What are Spectrophotometers and Colorimeters?

If you were shown a red rose and then asked to describe the shade accurately to a friend so that they would instantly configure up the same exact hue you were explaining and be able to reproduce it precisely, could you do that?


The short answer is no. Everyone sees, interprets, and understands color differently depending on a host of factors.


But what if there was a device that could translate the mysterious language of color for you in a way that could easily be sent to your friend so they could see the color exactly as you do?


Devices like spectrophotometers and colorimeters do just that. But what’s the difference between the two and which one is better for your individual needs?


What is a Colorimeter?


Colorimeters use a set illuminant to refine measurement to three values (also known as tri-stimulus values) , red ( R ), green ( G ), and blue ( B ) and are represented by three corridance points. Typically XYZ or LAB. Tri-stimulus colors are also known as the CIE color system and are the foundation of understanding how to properly communicate color accurately. Commonly referred to as CIELAB or CIE L*a*b* or Lab color space.


But what do all these letters stand for? Knowing what they mean will help you understand better how color is communicated both verbally and through color communication devices.


L* stands for lightness and communicates how light or dark the color your viewing truly is on a scale from 0 to 100 with 0 being black and 100 being white.


A* shows the tint of a color. Colors with a positive a* value will have more red in them while those with a negative a* value will have more of a green tint.


B* shows the temperature of a color. Colors with warm tones will have a positive b* value. Think about your yellows, reds, oranges and lime greens. Colors with cool tones—blues, teals, and some purples—will have a negative b* value.


Colorimeters scan colors and then calculate the placement of these three points to accurately communicate the exact color for the viewer. However, unlike spectrophotometers, they aren’t able to account for metamerism because they only measure color under one illuminate or light source. Meaning that the same color might look different when viewed under different lighting conditions.


Colorimeters cannot provide a formulation so you can create the exact color you see either. Instead, they are used primarily for matching colors scanned to already established color standards. In addition their dE tolerance levels are much higher than Spectrophotometers. So while they can help you find a near accurate match, to find the closest match possible, users will want to use a spectrophotometer.


What is a Spectrophotometer?


Spectrophotometers, unlike colorimeters, are able to measure color using multiple illuminates and can therefore give a much more accurate reading of a particular color and taking into account metamerism.


As the name might imply, a “spectrophotometer” utilizes the visible color spectrum to depict color on any surface. It does this by measuring reflected and transmitted light and then develops a reflectance curve to describe the color of that surface.


Spectrophotometers can have varying geometries or measurement abilities to suit different color measurement scenarios. The three most common spectrophotometer geometries are 45/0, d/8, and multi-angle.


View our compare page to see the exact specifics of each of our devices and decide which one is best suited for your needs.