What are the Different Types of Color Measurement Instruments?

By Dwight Davis, Regional Sales Manager


This is the third blog in our series about finding the right tools for digital color management. In this post and the following ones, we’ll cover how to begin your search, making the business case for color management, the different types of color measurement instruments and more. Our goal is to help you make the best decision possible for your company’s needs.


You know you need to invest in digital color management solutions. The next step is understanding the different options on the market.


If you’re wondering what type of color measurement instrument you need, the answer is “it depends”. There’s no one-size-fits-all device — but that’s a good thing. The right fit for your business depends on a range of factors: your industry, specific application, and even the number of locations where you’re measuring color all play into the decision. That’s why we always recommend working closely with a color management specialist.


Today, we’re taking a look at the different types of instruments used to manage color.


What’s the Difference Between Color Measurement and Color Management?


Many people use these terms interchangeably. However, it’s helpful to look at color measurement as the actual reading of a sample or a target, standard or batch. Color management is about managing color through the entire process, from QC of incoming raw materials to finished product. In other words, measurement is the actual physical measurement of a standard or sample using an instrument, and management is controlling color through the production process.


choosing fabric samples


What Does it Mean When We Say an Instrument “Measures” Color?


It helps to think back to something most of us learned in grade school: ROYGBIV, which is the visible spectrum. Without getting too technical, a spectrophotometer measures how much light reflects from the sample in the visible spectrum (between 400 and 700 nanometers) in 10 nanometer increments and reports that as percent reflectance. The reflectance data is then used by the color software to calculate values that represent the lightness, chroma (or brightness), and hue of the sample.


Why are there so Many Types of Color Measurement Instruments?


In the case of color measurement instruments, variety is a very good thing. There are specific instruments for specific markets and a range of products within those markets. We’ll get into this in more detail soon, but at the simplest level, color measurement instruments can be divided into three categories:


  • Benchtops are primarily used for labs and stationary environments
  • Portables can be used on the production line and moved around the plant for a variety of different applications
  • Color lookup is great for the retail and consumer market. These instruments are small and low-cost


What are the Differences within the Benchtop Category?


Depending on your needs and your budget, there’s a benchtop spectrophotometer that’s the right fit for your business.


There are various benchtop configurations, like horizontal and vertical. There are also differences in aperture size, depending on the size of your sample. And there are models for measuring in reflectance or transmission mode (for transparent or translucent materials and transparent liquids). Take the Spectro 1000 for example. The Spectro 1000v and 1000X are vertical configurations used for measuring unusual sample sizes or for operations requiring high throughput. Meanwhile, the Spectro 1050 allows for flexible measurement in either reflectance or transmission mode. A member of the Datacolor team can help you assess your needs and find the right configuration for your business.


Datacolor bench top spectrophotometers


While the capabilities above apply to high-end models, there are also middle grade and base models available. Again, it depends on your color management goals. High-end formulation requires highly accurate measurement data, and therefore a high-end benchtop would be the preferred instrument. Meanwhile, a mid-grade or base model can be used for simple quality control — looking at your standard and batch and determining if the tolerance passes or fails.


Finally, there are two terms you need to consider when selecting the right spectrophotometer: “repeatability” and “inter-instrument agreement”. Repeatability is the level of accuracy when a white tile is measured 30 times. Meanwhile, inter-instrument agreement is the level of accuracy when two identical instruments by the same manufacturer are measuring the exact same sample. If your company has multiple sites using color instrumentation, this is an extremely important thing to consider. If you do, you want a highly repeatable and highly accurate inter-instrument agreement between those locations.


The Most Common Instrument Types for Each Industry


While there are of course exceptions, some instruments are most common in specific industries. Here’s a high-level look. (For an even more in-depth look at the differences in measuring color in each of these industries, you can download our series of industry guides.)


In the coatings industry, you’ll find benchtop and portable reflectance units. This is because the majority of coatings are opaque. A benchtop for a lab environment or a portable for on-site measurement would be the best choice.


The same is true in the majority of cases in the textile industry.


In the plastics industry, there are frequently both translucent and transparent materials, so a benchtop capable of both reflectance and transmission mode is generally required.


Something else to consider in the textile and plastics industry: sample temperature measurement, which removes the guesswork of determining whether a sample returned to ambient temperature before the measurement was taken — something that can influence the actual color of the product.


Finally, in the retail paint industry, a base model that measures strictly in reflectance is usually the go-to option. This can be a benchtop or a portable model of spectrophotometer.


If you’re newer to the world of color measurement instruments, the task of finding the right ones for the job can feel overwhelming. But the benefits of selecting the right tools are significant: time savings, cost savings, and an improvement in product quality. Datacolor’s team of color experts will work with you every step of the way to ensure you’re set up with the right solutions for your needs. Connect with us today to learn more.