How to calibrate your TV to get the best picture possible

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You got a wonderful, new HDTV this holiday season. Why not take a few minutes to make it look its best?

And even if you got socks for Christmas, you probably already have an HDTV. You can fix that old one up as well.

Every professionally created movie or show you watch was carefully designed. The director, cinematographer, and art director worked hard to create a mood out of color and light. If your TV doesn’t properly reproduce those images, you’re not getting everything you can out of the entertainment.

Proper calibration guarantees that, within the capabilities of your particular TV, the images will look as intended. It can also cut your electric bill and extend the life of your HDTV.

HDTV settings

Most new TVs prompt you to set them up for home use right out of the box. 

You don’t need to be a technician—or even a fanatical amateur—to calibrate your TV; just need a few minutes, possibly an iOS or Android app, and a little knowledge.

Here’s the knowledge:

The right preset is more than half the battle

Not that long ago, HDTVs came out of the box set to look good on a storeroom floor. They were over-bright and over-saturated, so that they would draw shoppers’ eyes away from other overly bright and overly saturated sets.

LG 55LA8600 picture mode

Fortunately, that’s changed. Virtually all new HDTVs, when turned on for the first time, ask if you’ll be using the set at home or in a store. Look around you. If you don’t see crowds of strangers amongst shelves of electronics, select the Home option. That choice alone gets you pretty close to a well-calibrated set.

But you can do better.

Your next job is to select a preset, also known as a picture mode or just mode. You should find this option on the Picture Settings menu. I can’t tell you exactly where to find this (I don’t have your television), but if you press the remote’s Menu button, you’re bound to find it. You may have to select Settings to get to Picture. Remember how to get to this menu; everything discussed in this article involves options on that menu.

I’ve seen HDTVs with as many as nine different presets. They’ll have names like Dynamic, Cinema, Vivid, and Sports. Sometimes they’ll have different modes for baseball and golf. So what mode should you choose?

If you see an option for THX or ISF Expert, pick that. These are pre-calibrated modes set up by standards organizations. If neither of those are available, go with Cinema or Standard. Avoid the Vivid or Dynamic settings as you would a plaid jacket with a paisley tie.

Calibration beyond the preset mode

Even the THX and ISF modes aren’t perfect. For one thing, they know nothing about the environment. The light and color in the room you’ve placed the TV makes a big difference. That’s why additional calibration is in order.

HDTVs offer five primary image settings, all in the above-mentioned Picture Settings menu (which may have a different name on your set). Their names are all common English words you understand, but in this context, they don’t always mean what you think they mean.

THX tune-up color on Android THX

If you're not satisfied with your TV's default settings, try using a calibration tool, such as this free app from THX.

Brightness: Don’t expect this to behave like a lamp’s dimmer switch. On a television, Brightness controls the black level—how dark the image can go before you lose detail. In some older HDTVs, this might be called Picture.

The best images to use for these calibrations are test patterns, not photographs. With this one, from THX, adjust your brightness control so that you can just barely see the drop shadow behind the logo.

THX brightness pattern THX

With this image on the screen, adjust your TV's brightness control until the THX logo's shadow is just barely visible. 

How do you get this image to your TV? You can click it and download the full-sized version, then use one of many techniques to display the image on your television. You can use your network, a flash drive, or the app that I discuss below.

Contrast: This setting controls—you guessed it—the white level. It’s all about how light the image can go before you lose detail.

THX has a good contrast test pattern as well. If you can clearly see all eight gray rectangles, your contrast is fine.

THX contrast pattern THX

Changing the Contrast effects the Brightness. So after you’ve changed one, you need to go back and re-examine the other. You may need to go back and forth a bit before you’re satisfied on all counts.

Color: This one is really color saturation—how intense the color looks. Turn this up too high, and the colors overwhelm the details. Too low, and you’ve got a black-and-white TV.

