Phototrophic biofilms are defined as interfacial microbial communities mainly driven by light as energy source and are studied for both ecological and technological reasons. Field investigations of biofilms usually do not offer the opportunity to study the effects of a large number of external parameters. In order to investigate the temporal development of phototrophic communities a laboratory flow-lane incubator for cultivation of freshwater and marine biofilms was developed. The incubator has four lanes which accommodate microscope slides used as substratum and for sampling. The slides can be of different material and may be employed for characterisation of phototrophic biofilms by means of gravimetry, microscopy, taxonomy, molecular biology and chemical analysis. The design allows control of irradiance, temperature and flow velocity. Furthermore, on-line control of biomass accumulation via specially adapted light sensors was proved to be a suitable indicator of temporal developmental stages (initial adhesion, active growth and mature stage). Spatial heterogeneity of the cultivated phototrophic biofilms along the flow direction within each flow-lane was low. Biofilm growth characteristics (e. g. lag time, net accrual rate, peak biomass) recorded in dependency from external conditions may be used as input data for training of artificial neural networks (ANN) and mechanistic modelling. The material and devices used in combination with low maintenance costs and ease of handling suggests the flow-lane incubator as a useful tool for studying the influence of abiotic and biotic factors on the development of freshwater and marine phototrophic biofilms.