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The cyanotype process is one of remarkable simplicity, producing a blue and white print on paper or cloth. It was invented in 1842 by Sir John Herschel. The first book of photographs was printed using this method![1] From 1870 to sometime in the 20th century, it was widely used as the "blueprint" method to copy technical drafts until photocopy methods made it obsolete.

Cyanotypes aren't silver-based as most other photo-chemical photographic processes, Cyanotypes are based on the chemical reaction that produces "Prussian Blue", between Ferricyanide and Iron (III) molecules, this reaction is accelerated by UV light, such as the UV in sunlight or "black light" lamps. Traditional cyanotype involves ferric ammonium citrate (NH4)5[Fe(C6H4O7)2] and potassium ferricyanide, K3[Fe(CN)6] potassium dichromate is used as an additive, to increase sensitivity and contrast. Newer versions of this process use Ammonium Iron(III) Oxalate as ferric salt which gives it more sensititivy and longer life. Traditional cyanotype is very sensitive to alkali and it fades over time in darkness, a reexposure to light makes it reappear.

The paper can be prepared under incandescent light (no UV), by applying the sensitizer solution directly to the paper, cloth or other media, which can then be printed on dry. Applying more than 1 coat of sensitizer makes the image a deeper tone of blue.

It is a printing-out process: the image formed by the light is visible, not latent, and the exposure can be estimated by the changes in color of the emulsion. There is no strict "development" stage, instead, excess emulsion is washed away by running water. Washing in a diluted acetic acid solution (0.5-1.5%) increases the midtone density and the color looks brighter[2]. Toning can be applied to increase or decrease the intensity of the blue and/or the contrast.

A common use is to make photograms: opaque objects with interesting shapes are laid on the sensitized paper, and then the paper is put in direct sunlight or under an ultraviolet lamp, for a time usually measured in minutes (quality of sunlight or brightness of the UV lamp is a factor.)

Of course, this can also be done with large or medium format negatives, or ink on tracing paper. The latter is how blueprints were made when the process was in vogue. A drafter would draw the plans on paper in pencil, then trace it in ink on tracing paper. This would then be used as a negative, to produce positive copies made of white lines on a Prussian Blue background. This was done for several reasons, the main being that it was cheap, could make any number of copies, and was very difficult to alter once printed.

Cyanotypes can be toned using several methods, a common one is to use tannins, such as the ones found in tea or coffee. This has the effect of increasing the permanence of the images. In the direct method the image turn gray-blue and the paper will be stained as well, in the indirect method the amount of bleach determines the final color, in hues from gray blue to brown.

As cyanotype is a cheap way of making contact prints, it still survives to this day under the heading of an "alternate process." Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to make enlargements on cyanotype: most enlarger lenses are not designed to transmit ultraviolet light, and most enlargers do not take any common ultraviolet bulb. Thus, it is somewhat limited to the realm of contact prints and photograms.

In the digital age, cyanotype has seen a rebirth as a hybrid technique [3], i.e. using digital negatives, made in a printer using either transparency film or paper which are contact printed in the traditional method. Digital negatives can be made in almost any size, only limited by the printer.

These digital negatives [4] are prepared in software and can be modified in many ways to obtain the desired final image. The digital negatives have greater control than traditional silver negatives, and they use "curves" to adjust the contrast to match the specific process [5]

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  1. Atkins, Anna, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, privately printed (1843-53). A dozen copies are known to exist, see: Schaaf, L.J. and Kraus, H.P., Sun Gardens - Victorian photograms by Anna Atkins, (New York: Aperture Books 1985).
  2. Using Vinegar to develop cyanotypes
  3. Hybrid method description at Alternative Photography
  4. A simplified digital negatives workflow by Christina Z. Anderson and Ron Reeder at alternative photography (2013)
  5. ebook on digital negatives by Mark I. Nelson


Ware, Mike. Cyanomicon The History, Science and Art of Cyanotype: Photographic Printing in Prussian Blue. Science Museum of London . 1999. Available directly from the author