The best way to set this involves a test pattern and special filters or glasses that block all but one primary color. I discuss a free option for this in the next section.

Otherwise, your best bet is to eyeball it. Find a setting where the color is moderately bright, but not causing problems around the edges.

Tint: Finally, a name that means what it says. This setting controls the tint of the image, between the extremes of red and green. On some older sets, it may be called Hue.

You probably don’t have to deal with this one at all. It’s likely already set to dead center, which is probably where it should be. But if skin tones are looking too reddish or to greenish, this is where you can fix the problem.

THX tune up open screen iOS THX

Run this free THX calibration app on your tablet or smartphone (Android and iOS versions are avaialable) and you'll have your TV in tip-top shape in no time.

Screen size: Also known as Wide, AR, and Aspect Ratio. A high-definition (HD) signal, especially a menu or start screen, should fill the entire screen; a standard definition (SD) signal—aside from an anamorphic DVD—should be pillarboxed, with bars on the sides.

If everyone looks unnaturally thin or thick, or images are getting cut off, you’ve got the wrong setting. The settings you want are probably called Wide for HD content, and Standard for SD content.

Some content, even in HD, doesn’t fill the entire screen. Don’t worry about black bars on the sides or the top and bottom. They’re there because the program was shot for a different-shaped screen.

The easy approach: Use a guided tour

You don’t have to calibrate the picture on your own. You can find a number of step-by-step tools to help you. Some are sold on Blu-ray discs. Others come as extras on Blu-ray discs that you buy for the movie.

But my favorite, at least for non-experts, comes as an app.

THX tune-up is available in Android and iOS versions. It’s free, although you’ll need the appropriate smartphone or tablet. You’ll also need a way to connect the device to your HDTV. For iOS, that means either AirPlay or HDMI; for Android, just HDMI (alas, there’s no Chromecast support). None of these devices have full-sized HDMI ports, so you’ll need the appropriate adapter or a special cable.

After an introductory video and some questions about your equipment, the tune-up app walks you through the five settings described above. For each setting, you can switch back and forth between a test pattern (including the two above) and a photo. Narration tells you what to do. And yes, you can go back and forth between Brightness and Contrast until you’re satisfied with both, although the narrator doesn’t mention that good idea.

The app really shows its strength when it’s time to adjust color. It uses the camera in your phone or tablet to turn the device into a red filter. Looking at your TV screen through the device’s screen, you can adjust the Color setting until the red box disappears into the gray background (which, of course, appears red through the filter).

Viewing TV through a red filter on an Android phone Lincoln Spector

It uses the same red filter trick for Tint, this time making a yellow square disappear into the gray background. But as I said, you probably don’t need to mess with Tint at all.

The difference between night and day

Unless your TV room lacks windows, the quality of the image will vary with the time of day. You’ll want a brighter picture during the day, when the room is sunlit. At night, you’ll want to turn the brightness down.

And no, you do not want to use the TV’s Brightness setting for this purpose. As I mentioned before, the Brightness control doesn’t actually brighten the image. And remember that adjusting Brightness effects Contrast, so you have to adjust that, too. But since adjusting Contrast effects the Brightness…. Well, you get the point.

sony bravia

TVs are expensive. Take a few minutes to make sure you're getting a complete return on your investment. 

You have three options here:

If your HDTV offers two or more user-configurable modes, calibrate one of them at night, and the other in the afternoon. That way, you can change modes to adjust to the light.

Another option, and the one I use, works only with LCD sets with LED backlights. Calibrate the TV at night. Then, when you want to watch TV in the daytime, turn up the set’s Backlight setting. This brightens the picture without impacting the Brightness and Contrast settings.

Finally, you can calibrate at night, and then just accept that your daytime viewing will be compromised. Talk shows, news programs, and most documentaries don’t depend all that much on image quality. You can save real movies and TV shows for nighttime viewing.

A motion picture can only be as good as the device used to present it. The better you can make your HDTV, the better it can put on a show.

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