Modern camera technology has enabled us to snap high-quality photos, but low tech alternatives can still produce striking works of art with stellar results. Cyanotypes, or sun prints, are a classic example of this. An early form of photography, cyanotypes are formed using a naturally abundant resource: sunlight.

The Early History of Cyanotypes

Cyanotypes were first introduced in 1842 by Sir John Herschel. As the English astronomer sought out ways to make copies of his notes with ease, he discovered that combining equal parts Potassium ferricyanide and Ferric ammonium citrate created a unique reaction. Once the two components were diluted and combined with water, the liquid would be brushed or dipped onto a sheet of paper, left to dry, then exposed in sunlight.  

A book cover printed as a cyanotype. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843). Courtesy of New York Public Library

Adapting the contact print method, transparent film negatives were placed directly onto paper previously dried in a darkroom, exposed, then revealed the positive image in a Prussian Blue hue. At the time of its invention, cyanotypes were very affordable due to the materials and simple process involved and commonly used for architectural blueprints or by hobbyists.

Later on, botanist and photographer Anna Atkins helped to shift cyanotypes from practical copies into a method of scientific research. Atkins used the cyanotype process to document botanical species throughout Britain. She then arranged her work into one of the first photo books in art history, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), which displayed various forms of algae from the British Isles.

Image from Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

Atkins later collaborated with photographer Anne Dixon to produce more printed series documenting botany with cyanotypes, Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns (1853) and Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854).

Exposing the Aesthetics of the Natural World

Even though Atkin’s work spurred from scientific research, her work still has an artful, surreal quality to them. Just as hand-drawn scientific illustrations merge art and science, Atkin’s well-composed cyanotypes makes viewers distinctly aware of the negative space around the individual plants, putting the objects at the center of their attention. In prints that have multiple objects, they have the same effect as paper collages, where different textures and surfaces overlap onto each other or hold their own space.

Image of Cystoseira granulata from Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

Artists initially rejected cyanotypes thinking its results and process were not complicated enough. The cyanotype process eventually made its way into the art world as modern and contemporary artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Barbara Kasten utilized the process in their own work and as art photography expanded over time.

DIY Cyanotypes 

You can even create your own cyanotypes using traditional or new processes.

Cyanotype kits that come in a liquid form are a great way to get started since you don’t have to dilute or measure out any chemical compounds yourself. The kits come in pre-mixed solutions which just need to be combined in equal parts and applied to an absorbent sheet of paper.

One kit can make at least 24 prints, and you can also purchase sheets of pre-treated cyanotype paper that are ready to be exposed in sunlight. There’s even ways you can recreate cyanotypes with non-chemical materials like fabric paint or spray paint.

Try it for yourself! Developing images in this way might be more time-consuming, but you’ll get a final result that’s completely original, and makes you appreciate the hands-on methods photographers used to capture the world around them. 

If you’re interested in learning more about photography methods and related subjects, check out these courses:

Camera Essentials

School of Visual Arts


Introduction to Graphic Design History

Maryland Institute College of Art