Is using a smartphone color app accurate?


Ever been captivated by a color in your surroundings? Maybe it’s a brightly colored flower or a mural that stopped you in your tracks. Trying to remember the exact color of an item once it’s gone is challenging, so how do you record it accurately?

Many people have asked why they can’t turn to their smartphone cameras using apps or photos to record their favorite colors. Although they do a good job at capturing an image of the item you’re looking at, they do a poor job at measuring color. Why? Well, it comes down to two main reasons: lighting and hardware.




Although smartphone apps are helpful when making some basic color decisions, the light source and our individual perception will influence color matching results. The apparent color of an image can be greatly affected by the distance of the light source from the subject.

Below is a chart of color temperatures in Kelvin to give you a better understanding of how lighting alone can skew color data when using a smartphone camera to determine color value.

Color Temperatures in Kelvin

Additionally, smartphone phone cameras use the most basic system of sensors that essentially only respond to red, green, and blue light (RGB). This limitation means that such RGB cameras describe any particular color in terms of only three responses or information points, which doesn’t provide any insight into the components of a color or how a color may appear under different lighting conditions.

For instance, the viral photos of the Vans shoe and the blue/black cocktail dress are the perfect examples of how human perception and faulty smartphone cameras can become a disadvantage when identifying color. For those of you that are unfamiliar with both cases, below you can find photos of a Vans sneaker and a cocktail dress. The internet went into a debate over what color they actually are. The shoes appear to be teal and grey, and Photoshop identifies the colors to be teal and grey too. However, after color correction, the shoes become pink and white, matching these “bottom/white” Vans.

Similarly, some perceive the dress to be white with gold lacing, when in reality the dress is blue with black lace. Why does this occur? Well because, the difference in color depends on your own sensitivity to light and how your brain is interpreting that light. Poor lighting can also be a large contributing factor to inaccurate color interpretations. So what color you see depends on individual perception and the environment in which you’re looking at the object.

Teal/grey or pink/white shoe, and blue/black or white/gold dress that went viral.

Colorimeters, like the Nix Mini and Nix Pro, block out all ambient lighting for accurate color measurement, using its own controlled LED light source and covering the whole visible range. Unlike other colorimeters, our devices do not require calibration cards that often get damp, dirty or dusty. Instead, each device is individually calibrated in-house, meaning you’ll get accurate data without the need of a calibration chip. Our technology is a more accurate alternative to depending on our human perception of color and unreliable light sources, by simply providing seamless, time efficient, and dependable results for every scan. 


Using smartphone apps can be a convenient way to determine color, however, their manufacturers didn’t design them to be used as colorimeters for selecting paints or digital values. Meaning, the data is often skewed and in accurate. In order to achieve accurate color identification, any instrument used to measure a physical characteristic of an object needs to be calibrated to a set standard if its results are to be trusted. For this reason, colorimeters are individually calibrated and tested after manufacturing, which ensures an optimal match to the reference paint data stored in the device color library.

Colorimeters are able to detect the slightest differences in color. To give you an idea of how different values actually appear in real-life, we created the following sets of swatches showing the Delta-E differences using the Nix Pro App (Learn more about Delta-E). Note that the quality of your monitor or smartphone might affect your ability to perceive these colors properly.

To the human eye, these two sets of colors may be perceived as the same when in reality they are different values. This means if we were to measure these two colors by eye, it will likely lead to inaccurate results due to human error.

Here’s an example of how lighting can affect color matching when using color apps and photos as reference. Below we took photos of Benjamin Moore colors Newborn Pink and Dog’s Ear with a smartphone camera (second row of swatches in the photo). You can see that under different light sources these paint swatches look very different in comparison to its real color.

Using Photoshop we grabbed color from the swatches in photos A,B, and C to demonstrate these differences. Photo A is taken with a smartphone camera under fluorescent lights, photo B is taken with flash, and photo C is taken near a window with natural lighting. In the screenshot to the right we show the results of scanning the two swatches using the Nix Pro Color Sensor and compare the Delta-E values. You can see here that grabbing color from photos using smartphone cameras or camera apps, often result in incorrect data versus measuring the surface color with a colorimeter    and determining its real color.



Color sensors or colorimeters, such as the Nix Mini or Nix Pro devices are the perfect tools to ensure accurate color measurement results. Our devices are individually calibrated in our Canadian lab using proprietary calibration methods, meaning you’ll get reliable and accurate data. We have a dedicated team that meticulously digitizes each and every color, collection, and brand in our app libraries. With the award-winning Nix Design, you’ll be confident in your color data.


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