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Survival scenario #117:
You’re trapped in a grocery store. Zombies are closing in from all sides. You have a crucial photo that could end the carnage, if only you had some way to develop the film.
What do you do?
You grab some instant coffee and vitamin C, you develop the film, and you vanquish the zombies.
What, you don’t think we’re serious?
First of all, zombies are an inevitable part of life.
And secondly, you really can develop film using vitamin C and coffee. For reals.
Read on, and we’ll show you everything you need to know. Quick, before the zombies regroup!
Okay, first things first: using coffee to develop film is not something Ansel Adams would do. But it works, it gives your film a distinctive look, and it has a certain MacGuyver-ish flair. Think of it like using a plastic camera- it’s more about having fun than getting technically flawless results.
With most film types, the results will be more contrasty and grainy than regular developer. If you do this with color film (negatives or transparencies), you’ll end up with black-and-white negatives.
Here’s the thing, though: different films will have different results. Some will develop perfectly in 12 minutes, others will take up to 20 minutes. Shoot a test roll of your favorite film, develop it for 12 minutes and see how it turns out. If it’s too thin, it needs more time. If the negatives come out opaque, it needs less time.
What You’ll Need: Chemistry
- Instant coffee (not decaf)
- Vitamin C powder
- Washing soda (see Step 1)
- 2 gallons of room-temperature distilled water (or tap water if you’re not fussy)
- A tiny wee drop of dishwashing liquid
What You’ll Need: Equipment
- A daylight developing tank & reel
- A roll of exposed film
- A bottle opener
- Measuring beakers (including one large enough to hold 16 fluid ounces)
- Measuring spoons
- 2 glasses
- A spoon
- A timer
- 2 clothespins
- Clothesline or coat hanger
Step 1: Acquire Materials
Washing soda can be tricky to find unless you live in a rural or highly eco-conscious area. We found ours at Rainbow Grocery, but you can order it online, or call around to drugstores, health food stores, or pool supply stores (it’s also known as sodium carbonate or soda ash). Baking soda won’t work as a substitute.
If you don’t have a daylight developing tank, look for a used one at photo supply shops or borrow one from a friend. If you buy one, get one with adjustable plastic reels. Steel reels are more trouble than they’re worth.
Step 2: Make the Developer
Formula for 12 oz. of developer:
- 12 oz. water
- 5 teaspoons instant coffee crystals
- 3 1/2 teaspoons washing soda
- 1/2 teaspoon vitamin C powder
Mix the vitamin C and coffee in a glass with 6 oz. of water. Stir until all the crystals and gritty bits are completely dissolved. Mix the washing soda in a separate glass with 6 oz. of water and stir until dissolved.
Mix the two solutions together in a container large enough to hold all of the liquid.
So, we heard that this developer smells really bad, but we didn’t believe it until we mixed the 2 liquids together. Holy frijoles! How can things that smell like coffee, nothing, and nothing combine to smell like grim death?
Step 3: Mix the Chemistry
Mix enough fixer solution to fill the tank, following the package instructions. Set aside until you’re ready to develop the film.
In a separate container, dissolve a small drop of dishwashing liquid in enough water to fill the developing tank. Set aside.
Step 4: Set Up the Darkroom
The film must be loaded onto the reels in total darkness. Ask somebody to let you use their darkroom, or find the darkest room in your abode and cover any windows with double layers of black garbage bags. Don’t forget the cracks under and around the door. If light still gets in, wait until dark to do this. Or use a changing bag.
Set up an area to load your film, like a desk or counter. Lay out the reels, film cans, bottle opener, scissors, and various developing tank parts in a way that will make them easy to find in the dark.
Step 5: Practice
If you haven’t loaded film before here’s how. Practice a few times with a blank roll of film. Try it with the lights on a few times, then with your eyes closed until you feel ready to do it for real.
Step 6: Lights Out!
Pry the lid off the film can with the bottle opener. Cut off the film leader to square the end of the film.
Feed the film into the reel, turning first your right hand, then your left hand clockwise, using your thumbs to guide the film onto the reel.
Continue this motion until all the film is loaded and you reach the end of the spool. Cut the film off the spool and give the reel an extra turn or two to load the very end of the film.
Slide the reel onto the spindle (i.e. the part that looks a pipe), and put it into the tank. Screw in the part that looks like a funnel, and put on the rubber lid.
Step 7: Set Up the Chemistry
You’ll need a sink for this part, preferably one that’s easy to clean. A ventilation fan or open window would also be nice, but you’d be OK without it. The chemicals are more stinky than harmful.
Get all of your chemistry ready next to the sink, put the tank in the sink and set the timer for 12 minutes.
Step 8: Developing!
Hit start on the timer and agitate slowly and constantly for the first minute. (Do whaaaat? One agitation equals turning the tank upside down and then right side up again once.)
After the first minute, agitate the tank 3 times once a minute.
Step 9: Stop and Fix
Pour out the water or stop bath and fill the tank with fixer. Set the timer for five minutes and agitate 3 times each minute.
Step 10: Final Wash
Refill the tank with the soapy water you mixed in Step 3, agitate slowly 24 times then pour out.
Open the tank and remove the reel.
Step 11: Hang the Film
Use a clothespin to hang the roll of film from a clothesline. If you don’t have a clothesline, hang a coat hanger up in the shower and hang the film from that.
Bring two fingers together on either side of the film and drag them down the roll to squeegee off any excess water. Clip a clothespin on the bottom edge of the roll to keep the film from curling as it dries.
Step 12: Enjoy Your Photos!
If you don’t have a scanner, you can send your film to a company like DigMyPics or ImageLab, or google “film scanning” plus the name of your town to find local businesses that will scan your film for you.
To see how your film may come out, have a look at these:
- The Caffenol pool on Flickr (“caffenol” is the fancy name for coffee developer)
- Tom Overton’s experiments in the magical land of caffenol
Photo credit: lewischaplin