Biofilm communities in the euphotic zone of aquatic habitats comprise photoautotrophic microorganisms, such as diatoms, green algae and cyanobacteria, which produce the organic carbon that fuels the life of a heterotrophic contingent of microorganisms, mostly bacteria. Such photoautotrophic–heterotrophic mixed-species biofilms have received little attention in biofilm research due to a lack of suitable pure-culture laboratory model systems. However, they offer important insight into microbial population dynamics and community interactions during a biofilm-developmental process that shapes highly structured, extremely well-adapted microbial landscapes. Here, we report on the development of a sterile incubation chamber for growing and monitoring axenic phototrophic biofilms, i.e. a sterilizable, illuminated, continuous-flow system for a routine work with pure cultures. The system has been designed to simulate the growth conditions in the shallow, littoral zone of aquatic habitats (horizontal surface, submerged in water, illuminated, aerated). Additional features of the concept include automated photometrical monitoring of biofilm density (as biofilm turbidity), analysis via confocal microscopy, direct harvesting of cells, and options to control illumination, flow velocity, and composition of culture fluid. The application of the system was demonstrated in growth experiments using axenic diatom biofilms, or axenic diatom biofilms co-cultivated with different bacterial strains isolated from epilithic biofilms of an oligotrophic freshwater lake.