Tomato Soup

Darkroom alchemy – Tomato Soup

The results had a pretty hard contrast and were the worst so far. It might have worked better using a soft gradation paper. You’re always wiser in hindsight.

The “buttermilk” phase turned into a disaster. I could not manage to get a clean print, there were some small flaky parts sticking to the print blocking the developer. But buttermilk as a developer would be crazy, wouldn’t it?

Darkroom alchemy - Buttermilk

Darkroom alchemy – Buttermilk

The last two things left in my shopping bag were mouthwash and hair tonic. Somehow it was impossible to completely dissolve the washing soda leaving me with pretty dark patches where it came in contact with the sheets of paper.

Darkroom alchemy - Mouthwash

Darkroom alchemy – Mouthwash

Darkroom alchemy - Hair Tonic

Darkroom alchemy – Hair Tonic

Both the mouthwash and the tonic worked pretty well and provided me with my best results (besides Caffenol) plus developing only took 4:30 Minutes.

 

 

It’s not about the coffee

To end this series of experiments, I tried regular tap water mixed with washing soda and vitamin C. It works, but the results were so light that I did not even scan them. I came to the conclusion that it’s not really about what you use as a liquid. It’s about the use of washing soda and vitamin C.

Darkroom alchemy - Tap water

Darkroom alchemy – Tap water

If you look at the basics of printmaking, getting a print means converting exposed silver-halide crystals to macroscopic particles of metallic silver. This is done by using an alkaline liquid and that’s what the washing soda does in my experiments. It turns even acidic liquids into alkaline liquids. The vitamin C just reduces the time needed for development.

I know that the results are not as good as prints done with a “regular” developer. But that was never my goal, my goal was to experiment with photographic material being driven by the question “Will it work?”.

I think I answered that question to my satisfaction.

Thanks for reading!

~ Kay Adams

 

 

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About The Author

Kay Adams

Ever since I was 16, I tried to get my hands on everything related to photography. I started digital, but switched almost completely to analog photography. I work with all sizes, ages and types of cameras I can get a hold of. I develop and print by hand as well. My passion besides classical photos is to create something off the beaten tracks.

11 Comments

  1. Hi, Interesting article. When you use soda vit C and juices coffee etc for developing, do you then use a stopper and fixer as in “normal” development process?

    Reply
    • Yes. I just add a washing tray before putting it in the stop bath

      Reply
  2. What a bizarre set of ingredients. Did you have anything in particular in mind, when choosing them?

    There’s a number of factors when concocting a developer, first being the developing agent, such as metol. In chemical terms, this is a reducer (opposite of oxidizer), and is what does the job of turning exposed silver halides into metallic silver; some developers have more than one developing agent, eg metol/hydroquinone. Next is an accelerating agent, which is an alkaline chemical such as sodium carbonate (soda); this increases the rate of development, allowing a shorter time in the soup. A developer may also have a preservative, such as sodium sulphite, and a restrainer such as potassium bromide, to control the base fog level.

    The original Caffenol was essentially coffee and soda: developing agent and alkali. Dev times were usually long, with 30 minutes being typical. This basic mix works because caffeine is a chemical reducer and soda is an alkali, so the two basics are covered.

    It turns out that vitamin C is also a chemical reducer—though somewhat weaker than caffeine—and adding it to caffeine has a superadditive effect, like you get with metol and hydroquinone. The result is short development times (you still need the soda though), and a pretty neutral tone in the developed image, whereas straight caffeine/soda tends to give a brown result.

    You commented “…getting a print means converting exposed silver-halide crystals to macroscopic particles of metallic silver. This is done by using an alkaline liquid and that’s what the washing soda does in my experiments. … The vitamin C just reduces the time needed for development.” With a Vit C + soda dev, the C is what does the developing, while the alkaline soda reduces the time needed. But as you noted, you get a thin result with just that formula. The fruit/veg juices would work to some extent by being a source of Vit C, but I couldn’t comment on the hair tonic etc!

    One other thing to beware of: the soda should be ‘anhydrous’, which just means there is no water contained withing the chemical, as is the case with crystalline soda. If your soda was the crystalline variety, you would need more of it, for the same accelerating effect, which might have contributed to your thin results. You can turn the crystalline soda to anhydrous by baking it, which drives out the water.

    Reply
    • Thank you very much for the Input! All the chemical stuff is not something i am particularly good at.

      The thing I had in mind actually was: grab the weirdest stuff you can find…

      Reply
  3. Great article!! I’ve been a big fan of caffenol for developing film for a few years now, and tried it in the darkroom for prints a few months back. I got decent results for my first 2 or 3 test prints, but after that I found it expired fairly quickly and needed a loooooooong time for a print to appear.

    Reply
    • Thank you Phil. I used pretty small papers and had to change the soup every third or fourth sheet. Did you use vitamin C as well? It led to a significant decrease in development time.

      Reply
  4. whoa! That’s real experimentation!

    Reply
  5. Interesting experiments, but I dislike the introduction of all the extra junk you introduce into the paper..

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. I am Kay Adams and this is why I shoot film | Interviews | EMULSIVE - […] you have a short memory, you’ll remember today’s interviewee from their guest post on experimental development with mouthwash, orange…
  2. A call for imperfection AKA walking a thin line between creation and destruction | Articles, Experiments | EMULSIVE - […] “Can one use mouthwash to develop prints?“ […]

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