In three fringe photoelasticity, a single colour isochromatic image is used to estimate the total fringe order by comparing the colour at each point with that of a calibration table. The generation of the calibration table is critical, and certain nuances involved therein are brought out in this paper. Ideally, the same specimen material and lighting conditions must be used for both the calibration and application experiments, which are often not possible in an industrial scenario, and colour adaptation is a simple way of suitably modifying the calibration table. Till date, only experimental analyses of the colour adaptation procedures are available in the literature; in this paper, the colour adaptation procedures are investigated from an analytical viewpoint. This study has brought out that a two-point colour adaptation scheme accounts not only for tint variation between the calibration and application specimens, but also for ambient illumination. This finding has also been experimentally verified for a benchmark problem, and thereafter extended for reflection photoelastic analyses. © 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.