Cyanotype Printing: Is It Photography, and How Do You Do It?

Cyanotype Printing: Is It Photography, and How Do You Do It?

Explore the Art of the Cyanotype.  In this article, we examine the step-by-step process of cyanotype printing and its place within the realm of photography. You can decide for yourself if you agree whether this is a photographic medium or not.

When it comes to alternative photographic processes, cyanotype is a popular technique employed by photographers and photographic artists. The question of whether cyanotype printing is considered photography sparks ongoing debates within the photographic community. Its unique blend of photographic elements and chemical alchemy makes cyanotype an interesting method worth exploring.

Cyanotype printing involves the use of light-sensitive chemicals to create photographic images. This method was first developed by Sir John Herschel in 1842 as a method for reproducing architectural plans, which we still refer to today as blueprints. The process relies on the reaction between ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide, which when exposed to ultraviolet light, results in a vibrant blue image on a light-coloured substrate such as paper.

One person who had no trouble describing the cyanotype process as photography was Anna Atkins, who was a member of the Botanical Society of London, pioneering in the field of photography for science. She used cyanotypes to publish “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions” between 1843 and 1853. The process used to create these prints would be better described as photograms, where an image is made by placing an object directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material and then exposing it to light.

Cyanotype image from Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions Volume III by Anna Atkins.

From the New York Public Library

Let's compare the cyanotype process to prints made from photographic film. Chemical baths and light-sensitive paper produce a positive image, where a film negative acts as a barrier between the light exposure and the paper surface. In the case of traditional film photography, when prints are created in the darkroom through a wet chemical process, no one challenges these as anything other than part of a true photographic process.

Cyanotype is also a wet chemical process. Objects placed on the chemically coated paper flag the light, acting as a barrier between ultraviolet rays and the paper surface. I’m sure you can see where I am going with this comparison. 

Here, I will walk you through my process of creating cyanotypes.  In order to make the cyanotype process even closer to the darkroom process, I will include my own images into the cyanotype medium by first printing them onto inkjet transparency film. This “negative” transparency technique allows for the preservation of the photographic essence while opening up a world of creative opportunities.


  • Chemicals: potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate, usually available to buy together as a cyanotype kit
  • Paint brushes
  • Vessel or jar
  • Watercolour paper
  • Clipframe
  • A4 inkjet printable transparency film
  • Paper or cardboard to protect the surface you work on


Prepare the Chemical Mixture: blend equal parts of ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide. A typical ratio is 10 grams of each chemical mixed with 100 milliliters of water. Readymade cyanotype kits are widely available to purchase: all you have to do is add water to each bottle and shake, and your chemicals are ready to use.

Printing the Transparencies: Select your photographs, convert to black and white, invert the colors, and then mirror the image before printing them onto transparency film. You can buy printable acetate, which is compatible with inkjet printers to do this.

Left: Original Image. Middle: Black and White Conversion. Right: Inverted and Flipped ready for printing.

Prepare your Surfaces and Turn Off the Lights: Protect your workspace from any chemical spillages by putting down old newspaper. Once both solutions are combined, you will need to work in subdued light to ensure that any present ultraviolet light does not diminish the mixed solution or the coated paper. I coated my paper in the evening with a lamp on in the far corner of the room.

Coating the Paper: Apply an even coat of the cyanotype mixture onto watercolor paper or another suitable material using a brush. I chose to use a sponge brush for an even coat. Let the coated paper dry thoroughly; you may use a hairdryer to speed up the process. Apply a second coat and let dry. Put your coated paper in dark storage, such as a light tight bag or envelope until ready to use.

Assembling the Printing Frame: Place your coated paper and transparency inside a clipframe. This ensures proper contact between the transparency and the coated paper during exposure and also keeps your paper safe from contaminants outside. Place a black cloth or card over your frame until you are ready to begin the exposure.

