Developing, a new way to slow down with coffee

Instant gratification takes too long.

Carrie Fisher

What do you think of instant coffee? Does it, as Carrie Fisher may have suggested, take too long? Or perhaps you think that instant coffee is a bad idea, coffee ought instead to be prepared well and slowly to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Many readers of this website are probably of the latter school of thought and yet I would like to offer a slightly different perspective. There is indeed a way that instant coffee can be used to really slow down and to re-evaluate our view of the world: Instant coffee makes a good, or at least adequate, photographic film developer.

developing photographic film in instant coffee

The developing fluid – the instant coffee granules have nearly dissolved.

The caffeine in the coffee acts as a reducing agent for the film (so tea should also work). Instant was suggested over filter coffee in online recipes owing to the greater control over the amount of caffeine in the brew (it would be far easier to get reproducible results mixing 5 teaspoons of instant into the developer than 300ml of whichever coffee is your brew of the day). So, as a first try, it is worth keeping to previously tried-and-tested recipes, in this case from photo-utopia.

5 heaped teaspoons of instant coffee

2 level teaspoons of washing soda

300 ml of water at around 25C.

washing soda, available in supermarkets

The second ingredient that you need to develop your photographic film in coffee – washing soda.

The washing soda (sodium carbonate, Na2CO3) can be purchased in many supermarkets where it is known as a more environmentally friendly laundry agent (it is not the cooking ingredient sodium bicarbonate, that apparently does not work). It is used to ‘activate’ the reducing agent. I admit to being a bit hazy on what that actually means. Where you get your instant coffee from is up to you.

The photos show the washing soda and then coffee being added to the water. Do try to rid yourself of any ideas about developing film amidst the lovely fragrance of coffee coming out of the developing tank. Something in the reaction between the washing soda and the coffee stinks. It was not as bad as I was anticipating (as I had read the warnings of the smell elsewhere) but rest assured, it is not pleasant!

instant coffee film developing fluid

The washing soda is already dissolved in the water here but the coffee has just been added. You need to dissolve the coffee fully for it to be a good developing fluid.

For detailed instructions about developing with the solution, please see photo-utopia but briefly, developing the film took 30 minutes with one inversion every 30 seconds. If you have ever tried sitting, developing film for 30 minutes doing nothing but inverting the developing tank every 30 seconds you will know that this is quite an exercise in slowing down. Are those images that you have been taking on your camera going to come out? Will they be under-developed, over-developed? Does coffee really work as a film developing fluid?

After 30 minutes the film was put into a water stop bath and then fixed with Ilford Rapid Fixer (although it is possible to use salt-water as a fixer, I thought it best to start by experimenting with the developing fluid alone first). A further bit of washing and the film was hung out to dry. This meant more patience, although we could see the images on the film, it was not possible to scan them until the film had thoroughly dried (we left it overnight).

What about the results? Well, the four images below are from the roll of Fuji Neopan 400 film that was developed with the coffee. We had to adjust the scanning a bit as the film was somewhat lightly developed (a higher concentration of caffeine or a longer developing time was needed), but you can see that the images have not come out too badly. It is truly possible to slow down and see things in a different way with instant coffee, but maybe not by drinking it.

Cogs, Wimbledon Common, Windmill, Contact S2b, instant coffee and washing soda developer

Cogs on Wimbledon Common, developed with coffee.

Brighton shellfish, mussels, prawns, cockles, whelks, jellied eels, instant coffee

Shellfish trailer, Brighton, developed in coffee.

Merry-go-round and pier developed with coffee

Brighton beach, developed in coffee.

Bench with heads developed in coffee

Chelsea Embankment, developed in coffee.

Next time I plan to swap the instant coffee for a brewed batch and see how that comes out. More photos will be uploaded from time to time, probably to a special “coffee pictures” page on the website (yet to be created). And if you have tried developing photographic film in coffee, please do share any images that you have developed (with coffee or tea, instant or otherwise).

I am incredibly grateful to ArtemisWorks Photography for helping with all aspects of this project and for fantastic patience when confronted with some daft questions. You may also be interested to see ArtemisWorks’ own café work, photographing London’s older style “caffs” many of which have now disappeared, the café galleries can be found here.

 

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