Right now is one of the best times to buy a new TV. In early January, TV makers will announce their 2019 sets at CES, so all the 2018 set will be cheaper than usual as companies work to burn off their old inventory. And seeing as all those new, 2019 TVs won’t start showing up in stores until March, at the earliest you’ve got a few months to enjoy your set without being envious of others. But you know what will make your TV even more enjoyable? These tricks for significantly improving its image quality.
Now, none of these tricks will fix a bad TV, but they will make things much prettier and your friends and family will be impressed by how much nicer your TV looks than theirs, or compared to the ones in the big box store down the street.
But first, two quick notes.
One: Have your TV’s manual handy. Unfortunately, there’s no official menu for TV settings. A setting name like Brightness on one TV can mean something very different on another. We’ll note, where possible, the variety of terms used for a specific setting that needs to be tweaked, but you’ll still need to look it all up for your specific TV, which can be a hassle. If your TV’s manual doesn’t help, you can also turn to resources like Reddit or AVS Forums for more details on your specific set.
And two: Calibrate your TV in darkness. We’ll touch on how to improve the TV’s image in a brightly lit room, but for calibrating itself you’ll want to start things off in as dark a room as possible.
Trick #1: Turn off Energy Saving Features
Yes, conserving energy to protect the environment (and your energy bill) is important, but if you’ve spent a lot of money on a television then you should be able to appreciate the set as the engineers intended it. And that means turning off the energy saving setting. This setting lowers the brightness of your TV set. Lower brightness means less energy used. But it also means the picture just doesn’t look nearly as good, and it could potentially ruin any nice HDR capabilities your TV has as HDR is dependent on your TV pushing out the brightest light possible.
Finding this setting to turn it off can be tricky. Some TVs characterize it as “Energy Saving” while others call it “Eco Saving.” Some TVs store the setting in the Picture Menu. Others in the General Settings Menu. It depends, like a lot of the settings discussed here, on the TV.
Trick #2: Choose the right preset picture setting
Once you’ve turned off the Energy Saving feature it’s time to choose the right preset picture setting for your TV. You will likely feel it necessary to choose something called Vivid. And if you do, everything will be super bright and blue with a very sharp picture and colors so vibrant your eyes bleed.
Do not choose this setting. Vivid is specifically designed for when a TV is being displayed in the garish lights of a store like Best Buy or Costco and isn’t actually intended to be used in your home. The picture is going to be much bluer, or cooler, then the creators of the video you’re watching intended. And while those bright colors might seem eye-catching now, you should try watching something with lots of people with lots of different skin tones. They don’t look right, do they?
Skip over preset picture settings like Standard, Eco Savings, or Game (unless you’re playing a game) and look for settings like Cinema or Movie. These presets are intended to get the TV most in line with what the director of the movie or TV show you’re watching wanted.
Some TVs have even better calibrated presets intended for TV and film. On Sony’s high-end OLED and LED sets, there’s the Netflix setting for viewing Netfix, while LG and Vizio both have calibrated settings intended for a bright or dark room (choose based on the room your TV is placed in). There also could be a preset labeled THX or ISF. Those have been calibrated to the standards of THX or ISF, otherwise known as the Imaging Science Foundation.
Any of these mentioned options will give you a pretty dang nice picture, and unless you have a colorimeter to specifically test which is most accurate, you’re better off just trying each one out. I like to play a movie like Star Trek Beyond when I’m testing settings. There are a lot of bright colors and a lot of different skin tones on display that help me find a good balance between nice colors and accurate ones.
Trick #3: Turn off the Soap Opera Effect
It was really odd when Tom Cruise took a break from his typical Twitter silence to talk about the “soap opera effect,” but the man has a point. This setting, which adds additional frames to a video to make it seem like the characters are moving around as quickly as they do in an old soap opera, is enabled on most TVs by default and should be turned off on most TVs as soon as the set is out of the box.
The setting can be difficult to find on your TV. It will probably not be called “Soap Opera effect,” and will instead have a name likely involving the word “motion.” Look for something like “Motion Control,” “Motion Smoothing,” or “TruMotion.” Go ahead and turn it off and appreciate how the content you’re watching suddenly looks much more cinematic.
Trick #4: Double check the color temperature
The color temperature of a TV set is something that can be really confusing if you aren’t very into lighting, photography, or videography theory. Directors, editors, and producers use monitors calibrated to a specific color temperature. The closer your TV is set to that temperature, the more accurate your picture will be.
That temperature is usually 6500K, and for many, many people it will look oranger than what they prefer. TV sets tend to ship with a much lower temperature setting that creates a much bluer image. That’s because its a lot easier for a TV to produce blue light than the reds and greens necessary to create that perfect 6500K. It’s also because our eyeballs actually find blue light really appealing, so we see it and say “wow that’s much nicer than the more red and green version of the world I see every day.”
But excessive blue light isn’t supposed to be great for your eyes, and it isn’t accurate for your TV. So head into the temperature controls and opt for a “standard” or “warm” setting. As with the picture presets, you’ll want to have something playing that has a lot of different skin tones on display so that you can make sure the warmth of the TV is not so warm that people start looking like Oompa Loompas.
