Rendering Intents - what do they do?

If you're a printer you'll have seen them. Perceptual; Relative Colorimetric; Saturation; Absolute Colorimetric. But do you know what they are; what they’re for; what they do?

Mike Adams, of, discusses the different rendering intents, and their purpose. Originally published in Wide Format Imaging in the May 2010 edition, (you can read the original article here.) this article is reproduced here with the author's kind permission. Please do not reproduce the article in part or full without the author's express permission.

.... They are rendering intents. They’re for handling situations in which you’ve got to convert colour information from one colour space to a different colour space with a smaller gamut. What they do is determine how that conversion is made.

That’s also all they do. Sometimes you may get into a situation where you have an image that isn’t working for you and you try anything and everything, and finally you stumble across rendering intents and click through them and one happens to solve your problem on that one image. Don’t assume that it’s the magic bullet and you can use it all the time. All you’ve done is discover that for the particular image you’re working with you’ve solved a particular problem in a particular way. The next problem image you have may have an entirely different underlying issue.

Rendering Intents—Differences

So why are there four of them and how are they different? Because depending on what your image is, or how it’s going to be used, you might want to handle how you get out-of-gamut colours into gamut differently.

Incidentally, there are also only four. In some cases with some “dumbed-down” printer drivers or applications or the like, you might see them described as “photographic” or “graphics” or some such, but that’s just “helpfulness” on the part of whomever it was that wrote that particular application. Behind the scenes, there are just perceptual, relative colorimetric, saturation, and absolute colorimetric.

So for which to use and in what instances, the first thing to keep in mind is that every ICC profile or colour space has as its basis point its white point. So that if you’re moving from one colour space to another (and just for illustrative purposes here, think of any ICC profile as a colour space), the first thing you’ve got to determine is whether or not to move from the originating colour space white point to the destination colour space white point. Most times and most cases in this industry, you do. Unless you’re doing some very specific proofing, it’s almost a given that you’d want to. If you’re printing an image for final sale, in just about all cases, you obviously want to print the entire range of colours available to you in a colour space rendered accurately on the media on which you’re printing. For that reason, three of the rendering intents do make the conversion from originating white point to destination white point. Those three are perceptual, relative colorimetric, and saturation.

How are they different?

Well, let’s just say that you’ve got an image with a lot of subtle green shades in it, running from midtone out to deep shadow. And let’s say that your printer runs out of gamut about midway along their scale. If all you did was compensate for the new white point and then move out-of-gamut colours into gamut, you’d lose all your detail in the green areas past the gamut boundary of the destination space (your printer.) For example, maybe where you had a leaf with some nice detail in it, you’d just wind up with a solid green blob.

So what the perceptual intent does is make a determination to move some in-gamut colours—basically by lightening them—in order to keep this clipping, as it’s called in the trade, from happening.Great, right? Maybe. But what if you’ve got an image that’s got a corporate PMS colour right on the gamut boundary and you want to nail that colour, and that’s really all the client cares about? Perceptual will helpfully lighten it up for you each and every time - no use to anyone!

So that brings up relative colorimetric. Relative because it’s compensating for the new white point, colorimetric because it’s just making colour value moves to the destination space, and leaving in-gamut colours alone.

Saturation also makes the move from the originating white point to the destination, but what it does is make an assumption of what’s the most saturated colour value for out-of-gamut colours in the new gamut, and moves them there.

And finally absolute colorimetric does not make the move from originating to destination white point. It’s pretty much strictly for certain proofing applications and doesn’t have a whole lot of use in the business of actually reproducing images for sale.

Making Colour Assumptions

So that seems pretty straightforward, right? No.

Read over the descriptions one more time and you’ll see that two of the four rendering intents have to make assumptions. The ones that aren’t colorimetric, that is. The colorimetrics are both making mathematical calculations based strictly on numbers fed them by the colour management engine. But perceptual and saturation are different. They’re making decisions about where to put colours based on whatever instructions were written into them at the time the destination profiles in which they reside were made.

And here’s where it gets a little tricky. You might make an assumption that if you’re converting from one colour space to another using the perceptual rendering intent, the ICC profile would use the gamut of your originating colour space or of your image itself on which to base its final output. But you’d be wrong. What it uses is best described as an internal source gamut. And that source gamut is in the end determined either by the maker of the profile, or by the software the maker is using. It has no idea what your original image is, or what colour space it was in. That’s just the way it works. And what’s not too well understood is that there are several profile-making engines out there, and each of them handles this process in its own way. Some of them are pretty good at it. Some of them, not so much. Some of them give the maker of the profile a lot of flexibility to determine the limits and range of the perceptual intent at the time the profile was made, and others none at all.

Same thing holds true with saturation. It doesn’t use a source gamut, per se, since it doesn’t need to, but it does make saturation assumptions based on whatever values and determinations were written into the particular profile you’re using when that profile was written.

I was reminded of this recently when I was looking at some profiles made by the profile-making engine of one of the leading RIP manufacturers. The colorimetrics looked reasonable, the perceptuals looked okay—if not exactly stellar—but the saturations were just surprisingly horrible.

The important take away is that there aren’t any hard and fast rules or ICC conventions that determine how perceptual or saturation rendering intents are created inside a profile. Point of fact: there isn’t even a convention that requires they exist at all. It’s possible in some profile-making engines to simply not make them. (And you might be surprised to find in just how many stock profiles that are floating around out there, they don’t.)

The further compounding element in determining which rendering intent to use for which images and in which situations is Black Point Compensation (BPC). The best way to think of BPC is to think of it as perceptual rendering intent for black only. BPC can be very handy for holding shadow detail in images where the maximum black of the originating image is greater than the maximum black capability of the final output device.

What BPC does—as its name suggests—is compensate for the difference in black points between one colour space and another in the relative colorimetric and saturation rendering intents only. At least so Adobe tells us, and for the most part I take them at their word. On some machine profiles sometimes if you look you can see some subtle shifts in shadow detail by turning BPC on and off in perceptual. But for the most part, it’s assumed that if you’re using perceptual, the black point compensation has already been handled by the rendering intent itself. Anyway, many times when you’re printing a large gamut image to a large gamut device, relative colorimetric with BPC on will achieve the best overall result. In fact, many photographers have gone to this workflow as pretty much their de facto default. If you’re printing TIFFs from Photoshop, it’s certainly worth considering. However, BPC is an Adobe feature and it’s not available on any of the major RIP’s—or minor ones, to my knowledge. So if you’re printing through a RIP, relative colorimetric with BPC on is not an option.

Like so many other facets of colour management, the idea of rendering intents is pretty straightforward and the basics of rendering intents do not change from one application to another. Once you’ve conquered the basics, they don’t change. However, also like so many other facets of colour management, while the basics are straightforward sometimes the execution requires patience, perseverance, and an understanding that all this stuff was built by people and, like anything else, it’s only as good as the people who made it.

Mike Adams is the owner of Correct Colour, Austin TX, specializing in complete wide-format colour workflow management. Adams has been on the cutting edge of the business of putting colorants onto media for parts of four decades, and was one of the pioneers of colour-managed wide-format workflows in the late 1990’s. Contact him at 001 817-781-4010, by email at, or visit his website at