Expose Your Cyanotypes: The exposure time for cyanotypes can vary depending on several factors, including the strength of UV light, the density of your negative or object, and the desired result. However, as a general guideline, exposure time can be anywhere between 3 to 20 minutes depending on the weather and levels of UV exposure where you live. For better accuracy without wasting too much coated paper, consider exposing a test strip – covering a section of the strip at varying intervals. I created two test strips, the first was exposed at intervals of 3, 5, and 8 minutes, and the second was exposed at intervals of 10, 12, and 15 minutes. This allowed me to make a judgement on the best exposure, which I considered to be between 12 and 15 seconds for the light conditions. If you are using a UV lamp or other artificial source, exposure times may need to be longer. No UV bulb is as powerful as the sun.

Immediately after sun exposure, your print will look very dark before washing

Rinse and Fix the Print: After exposure, remove the transparency from the frame and immediately rinse the coated paper in running water until the runoff appears clear. At this stage, you will be able to see detail in your image and the color will be a reasonably deep hue. Hang the prints to dry, and over the course of a few hours, the hue will deepen to its final shade. To speed up the final hue reveal, submerge the print in a fixative bath made of one tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide dissolved in a liter of water for a few minutes. Rinse the print again in running water.

Immediately after washing

Drying and Displaying Your Cyanotype Print: My neighbors must really wonder about me, but I peg my cyanotypes onto the washing line to drip dry. Once they are dry, flatten if needed between the pages of a good coffee table book, and then, you can proudly display your cyanotype print.

There is something very appealing about having my work displayed as a cyanotype. I wouldn’t normally consider hanging these images, but the added process has made me appreciate these images a little more than I normally would, and I think one or two might make it onto my walls.

Scan of Cyanotype print

Have I convinced you that cyanotype is a legitimate photographic medium? We've explored the fascinating world of cyanotype printing together, and now, it's your turn! Whether you're a seasoned cyanotype enthusiast or just discovering this alternative photographic method for the first time, we would love to hear about your experiences, experiments, and creative outcomes. Share your tips and even your own cyanotype prints in the comments.

Kim Simpson's picture

Kim Simpson is a photographer based in the West of Scotland. Her photographic practice is an exploration of the human experience, with a particular emphasis on themes of identity and belonging.

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If you are using a negative to make the print, then yes it is. Just make contact prints from large format negatives.

So in your opinion only film negs would allow for a description of photography? What about the method with negatives of digital images on acetate in the process I have described in the article?

I didn't say that. I gave one answer to the question "Is It Photography, and How Do You Do It?"

Even if you are doing prints from digital files it's still photography. You took a photograph and now you are printing it. That's apart of the photography process. The process of creating a cynotype from film vs digital is pretty much the exact same thing except with a digital photograph you need to print it on to a transparency sheet. After that, the cyanotype printing process is the exact same. It's super fun too. I think my favorite part of printing cyanotypes is that even though everyone that prints cyanotypes knows the basics of how to do it each person figures out nuance in the process and does things slightly different to get the prints out how they want them. Especially when it comes to building your own light boxes and what types of paper you chose to print on. Some people even make their own paper from scratch. It's a really awesome and fun thing to do. It's also great to teach kids how to do too. It's one of those thing that's doesn't take a bajillion dollars to get into either. I was looking at chems and gear to do it and I could get away with a starter printing setup for like $200 bucks. You can also make it as expensive as you want it too, which can make things easier, more efficient, and give you better results. I think every photographer should try printing cyanotypes at least once. It will definitely make you want to print your work more often haha.

Good article. I enjoyed it.

Printing in general is something that should be encouraged more, but there is something special about the cyanotype process. I like to use the sun rather than a light box which makes it even more special - I live in Scotland and even in summer the sun is not guaranteed to make an appearance. Its a very accessible medium - a basic kit using sun exposure would cost less than 100 for chemicals, frames/clips, art papers and printable acetate sheets.

I live in Oklahoma. We've had nothing but sun for the past three weeks. I wish I could share some of it with y'all. It melted the glue holding the dashboard in my car down and I burned my arm on the belt buckle lol.

There really is something special about it. I've done color development and printing of 35mm film but like you said cynotype just has something special about that makes me want to experiment with all kinds of images and subjects to see how they come out. Color printing is fun too but Cyanotype keeps me coming back. I haven't used the sun yet but I'll give that go next time I do a print!

We have had overcast weather and rain every day in July.

I print black and white film at home occasionally with a very simple monobath solution. I dont have the set up for colour developing so tend not to shoot it.