Trick #5: Adjust the Brightness, Contrast, and Backlight settings
This trick requires a little more than a trusty movie you like to watch and your remote control. You’re going to need some test patterns.
I know. This is when things get scary and overly complicated, but I swear this is going to be a lot easier than you assume, and it’s going to leave you with such a better picture on your TV set that you’ll feel like it’s worth it.
And thankfully these test patterns are actually available on YouTube. There’s an entire playlist of them found here. But for this trick you only need two.
First this pattern, which is going to help you adjust the white levels on your TV.
And this pattern, which will help you adjust the black levels on your TV.
Your TV can produce a lot of blacks and whites, but there are a series of steps from 0 to 255 that are considered most crucial, and to ensure your blacks are properly black and your whites are properly white, without blowing things out or leaving things so dark you can’t see details, you need to adjust them.
These patterns display the blacks and whites most at risk of “clipping.” That’s the point where stuff you’re supposed to see disappears because the TV isn’t calibrated correctly.
To get started, you’ll want to go and turn off any features on your TV that “improve blacks” or contrast or mess with the backlight. This covers a lot of different settings but they should all have a toggle switch so you can just go in and turn each one off.
Next, you’re going to put the white levels pattern on your screen and make it as big as possible. Then you’re going to jump into your TV’s settings to adjust the white levels. Typically this means adjusting the “Brightness” setting. I say typically because not all TV manufacturers label this setting the same way. So sometimes it can be labeled “Backlight,” while “Brightness” is reserved for the actual light levels of your TV set’s backlight.
Yeah, it’s really annoying and you’ll need to fiddle with both settings to determine which actually affects your white levels. But fortunately, it will become very apparent because the boxes labeled 251d through 255d will seem to magically disappear and reappear as you adjust the white levels. The goal is to adjust the white level so that you can just baaaaaarely make out the box for 254d. If you cannot see it decrease the white level until you can.
Now it’s time to adjust the black levels. Typically this will require adjusting the “Contrast” setting, but your TV could be annoying and it could, in fact, be the “Backlight” or “Brightness” setting instead.
To further complicate things—everything below 16d will be visible if you’re playing back from a PC source and using the TV as a computer monitor. As that’s not how most content on your TV is intended to be viewed, try to play it back from a non-PC source like your set-top streaming box or even the YouTube app. Then, everything below 16d should be invisible. If you can still see it, your black levels are incorrect. Ideally, you want 16d and lower to be invisible with 17d just baaaaaarely visible.
Now, hop back over to the white pattern and make sure adjusting your blacks didn’t ruin your whites. This may require some back and forth to get things just so, but once it’s done you’ll find that your TV looks much nicer!
Trick #6: Turn on any modes that enhance blacks, contrasts, or local dimming
Now that your blacks and whites are adjusted, you can turn back on all those modes we told you to turn off in Trick #5. This is really important on LED sets, where these special settings help reduce things like the halo effect that can appear around bright objects on a black background.
If you find that your picture still looks weird, play around with these settings. Again, they’re trial and error and do different things on every TV, so you’ll want to play around with what looks best on your specific set.
Trick #7: Adjust the Gamma setting
When TV manufactures produce a TV, they’re typically designing it for a very specific scenario. You alone in a completely dark room with no other source of light. That is probably not realistic. Most of us have our TV in a room with a window, or at least with a little light around. More light around the TV means the TV can look washed out. So it’s important to set the Gamma setting on your TV. This is a quick and fast way to make sure you can see all the detail in the picture, even when you’ve got a window full of sunlight in your face.
Adjusting the Gamma will essentially adjust the brightness of the shadows. A lower number, like 2.0 or lower, will increase the brightness and potentially wash out blacks and blow out your whites, while a higher number, like 2.4 could leave you with little detail in your blacks, but more detail than intended for your whites. Typically you want a Gamma setting of around 2.2, but when you’re in a bright room you’ll want to lower the Gamma to 2.0 or lower so you can see elements of the picture better. I like to adjust the Gamma as the day progresses, starting my morning around 1.8 and dropping to 2.2 when the sun goes down, but there’s no need to be that fussy. Just adjust it for the time of day and the light situation you typically watch the TV in.
Trick #8: Hire a calibrator for anything more
Once you’ve reached this point your TV is going to look the best it can without additional equipment like a colorimeter, pattern generator, and special (expensive) software. If you really want to continue tweaking things, which mainly involves calibrating the white point, your primary colors (red, green, blue) and your secondary colors (cyan, yellow, magenta), you’ll need that equipment.
But it will run you a minimum of $4,000 if you’re lucky, and requires a lot of time and commitment to training. Instead, you can spend $500 and hire a calibrator, who has all the necessary equipment and can probably do it in an hour or two.
I don’t recommend it for most people, but if you have a wildly expensive TV set, or if you’re using a projector, then it’s a good idea to spend the cash. People using projectors will especially see a lot of improvements.