Colorimetry – The Theory of colors


Learn more about the types of light, typical reflection curves, optical brighteners and much more.


Electro magnetic radiation in the wavelength range of 380 nm to 730 nm is seen as light by our eyes. Low wavelengths show as blue light. Then the spectrum continues from green, yellow, orange to red. UV radiation is located in the range underneath 380 nm; the range above 730 nm is called infrared radiation. The visual impression of a colored body changes by the composition of the incoming light.


Each color has its typical spectral curve. The color pigments absorb specific wavelengths of the incoming light, other wavelengths are reflected.Perfect white reflects the entire incoming light (i.e. no absorption) perfect black however absorbs all wavelengths at 100%. If you add saturated dyestuffs to a white base specific sections of the spectral curve are lowered more and more.The spectral curve can never be raised by dyestuffs.


The CIELAB color space is the most common used color space in the industry. The vertical L*-axis reflects the lightness of a color. Here L*=0 represents absolute black, L*=100 represents perfect white. The positive a*-axis represents the red parts of a color, the negative a*-axis represents the green shares. The positive b*-axis is for the color yellow, negative b*-values mean blue. Thus in this three-dimensional structure you can „address“ all real existing colors at one light type, measurement geometry and standard observer.
Another way to display the a* and b*-axes is the representation in polar coordinates. C* is named Chroma and shows the difference from the neutral gray axis to the sample. H is called the Hue angle. It is always measured counter-clockwise starting from the positive a*-axis. This set of definitions is mainly used for saturated colors, since values in numbers are easier to understand. For instance, the color orange is more saturated than the sample, not more red and more yellow. The difference from a sample to the standard is stated in delta values (Δ or d): ΔL* = 0,5 sample is 0.5 units brighter Δa* = -1,5 sample is -1.5 units greener Δb* = -3,6 sample is -3.6 units bluer ΔC* = -3,9 sample is -3.9 units less colored ΔH = 0,7 sample is 0.7 depends on the location


Similar to the axes of the CIELAB system several directions have to be observed also for the tolerances. The difference from standard value to toleranc limits need not always be the same. Especially in saturated colors a tolerable color difference along the Chroma axis (=ΔC) can be much higher than a color difference in the Hue (=ΔH) or in the Lightness (=ΔL).

Optical Brightening

The optical brightening agent (OBA) absorbs invisible UV radiation and emits in the visible range. This can create reflectance values of more than 100%, i.e. at specific wavelengths more light is reflected by the sample than had come in at these wavelengths. This effect is utilized in white papers or textiles, where blue light is excited. The CIE whiteness correlates better to the visual assessment than ISO whiteness, since the entire visual range is taken into consideration.