How to make Photographic Cyanotype Prints

August 16, 2021

A Photographic Cyanotype Print of a man with long hair.

In this blog post I will explain how to make Photographic Cyanotype Prints my way. This is a super easy process and technique, but – like many things – can take a while to master. I’ve certainly made (and continue to make) lots of mistakes. I also continue to discover little tricks and new ways of working, so I thought I’d start to share what I learn.

What you’ll need

Essential Supplies

  • Cyanotype chemistry
  • Acetates
  • Paper (200gsm and greater)
  • Brush / sponge
  • Sunlight / UV light
  • Dark cupboard / box
  • Glass pane
  • Clips

Other Tools and Supplies

  • Hydrogen Peroxide (first-aid-kit-grade for cuts)
  • Water-tight trays (I often use cheap seed planters)
  • Timer (phone or watch or whatever)
  • Photo Printer
  • Light-proof bag
  • Measuring

Prepare the Chemicals and Paper for Cyanotypes

Do all of this out of direct light, ideally in the darkest place you can still see to work.

Mix the cyanotype chemicals as per the instructions, whether that’s mixing liquids at 1:1 or measuring powders and adding water and so on. Keep these in very subdued lighting. I tend to mix up about 10ml total if I’m only coating 3 or 4 pieces of paper. I limit to this because I like to keep an eye on how well a batch works but also my dark drying areas are limited.

Desk setup with Cyanotype chemicals, glass containers, foam brush and paper laid out explaining hot to make photographic cyanotype prints

Next paint the yellow chemical mixture onto your paper. How you do this is up to you, sometimes I use tape for borders, sometimes I like it messy, sometimes I use a sponge for smooth, sometimes I use a wall paintbrush for jagged edges. You should try to keep the application even with no darker pools. I also aim to use the minimum liquid but still get complete and even coverage.

Two papers painted with wet cyanotype chemicals

With that done, get the paper into somewhere dark and leave to dry. It will probably try to curl up, but that’s fine. Leave for minimum an hour, but longer is better so it’s properly dried. Sometimes I will be impatient and wait til it’s touch-dry but think I get better results when I leave overnight.

Create a Transparency for Photographic Cyanotype Prints

While the paper dries, it’s time to make your transparency.

A transparency of a boat pier

With your chosen image, make it black and white (grayscale) and invert the colours. I use Photoshop, but you can do this with lots of free software including online.

Now print it onto your acetate sheet. I’ve printed on the wrong (shiny) side before and the sides are similar, but you should be printing on the side that has a bit more texture. To me, it feels slightly dusty.

Make the Exposure

Now it’s time to grab your dried cyanotype paper, acetate, glass and clips. Put the acetate on top of the paper the correct way round and clip the glass on top so it’s all held together and aligned nicely.

A cardboard box with UV strips inside over a cyanotype photographic print

The exposure length will be a blog post in its own right, but give it a go. In sunlight try 8 minutes. Under UV light, maybe 30 minutes. I’d recommend trial and error and making a step test.

An exposed cyanotype portrait, inverted and blue and brown

The print will turn a blue-brown colour and the image might disappear or look odd at the end of this stage.

Wash and Dry the Cyanotype Print

I’ve tried a few methods of both washing and drying and what follows is my current preferred method:

Water pouring over an exposed cyanotype print, the image appearing
  1. First I set up a tray slightly larger than the print and half-filled with water.
  2. Then I slip the print in so it is immediately fully covered in water.
  3. Next, I let it sit for a minute or so.
  4. I lift and drop one end of the tray so that it waves. At this stage you should see yellow chemicals coming from the print. The game now is to move all this yellow away and leave a clean (blue and white) print (the documentation recommends 5+ minutes).
  5. Once no more yellow, I slip into a second tray that is water with a tiny dash of hydrogen peroxide. I’m trying to use the minimum possible where I still see the blue going from slightly pastel to a deep sea blue before my eyes. This takes a few seconds, maybe 30 tops.
  6. Lastly I like to take out, then place onto industrial-type paper towels on both sides, removing all the surface water.
  7. Finally I leave to fully dry for hours or usually overnight.
The completed cyanotype photographic print drying on a piece of cardboard it has been attached to with a rubber band

Now you have your print and it’s time to feel the joy, but more likely all the ways you could improve it will run through your head.

Once dry I always write the date, the exposure length and any other relevant information so I can replicate or adjust my process. If I don’t do this as soon as I can, I forget and curse myself. And that’s basically how to make photographic cyanotype prints!

Notes on Supplies for Photographic Cyanotype Prints

Jacquard Products make the commonplace cyanotype chemicals, at least in the UK. These are the ones I use, but I’m sure others work just as well.

I order cheap acetates from the usual scumbags but I’d like to try others.

I build my own UV boxes and will write more about building and using them in the future.

After applying cyanotype chemicals, I have a few light-tight boxes that I let them dry in, mostly repurposed packaging or cheap containers.

Various clips and pegs for making a photographic cyanotype print

I get my panes of glass from picture frames. Old ones, cheap ones, different sizes. When I started looking for and collecting them, they started appearing everywhere.

I buy hydrogen peroxide from pharmacies or the usual scumbags.

I get my water trays from DIY and gardening shops: they’re just larger seed planters without holes.

I use my iPhone timer but also have the Timer+ app which allows multiple timers running simultaneously.

I keep light-proof bags from RA-4 photographic papers for making traditional colour prints, these are great for keeping your dried cyanotypes ready for printing in.

My current printer is just cheap but came with months of free ink and I love it so far: HP Envy Photo 6234.

How to Make Photographic Cyanotype Prints: What’s Next?

By now you know the basics of how to make a photographic cyanotype prints, but there is a lot more we can talk about. Getting the exposure right, toning the prints into new colours, intermediate techniques etc. I’ll link them up here when I post them.