The Alchemy of Coffee and Paper

One Simple Definition of alchemy

  • : a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way

the chemicals

To bring forth a latent image by using chemical means . . . much like the wizards of old . . . those driven by the belief that they could transmute lead into gold . . . that is the world of Caffenol.  Do a search of the internet and you will find as many recipes as there are posts, most are just variations on one or two prominent but basic concoctions using Instant CoffeeWashing Soda and Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) . . . I am almost tempted to collect the various recipes that show up here and there but you can find most already compiled and attributed to the recipes found in the PDF book  ( Caffenol Cookbook Bible) . . .

The photos that follow where taken directly from the wash and sopped dry with a paper towel before photographing them so they appear a slightly darker then they will after dry down, but overall one can see the benefits of the yellow filter holding back some of the UV and Blue light, also you can see that there is plenty of detail inside the hollow of the tree.  Sky detail (the mottling will disappear upon drying) is still lost but it is not that bothersome.

Contrast test, Yellow Filter

Contrast test, Yellow Filter

Shot with the Yellow (K2)

Shot with the Yellow (K2), This photo is totally acceptable for use in post processing

The recipes in the Caffenol Cookbook Bible mainly focus on Film developing and not on paper.   I have used these recipes often with various films with mostly good and successful results . . . however when one goes plumbing the depths of the internet about it’s use for paper it becomes a bit more murky and recipes are at best speculative in nature.

I cast my net far and wide, sifting for every crumb I could find . . . and . . . small clues have begun to surface.  I try to validate those tidbits and add to the mix.  I have been in and around a darkroom since I was in High school, and my own and worked in one in a fashion (I was a PJ way back when) so I remembered a few things and relearned a few.  There are tombs out there that have a wealth of information . . . and there have been a few masters of the art of developing and printing that have written down and passed on their knowledge.  This is where I come blundering in trying to educate myself (I find a challenge most rewarding).

So we have questions, Harman Direct Positive Paper (basically it is a High Contrast material) with a very narrow range (Latitude) it can produce when processed in its intended developer, How do we get more Latitude and keep the highlights from blowing out?  One way to control this contrast is by a method called “Pre-Flash” where the paper is exposed to a minute amount of light which holds the highlights a bit and adds a bit of midtones.  Another way you can accomplish this is during development, by using a slow or soft developer (less active), possibly a Caffenol recipe, you can extend the midtones slightly, and lastly you can control the contrast a bit at time of exposure with the use of a yellow filter.  It is also recommended to not shoot very high contrast scenes (direct sunlight) but here I might suggest the use of ND filters which I have yet to explore.

I recalled reading old text where photographers used special formulations to control contrast, These soft developers gave me a hint, why not use a dilute Caffenol recipe to develop the special Harman paper.  With that said my next experiments where with a basic recipe and much to my surprise I immediately saw more latitude and less blowout in the highlights, also the latent image was very slow to develop which I was doing by inspection.

So what am I doing that is getting results so far?

  • rating the paper at ISO – 3
  • shooting in overcast conditions
  • looking for flat lighting
  • using a Yellow (K2) filter factor 2 (+1 stop) to control contrast (HDPP is Blue and UV sensitive)
  • using a soft developer to control contrast (Caffenol)


There is more midtone evident in photo B but this shot was to wide in Latitude (Contrast) and lost some detail in the posts but did carry more information in the shadows.

Contrast test #2

Contrast test #2

As can be see I have a lot of work to do before I can control the shots with any confidence.  In the meanwhile I will enjoy the challenge it brings . . . I will continue to be amazed as the image appears in the glow of the faint darkroom lamp, just like the very first time I developed my first B&W print, I was in awe by the process and in that moment I shared the sense that I had learned a secret.  A secret of the Alchemist . . . . from some common everyday items I brought forth an image I captured on a piece of paper using a camera as old or older than myself.

Below is my goal,  to recreate this image on paper using a paper negative or positive.  I have the tools, just need to refine the technique, I do not believe I am to far off from this goal.


Bones, created using an Infrared modified Nikon digital camera. This image reminds me of the high contrast capability of the Harman Direct Positive Paper.

Caffenol Recipe used for my Harman DP paper developing, (I prefer the metric measurement method rather then the heaping spoon method).

  • Water                                            1000ml
  • Instant Coffee (Cheap stuff)    45g
  • Washing Soda                             24g
  • Ascorbic Acid                              20g

I half this amount for the 5×7 trays and use it for only 4 sheets then I dispose and replace all chemicals Stop bath and Fixer.  This same basic recipe can be used for film as well but I have other ones that are favorites for specific film to achieve certain effects.

I have settled on rating the paper at ISO 3, this works for me and my meter.  I think it may be best to use several tests to determine what ISO rating works with whatever developer you might choose, I am sure it will have some affect on the speed of the material.

So there you have it, my views so far on this product . . . I’ll be trying out some Ilford MGIV soon to make negatives for contact printing and scanning.  I will continue honing my methods with the Harman DP paper and as I achieve certain milestones I will post revised technique and practices as well as any recipe modifications so all may hopefully benefit.  Mix that coffee (the cheaper the better).

Get up off your duff and quit reading this dribble . . . Go make a picture! Digipainter said so!


See the Filter tutorial on filters for B&W photography at Freestyle Photographic supplies



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