Using Caffenol by Tom Overton

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Using Caffenol by Tom Overton

Post by Admin on Thu Jan 01, 2009 3:29 pm

Early in my career as a musician, I had the great pleasure of meeting noted American composer John Cage. His message, distilled to a very few words, was to embrace the unusual elements that chance brings to the performance of music. Now, some thirty years later, I find the same advice applies with equally delightful results in the darkroom.

Shortly after I began developing my own film, I started finding references to using Folger’s coffee as a film developer. Naturally, I wondered if the process could be applied equally to darkroom printing. Unfortunately, most of what I read on the subject was not very encouraging. Not the type to be so easily put off, I mixed up a batch of standard Caffenol film developer and gave it a shot.

Standard Caffenol Film developer:
  • Water – 8 oz
  • Arm & Hammer Washing Soda – 2 tsp
  • Folgers Coffee Crystals – 4 tsp

My first attempt, a shot of the Chicago Water Tower, under the shadow of the Hancock building, was a far greater success than I had any right to hope. Having had no real preconception of what, if anything, Caffenol prints would look like, I couldn’t have been happier. Not only was there an image on the paper, but it was suffused with surreal blotches, streaks and swirls. John Cage would have been proud.

Chicago Towers

Fig. 1: Chicago Towers, ©️2007 printed approximately 3-5 minutes on long outdated Kodak Polymax RC paper.

As the above print shows, the development is anything but even, contrast is low and the image is almost overpowered by a general… coffee stain. (What the print cannot show is how bad it smelled.) But there was an image on the paper; one that said, “look at me!”; something that I had always hoped my pictures would say.

I followed these prints with several on Kentmere Fine Lustre RC, which produced much more consistent results.


Fig. 2: Wetlands, ©️2007 Kodak HIE printed on Kentmere Fine Lustre VC approx. 3-5 min.

Since these first experiments, I have returned to this process several times, with varying, but always interesting results. In this way I have found that Caffenol is not effective as a lith developer. Dr. Tim Rudman tells me that whatever it does, Caffenol does not promote infectious development, a key requirement of lith developing.

Similarly, Caffenol developing does not seem to respond well to split-grade printing. In my few experiments with this process, it seems that even a very short exposure with 00 filter can greatly diminish the highlights of a print. As with many Alt processes, it is a good idea to begin with a good, contrasty negative. I have found as well, that increasing the amount of coffee and washing soda by about 25% in relation to water greatly speeds up the development time. Typically, full development is achieved in under 1 minute.

High Octane Caffenol Film developer:
  • Water – 8 oz
  • Arm & Hammer Washing Soda – 3 tsp
  • Folgers Coffee Crystals – 6 tsp

Another useful observation is that exposure times with Caffenol are comparable to my standard print developer, Ilford Universal Paper Developer. One final hint - a fresh water bath after the developer will greatly prolong the life of your stop and fix chemicals.

If my results to date are any indication, it would seem that whatever it is (or isn’t) Caffenol printing is a viable alternative to traditional darkroom chemistry and techniques. That being said, if you want absolute control with repeatable results, use professional chemistry in your trays and drink your coffee.

Leamington Dock

Fig. 3: Leamington Dock, ©️2008 Printed on Ilford MGIV RC Deluxe Pearl, split-contrast printing. < 1 min

Pelee Islander

Fig. 4: Pelee Islander, ©️2008 Printed on Ilford MGIV RC Deluxe Pearl, split-contrast printing. < 1 min

Pug raring to go...!

Fig. 5: Pug Raring to Go, ©️2008 Printed on Ilford MGIV RC Deluxe Pearl. < 1 min

View over Detroit.

Fig. 6: View Over Detroit, ©️2008 Printed on Ilford MGIV RC Deluxe Pearl. < 1 min

The following prints were done in a slightly less powerful Caffenol mix, as my supply of coffee had run out. The result was much smoother development, with less of a coffee stain. The developer was almost completely exhausted after 7 prints.

Bent Tree, Quebec

Fig. 7: Bent Tree, Quebec Dec. 2007 ©️2007 Printed on Ilford MGIV RC Deluxe Pearl.

Northern Quebec Stream

Fig. 8: Northern Quebec Stream ©️2007 Printed on Ilford MGIV RC Deluxe Pearl.

Old Devonshire Building

Fig. 9: Old Devonshire Building, Windsor ©️2008 Printed on Ilford MGIV RC Deluxe Pearl.

Detroit Skyline With Tree

Fig. 10: Detroit Skyline with Tree and Bench ©️2008 Printed on Ilford MGIV RC Deluxe Pearl.

Old Devonshire Building

Fig. 11: Old Devonshire Building ©️2008 Printed on Ilford MGIV RC Deluxe Pearl.

Tom's images can be viewed at

Posts : 21
Join date : 2008-12-22
Age : 49
Location : Near London, UK.

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