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What is Your Intention when Selecting Rendering Intents?
If Rendering Intents have you confused, then this article should be just what the (image) doctor ordered. After reading this article you will be able to look at the Perceptual, Relative Colorimetric, Saturation, and Absolute options and make a truly educated decision on which to use.


By Tom Hauenstein

Many people who print see the Rendering Intent option and are not exactly sure what it is and how it works. They usually select a Rendering Intent option a friend or colleague tells them to use and then think nothing more of it.

It turns out that this selection can have a huge effect on how your image appears, and should therefore be understood fully. The following article defines what Rendering Intents are and describes the differences between the four options.

What is a Rendering Intent?

Rendering Intents are mathematical rules on how to deal with out-of-gamut colors when moving from one color space to another. In other words, chances are that when you print an image there will be colors that your camera captured that are impossible for your printer to reproduce.

The printer driver can’t just delete the sections of the images it can’t reproduce or you would get images with large sections of nothing. Therefore, the driver changes those out-of-gamut colors to colors it can actually hit. The method it uses to do this is a Rendering Intent.

You may or may not have noticed that every time you hit print, there’s a Rendering Intent option. You can see it in the Photoshop CS3 print window (see Figure 1 at the end of the article). If you open up that drop-down menu you will see there are four options…

Perceptual Rendering Intent: Good Photographic Option

The Perceptual Rendering Intent is a good option for photographers. When using this option, the driver will take the out-of-gamut colors and move them to the closest in-gamut colors, which is a good thing. It will then shift the in-gamut colors so the relationship between all the colors remains the same.

For example, let’s say you have a dark blue next to a red in a picture and that dark blue is out of gamut but the red is in gamut. The Perceptual Rendering Intent will change that blue to a blue that it can hit. However, it will also change the red (even though it could reproduce it because it is in gamut) so that the relationship between the red and blue is maintained.

Most color gamuts get larger when you go to lighter colors. A printer can’t hit that many dark rich colors, but it can hit a large number of pastels. Therefore, in order to bring colors in gamut and maintain relationships the Perceptual Rendering Intent will often lighten or de-saturate the image. It is the best rendering intent for printing transitions and gradients because its main goal is to preserve the color relationships. Therefore, a gradient moving from dark blue to light blue will appear smooth with this rendering intent.

Relative Colorimetric Rendering Intent: Another Good Photographic Option

The Relative Colorimetric Rendering Intent is also a good option for photographers, but it comes with certain risks. Relative Colorimetric will also move the out-of-gamut colors to the closest in-gamut color. However, it will not change any of the in-gamut colors.

As in the example above, let’s say you have a dark blue that is out of gamut next to a red that is in gamut. The Relative Colorimetric Rendering Intent will also change that blue to the closest blue it can hit, but it will not change the red that is in gamut. Therefore, the red is closer to the red you originally shot, but the relationship between that red and blue has been visually compromised.

The goal of Relative Colorimetric Rendering Intent is to alter the colors in the image as little as possible. Therefore it will be less likely to de-saturate an image to bring it into gamut. It is not a good option for printing gradients, however, because the gradient will appear rather choppy.

Picture a front-lit head shot… As the light fades away toward the side of the head, the flesh shifts from highlights to midtones to shadows. Perceptual will handle this shift smoothly. With Relative Colorimetric you might get weird lines where it makes sudden jumps in the dark areas.

However, it’s nice if you’re printing on matte papers  since matte images naturally look less saturated. If you print with the Perceptual Rendering Intent it may de-saturate that image even further, leaving the print looking washed out.

Saturation Rendering Intent: Bad Photographic Option

The Saturation Rendering Intent’s main goal is to preserve saturation over color. So if there’s a dark blue that is out of gamut, then the driver may switch it to a dark green because it has a closer saturation. This option is to be used only for charts and graphs, like pie charts. I can’t imagine a situation where a photographer would see a blue sky shift to a green sky in certain areas and be happy with that result.

Absolute Rendering Intent: Another Bad Photographic Option

This is used for proofing. For example, let’s say you want to proof a newspaper print that is done on a yellowish or warm stock by an offset press. You are printing the proof on your inkjet printer onto a bright white stock. You can set the white point of an ICC profile so that it replicates that warm or yellow white point of that newspaper stock. In order to use that custom white point you would select Absolute Colorimetric. This is also not useful for photographic output.

How Do I Determine Which Rendering Intent is Best for My Image?

You can soft proof in Photoshop and see how each rendering intent will affect your image.

Here’s where you select the Rendering Intent for Photoshop CS3 and CS2, ImagePrint, and the Canon Plug-In:

Rendering Intents in Photoshop CS3

Rendering Intents in Photoshop CS2

Rendering Intents in ImagePrint

Rendering Intents in the Canon Plug-In

Volume 3  -  No. 9


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