What’s the Difference Between a Colorimeter and a Spectrophotometer?

Datacolor Ebook: Fundamentals of Color

Colorimeters and spectrophotometers are the two types of color measurement instruments that are used to capture, analyze, and communicate color. In just about any industry where color accuracy is important, you’ll find that color measurement is an essential part of the production process. The difference between a colorimeter and spectrophotometer is often a point of confusion for many color scientists. As you expand your color management expertise, we’re here to help you answer: What’s the difference between the two instruments? Is one better than the other? Which one’s for you?


Understanding the factors that distinguish a colorimeter from a spectrophotometer can help you determine which tool best optimizes your color management workflow.






A colorimeter is a tristimulus color measurement tool that provides an objective evaluation of color characteristics based on light passing through the primary filters of red, green, and blue. It simulates how the human eye perceives color.



  • Compact size and high mobility
  • Low-cost option for simple applications
  • Simpler functionality

How it works

  1. The sample is illuminated at a 45° angle by an internal light source.
  2. Light passes through the tristimulus filters, representing the amount of red, green, and blue light reflected from the sample.
  3. Measurements from the filter are quantified into RGB values, which simulate the way human eyes are sensitive to light.

Common uses

  • Straightforward color identification
  • Comparison of similar colors and shades
  • Measurement of color strength
  • Measurement of color fastness
  • Color quality control
  • Source of reference for determining color standards
  • Assessment of non-metameric color batches





A spectrophotometer is a more complex color measuring instrument that factors in light intensity as a function of the color. It performs full-spectrum color measurement, as opposed to a colorimeter’s tristimulus procedure, and generates color data that’s beyond observation by the human eye.



  • Benchtop or portable models – Compare our benchtops
  • Higher-end solution for complex color needs
  • Greater functionality
  • Higher precision from full-spectrum color measurement


How it works

  1. An internal light source strikes the diffraction grating, which acts as a prism that separates the light into different wavelengths of the full color spectrum.
  2. As the grating rotates, only one specific wavelength of light reaches the exit slit at a time and interacts with the sample.
  3. The detector measures the sample’s light intensity, transmittance and absorbance.
  4. The spectrophotometer displays this information digitally.


Common uses

  • Color measurement
  • Color formulation
  • Monitoring of color accuracy throughout production
  • Maintenance of color consistency throughout supply chain
  • Identification of metamerism
  • Measurement of opacity and haze
  • Color quality control
  • Detection of impurities



Colorimeter or Spectrophotometer? Choosing the right one for you:


Deciding the right color measurement device for you depends on your desired application, price range, and instrument complexity. While a colorimeter may be more economical, it only measures the absorbance of specific colors and cannot identify metamerism. It may be ideal for those seeking basic color measurement or control without complex color analysis.


In contrast, a spectrophotometer may offer much more precision and advanced features, but it tends to be a more expensive option. For color management professionals seeking highly accurate color data, digital color communication, and tight color consistency throughout production, this may be the more useful instrument. Be sure to take your industry into consideration when deciding which instrument best supports your color workflow.


Want more detailed support? Contact our global team of color experts to get help selecting the right tools for your color management needs.



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