Creating Cyanotype Photographs with Adobe Photoshop

By Dr. Robert Berdan
May 5, 2012

Baby foxes - cyanotype by Robert Berdan ©

Baby foxes - simulated Cyanotype using Adobe Photoshop CS5 - the edge effect was created using a polaroid mask.

Cyanotype photography was first discovered by an English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1842. John is also responsible for creating the name "photography" or "light writing". John considered cyanotypes primarily a tool for reproducing notes and diagrams and the technique was later used by architects and designers to create blue prints. The first women photographer Anna Atkins created contact prints of seaweed and ferns using the cyanotype process. The resulting images have a blue-cyan color. I used a variation of the technique in 1975 to create blue Diazochrome slides for science presentations. Once computers became common I switched to using a digital film recorder to capture graphs and diagrams onto slide film and the Diazochrome process faded into obscurity. A few photographers still make cyanotype prints, but the procedure is easy to simulate using Adobe Photoshop.

Cyanotype by Anna Atkins         Cyanotype by Anna Atkins

Above are early Cyanotype photographs (photograms) taken by Anna Atkins in the 1840s. Her subject material
included, seaweed (Fucus) and horsetails. Anna Atkins is considered to be the first female photographer.

To create a cyanotype print in the early days of photography required applying equal vols of potassium ferricyanide (81% w/v) and a 20% solution of ferric ammonia citrate to paper or cloth and then allowing it to dry in a dark place. A positive image was created by contact printing a subject such as a leaf. Contact printing was done in something that resembles a picture frame with a glass overlay. The contact-frame was placed in UV light which in those days was provided by the sun. Exposures on a sunny day might be around 15 minutes. The UV light reduces the iron III to iron II which then reacts to produce an insoluble blue dye (ferric cyanide) also know as Prussian blue. After exposure, the images are developed by rinsing the yellow unreacted iron solution with running water. The blue color darkens upon drying, but can be accelerated by soaking in 3% household hydrogen peroxide. Diazochrome slides I made used special acetate film from Kodak which I contact printed with a high contrast litho film which was then developed in ammonia vapour in a fume hood. With the introduction of Adobe Photoshop in 1989 this technique became obsolete within a few years.

Ferns cyanotype by Robert Berdan ©

Ferns - simulated Cyanotype with polaroid edge mask

To create a cyanotype image today using Photoshop is easy and there are many ways to do it. The simplest method is as follows:

1. Open your image in Adobe Photoshop

2. Select Image>Adjustments>Hue Saturation from the preset drop down menu select >Cyanotype

Cyanotype palette in Adobe Photoshop

If you don't have this option in your version of Photoshop you can also convert the image to Black and white, then add a monotone blue color as follows using Adobe Photoshop.

1. Open image and convert it to Black and white. Image>Mode>Grayscale (must be in 8 bit mode)

2. Image>Mode>Duotone and from the Duotone box click on the box where it says Ink1 to bring up the color palette and select a blue color e.g. Red 8, Green 39, Blue 171 or similar tone.

Adding a monotone in Photoshop

Don't own Photoshop? No problem you can download Picasa 3 from Google for free for both PC or the Mac and the program also serves as an image database. Start Picasa, select the image and then select one of the tones you would like to convert the image into (see below).

Adding blue tone in Picasa

Picasa - select a blue tone to simulate a Cyanotype. You may want to experiment with some of the other tones.

Early cyanotype prints often had rough edges which can also be simulated using Photoshop paint brushes or using a mask. To create the edge effects in my photos I used Photoshop, dragged a mask over the photos and then selected the blend mode lighten or screen in Photoshop's layer palette. I then flattened the image and added my signature.

Polaroid type mask

Polaroid mask - you can purchase masks from various stock agencies e.g. or make your own.

Foothills cyanotype photo by Robert Berdan ©

Black and white landscape from the foothills near Nanton, Alberta converted to a Cyanotype.

Daisy's cayanotype by Robert Berdan ©

Daisy's photographed in front of rusting metal taken in Yellowknife, NWT

Popular leaf cyanotype by Robert Berdan ©

Popular Leaf, Kananaskis - Cyanotype

Hog Bay Trestle cyanotype by Robert Berdan ©

Hog Bay Trestle, Port McNicoll, Ontario - 1972

Bow river from Stoney Plain Park  cyanotype by Robert Berdan ©

Overview of the Bow River from Stoney Plain Park, Alberta

Rusty gear wheels cyanotype by Robert Berdan ©

Rusting Gear wheels - Yellowknife, NWT

Aphid scanning electron micrograph by Robert Berdan ©

Scanning electron micrograph of an aphid approx. 2,000X

Shell and jars in window cyanotype by Robert Berdan ©

Window with shell and jars - Yellowknife.

Cattails cyanotype by Robert Berdan ©


Broken window cyanotype by Robert Berdan ©

Broken window in grain elevator - Mossleigh, AB

Almost any kind of photograph may work well with the cyanotype look. The images above were created by sifting through some images in my database andselecting some to try. I think simple images tend to work well, but until you try the technique you won't know for sure. The nice thing is that its easy to try and no longer involves working with noxious chemicals. I made these on a rainy Saturday just for fun. To learn more about cyanotype images see the links below. RB


Links & Additional Resources


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