I always used the term colorimeter for display calibration devices. I mean they meter (measure) color: the term was so intuitively describing this fact that I never questioned its correctness.

Now it was pointed out to me that the device I own (a ColorMunki Photo), is actually a spectrophotometer. What's the difference between a colorimeter and a spectrophotometer?

I found this article from datacolor that tries to explain the differences.

It basically says that all of the following is wrong (in general):

  • a spectrophotometer is reflective device (reads patches on paper), and a colorimeter is an emissive device (reads displays)
  • spectrophotometers are expensive devices, and colorimeters are cheap ones
  • spectros are more accurate than colorimeters

The real difference is supposedly "the method they use for reading color":

  • A spectrophotometer breaks light up into a spectrum, using a color grating or similar system. Then an array of sensors reads each section of the spectrum, producing spectral data. This is ideal if you are analyzing the spectral emissions of a lightbulb, a star, or some other light source, which is why spectrophotometers are often used as scientific devices.

  • A colorimeter uses edge band filters, or some similar system, to separate light out into color components, and then fits those to matching curves based on the human eye, to produce color values in one or another three-value color space (XYZ, xyY, Lab, etc) based on what the human eye would see. This is ideal for matching the human visual response

Ok, hang on there. Color is determined by the frequency of the light. The spectrum is (very basically speaking) a list of all the available frequencies and their intensities (comparable to how a histogram is a list of intensities of a photo, to keep this in the photography realm). Thus color and the spectrum are closely related.

From what I understand, they both do the same thing: pick certain parts of the spectrum and analyse them. Sure they do, because they both measure "color". The spectro does so by diffraction (think dark side of the moon cover: similar result, different cause) and analysis of the result and the colori by band filters, which essentially means it looks at a limited range of colors while doing its thing. (a band pass filter is similar to only looking at the "highlights" part of the histogram, to reuse that analogy).

The article doesn't really explain things well (to me, at least). One device is described by how it obtains the spectrum of light (diffraction) and the other by how it analyses it (band pass filter). That's an apples and oranges comparison, like "Apples grow on trees and oranges are sour" - different properties have different values. That's not very helpful to distinguish them, they might as well be the same for both.

What's the exact difference between the two devices?

I agree with the closing statement of the article:

So you should feel free to choose the device you use for profiling based on its own merits, rather than worrying about which device type it may be.

However, I'm left with the question as to how to refer to those devices in general. As the article suggests, some are neither of the two types but inverse spectrocolorimeter. What term specifies the common functionality to to "measure color" without going into detail about the used technology?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Should the question about the terminology be a separate question? \$\endgroup\$
    – null
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 0:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Color is determined by the frequency of the light." In the context of camera sensors and photo printers that is not really an entirely factual statement. No camera is equally sensitive to all wavelengths of light. Cameras are filtered to be sensitive to light at three specific colors and each set of filtered pixels are sensitive to nearby colors. As the difference between the color filter and the color of the light increases the sensitivity to the other color decreases. Theses color bands are similar to the those to which the human eye is sensitive. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 20:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think at least part of this is related to "is orange light a specific wavelength on the spectrum, or is it a combination of red and yellow light, which is two (or more) specific wavelengths" - human color perception is more complicated than the (relatively) simple physics of colored light. \$\endgroup\$
    – twalberg
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 5:57

2 Answers 2


A spectrophotometer measures the intensity of light (reflected or transmitted) at many different wavelengths, whereas a colorimeter gives a more relative measurement for far fewer wavelengths, perhaps just the ones that most cones of the human eye perceive, ~430 nm, ~545 nm & ~560 nm.

Think of it as the number of "boxes" measured in each device, where the spectrophotometer can distinguish between the close sodium spectral lines at 589.0 and 589.6 nm, but a colorimeter, or the human eye, for that matter, would register both as identical yellows.

For most photographic purposes, e.g. calibrating a monitor or printer, the colorimeter is far more useful if designed to emulate the spectral sensitivity of the eye. If you need to identify a photo chemical by its absorption, use a spectrophotometer.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You should probably also note that the vast majority of photographic cameras are also sensitive to light in the same way that the human eye is: at specific color bands. Most display devices and printers also create color based on combinations of the same color bands to which the human eye and our cameras are sensitive. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 20:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ True... and for Si sensors, which detect well into the IR, an IR-blocking filter is added. Remove it to make your camera IR sensitive (or get a modified IR-filtered Canon EOS 60Da) [corrected by @Michael Clark] \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 3:19

What's the exact difference between the two devices?

Measuring light passed via filters vs. measuring spectral response. Colorimeters are used only for display calibration, but are inexpensive and the best can be more accurate. Spectrophotometers are more expensive, but can calibrate both displays and printers.

how to refer to those devices in general

Calibration devices?


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.