Optimizing Your HDTV’s Picture

Here’s the situation: you’ve just bought a new flat-panel HDTV. You connect it to the latest Blu-ray player, power it on, and watch expectantly as its first images appear on the screen. Only, you notice the image doesn’t look right. Faces look sunburned, unnatural, and everything looks too bright. The black level you heard so much about looks much grayer than you had anticipated. The perceived image quality does not seem commensurate to your monetary outlay. You’re disappointed.

You’re also not alone.

Contrary to widespread assumption, your HDTV does not look its best—or even great—out of the box. Manufacturers of flat-panel televisions do not fine-tune each display to look its best in a home environment, but rather to outperform competing displays in the showrooms. Unfortunately, those showroom presets don’t have the same appeal in home environments, resulting in the highly unflattering imagery you see when first hitting the power button. The reality is that it’s impossible to untap your HDTV’s true potential without adjusting it from its default settings. As we will see, the difference can be quite remarkable.

Even if you’ve not paid much attention to televisions, you’re probably aware of the tricks retailers use to steer customers toward particular products and get your attention. The sets at big-box retailers are commonly configured to “torch mode”—or what otherwise may be called “burn your retina mode”—where contrast and brightness are exaggerated in an effort to draw in the consumer. These showroom floors represent a decidedly atypical viewing scenario; this is not the environment in which the display will be placed at home. Your HDTV will likely not have to combat a surfeit of fluorescent lighting, and thus should not be driven with the same settings.

“What’s wrong with factory settings?”

The ultimate purpose of adjusting your television is to reproduce as closely as possible the intent of the creator of whatever content you’re viewing. What you see on your screen should closely approximate what the director, post-production engineers, visual artists, etc. saw in their editing studio. The monitors used in post-production, for the most part, adhere to specific industry standards for color, black level, grayscale, gamma and image proportions. For example, all movies released on the DVD and Blu-ray Disc (BD) formats are originally mastered in light-controlled studios on standardized display devices. Ideally, then, you want your television as well as your viewing environment to mirror these reference standards.

Therein lies the fundamental dilemma for consumers. The default settings on consumer-grade HDTVs are usually so far removed from content standards that you are not seeing what was intended. TVs in “torch mode” exhibit washed out detail and elicit an altogether unnatural image. The artificial nature of default settings is more discernible in a dark room. What’s more, viewing an overly bright display in a dim-to-dark environment can lead to viewing fatigue and visual discomfort. An unadjusted display distorts creator intent, and this distortion can only be reliably avoided by emulating professional practice.

Let’s take a closer look at this disconnect between reference and consumer level reproduction. The two images below are freeze frames from the BD version of The Fighter displayed on my calibrated Pioneer KRP-500M plasma monitor (ISF modes activated), which I purchased after the unfortunate demise of Pioneer’s HDTV division. The frames were captured with a Canon XSI in a light-controlled room. Due to the inevitable non-uniformity present in any imaging chain (and in particular the amount of ambient light present; again, the images are intended for dark-room viewing), you probably are not seeing the unadulterated image, but the differences should still be quite palpable. (Click to enlarge)

Default Settings – Pioneer KRP-500M plasma

Calibrated Settings – Pioneer KRP-500M plasma

In the images above, notice how the top image washes out white details in the background and the details on Bale’s shirt, while the calibrated image preserves those details. Also notice how the faces of our two main characters look pasty and unnatural in “torch” mode. Finally, take note of the stand behind Bale; in the top image, it exhibits a gray color, whereas the calibrated image shows its correct color of black.

What can I do about it?

Grayscale, gamma, CMS? While the rabbit hole of display calibration is fairly deep, a remarkable difference in image quality can be achieved without a large investment of time and education. There are a number of approaches you can take to align your display closer to industry practice. Options range from purchasing a calibration disc, downloading test patterns via the internet, purchasing external hardware such as colorimeters and spectrophotometers, to simply hiring a certified calibrator to come to your home. Since the latter two can be prohibitively expensive, and purchasing your own meters requires some advanced technical know-how, I’d recommend starting with the first two choices.

Using a calibration disc or online test patterns will easily get you 85-90% of the way to industry conformity, and the learning curve is modest. With all discs and test patterns, there are a few preliminary items to apply first. Before you begin calibration, it’s also recommended to let your display run for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Some TV manufacturers (e.g., Samsung, Toshiba) will actually prompt you the first time you power on the display to choose between ‘Demo’ and ‘Home’ modes. Demo is intended for showroom floors, while Home settings will cater to the more refined lighting situations present in most living areas. Go into your settings and look for a picture mode labeled ‘Movie’ or ‘Cinema,’ as these two presets are typically the most accurate picture modes out of the box for HDTV displays. These two changes should immediately make your viewing experience easier on the eyes, but will not magically make your display 100% accurate.1

Next, pop a calibration disc or thumb drive into your Blu-ray player. As with any sort of calibration activity, you need a reference to match up against, which these discs provide to enable your display to emulate industry standard. You play them just as you would a standard disc, and they typically have either on-disc or online manuals to walk you through each pattern. Like before, use your remote to adjust your TV’s settings, such as contrast, brightness, color and sharpness. A detailed explanation of these settings and picture parameters such as grayscale, gamma and CMS are beyond the purview of this post, but the discs are usually accompanied by thorough explanations of what you are adjusting.

Thankfully, there are a number of quality calibration discs available today. The three mentioned below are ones I have used and recommend for their user-friendly interface and overall effectiveness.

Disney’s World of Wonder

  • Most beginner-friendly
  • Easy to understand tutorials of the adjustments you are making
  • Includes patterns for use with and without external hardware
  • Includes countless high quality clips from Disney films

Joe Kane’s Digital Video Essentials

  • Average technical expertise required
  • Solid background information on the hows and whys of display adjustment
  • Includes patterns for use with and without external hardware

Spears & Munsil’s HD Benchmark

  • Highest technical expertise required
  • Highest quality test patterns
  • Gorgeous intro montage
  • Advanced explanations of test patterns
  • Includes patterns for picture parameters than can be adjusted by eye only

Beyond calibration discs, using meters, or hiring a professional calibrator, can get you even closer to reference, as they will allow precise adjustments that cannot be reliably made by eye (e.g., grayscale, gamma, CMS). Since the associated costs can be costly for the average consumer, this option is primarily intended for the enthusiast or someone who possesses the utmost desire for the accurate reproduction of movies and other program material.

With the drastic increase in picture quality brought about by the Blu-ray format, user adjustment and calibration is more important than ever. The degree of detail and clarity offered by Blu-ray movies and HDTVs has moved us closer to the ever-elusive “looking through a window” feel in modern display devices. Few understand the degree of difference between an unadjusted and properly adjusted HDTV until demonstrated to them. You paid hard-earned money for your HDTV: why not extract its ultimate potential?

  1. This is more important for plasma panels, as this allows the phosphors to settle. []
  • Don

    i love your blog, i have it in my rss reader and always like new things coming up from it.