What Is the Difference Between Whiteness and Brightness?

It was one of those “a picture is worth a thousand words” moments. It all started off innocently enough.

“So is ‘brightness’ a guide for white paper worldwide?” Matthew was curious and rightfully so. He was fairly new to the world of commercial printing, eager to get it right, and wanted to learn. Kudos to him. What startled us, though, was his follow-up question: “So what does brightness tell me about the shade of the paper?”

Try as I may, my verbal explanations did not make too much sense to him…or so I suspected. So I rummaged through my hard drive and came up with a simple chart about whiteness versus brightness that I use when giving talks and teaching classes. And yep, the penny dropped after I emailed it to Matthew…

Confused about Whiteness and Brightness?

Brightness is a traditional measure that still appears on most packaging in the United States. The TAPPI standard (GE brightness) measures the ability of a paper to reflect blue light. On a scale of 0 to 100, the higher the number, the brighter the sheet.


Whiteness measures paper in the same way the eye sees it. Light is actually made up of all colors combined. When light strikes an object, the object absorbs some colors and reflects others. (Think of the blue ocean…that is not really blue, is it?)

CIE Whiteness, developed by the France-based International Commission on Illumination (aka CIE), is the most commonly used whiteness index. It normally refers to measurements made under D65 illumination, which is a standard representation of outdoor daylight. For a perfect reflecting, nonfluorescent white material, the CIE Whiteness would be 100. Papers containing fluorescent additives such as Optical Brightening Agents (OBA) will also measure well above 100.

Whiteness is really the absence of color. The CIE index has been devised so that most people will agree that the higher the whiteness, the whiter the material.

Sabine Lenz is the founder of PaperSpecs.com, the first online paper database and community specifically designed for paper specifiers.

Growing up in Germany, Sabine started her design career in Frankfurt, before moving to Australia and then the United States. She has worked on design projects ranging from corporate identities to major road shows and product launches. From start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, her list of clients included Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Deutsche Bank, IBM and KPMG.

Seeing designers struggle worldwide to stay current with new papers and paper trends inspired Sabine to create PaperSpecs, an independent and comprehensive Web-based paper database and weekly e-newsletter. She is also a speaker on paper issues and the paper industry. Some refer to her lovingly as the "paper queen" who combines her passion for this wonderful substrate called paper with a hands-on approach to sharing her knowledge. 

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  • gtilite

    A nice explanation of the difference between whiteness and brightness when discussing paper.

  • Marcio Ferreira

    Clarity and objectivity to explain the matter.

    Marcio Ferreira
    Hexacolor Consulting

  • Benton Jacks

    The chart is akin to the CRI (Color Rendering Index) where 100 CRI indicates a lamp lighting source optimun ability to show colors accurately. Any CRI over 80 reflects the natural vibrancy of an illuminated colored surface. The function of exposure factors for fluorescent lamp spectral wavelengths the eye can perceive, ranges from IR 700 nm to UV 420 nm due to rare earth coating masked phosphors in the glass tubing. (soft white 82 CRI, cool white 62 CRI, etc…the highest being cool white deluxe of 87 CRI).*Thank you for the brightness-whiteness exlpanation.
    *Source credit: ELECTRICAL TERMINATOR, Dwelling Wiring lighting efficiency of surface illumination.

  • Sabine Lenz

    Thanks guys. I am always for making things clear and easy to understand 😉