By Rachael Tabone
I spent a little time in a darkroom during my A-levels (more years ago than I care to remember), learning how to load, develop and print my own negatives. It was something I really enjoyed doing, albeit only for a year.
I had a secondhand Pentax ME Super that I was passable at using, if not fully competent. And then I left school, and acquired a DSLR (another Pentax) whilst at university. I took an interest in macro and landscape photography, and left film photography behind.
Part of the reason for this, was cost. A roll of film could cost £8 and then you’re looking at another £5 to get it developed, with the added possibility that your photos wouldn’t be worth it. At least, I reasoned to myself, as long as I kept my DSLR batteries charged, it would be always ready to go, and I could take as many shots as I wanted.
But I started collecting film cameras anyway, from various car boot sales. Some medium format, some 35mm, some from the UK, some from further afield. They were never used, but displayed on top of my bookcase. Even non-functioning, they looked fantastic.
And then we found my granddad’s Paterson Tank in the loft. And all of a sudden, I was itching to give it a try. Now as well as the cost, I had a new problem. Even if I spent money on the developer and stop bath, where would I safely store the chemicals? How would I dispose of them?
Not having a darkroom was fixable, I bought a film changing bag so that I had the ability to change the films in my living room. It played on my mind for the next few weeks, and eventually, I decided that there must be a way around the cost. True enough, a quick Google search threw up Caffenol. There were articles and videos insisting that with a little instant coffee, washing soda, and vitamin C, you could develop your negatives at home.
As long as the film was black and white, and didn’t use C41 processing, you could develop negatives with the contents of your kitchen cupboard.
Armed with a roll of Ilford FP4, I headed out and shot 24 exposures. Consulting the excellent ‘Caffenol Cookbook’, I mixed 54g of Soda Crystals in 500ml of water, repeating with 40g of instant coffee and 16g of crushed vitamin C tablets. Then I mixed these three jugs together in different ways until I had just one 500ml jug with as even a mix of the ingredients as I could get.
I poured the Caffenol into the fully loaded Paterson Tank and agitated for the first 30 seconds, then for three quarter turns every 30 seconds after that, for 15 minutes. Caffenol doesn’t require a stop bath, just a thorough wash before the fixer goes in. Another five minutes of fixer time, agitating for the first 30 seconds, and then every 30 seconds for three quarter turns, and it was time to see the results.
I was sceptical that it was going to work, as all the videos I had seen were from professional photographers, who had proper darkrooms and clearly knew their way around them. But to my surprise, and delight, when I pulled the fill roll off the developing reel, my negatives were there as clear as day. I had definitely caught the bug. I quickly bought a negative scanner, as I’m a long way off being able to develop prints in my flat.
(Both pictures above taken with a Pentax ME Super, on Ilford FP4 film and Developed in Caffenol H-C)
Through trial and error, I discovered that Ilford FP4 worked with Caffenol, but Ilford HP5 didn’t seem to produce any results, or at least not for me on the occasion I tried it. I wanted to experiment, try different films and take different pictures. So I bought three rolls of Kosmo Foto Mono and once again set out, hoping that the new film I had bought (because the packaging looked really cool) would also be able to be developed in my kitchen.
Once again, I spent a long, exciting 15-minute wait in my living room, keeping one eye on the TV and one eye on the timer, and agitating the tank every 30 seconds.
I was very happy to find, that Kosmo Foto Mono can also be developed in Caffenol. The negatives came out just as strong as my first attempt with FP4.
Finding the info about Caffenol has reignited my love of film photography, and now I barely need an excuse to head out with my camera. It’s lovely to be able to shoot, develop and scan negatives all in the same day.
If nothing else, it’s great fun and I’d encourage anyone who uses film to give it a try.
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Great post, Rachael. The images have come out really well. It’s great to hear / read some things by a fellow alternative development fan!