Got a new TV? Confused about what all the picture settings do? Have no fear, HDGuru is here.

To help, that is.

We break down all the major picture settings, what they do, what they look like when they’re set incorrectly, and more.

Picture Mode – The Picture preset mode is a coarse adjustment of a TV’s other settings. None of these modes will be perfectly accurate, but some are better than others. The Movie or Cinema mode is likely closest to accurate. The Vivid or Sports mode is usually the farthest from accurate. If you’ve never watched a TV in Movie mode, it’s going to look weird (soft, reddish), but this mode is MUCH closer to film-like (as in, what you see in a theater) than other modes.

Contrast – Controls the bright parts of the image. Set this too high, and you’ll lose detail in clouds, snow, etc. They will look like flat white blobs. Set too low, and the image will look flat and dark.

Brightness – Controls the dark parts of the image. Set too low, and you’ll lose detail in shadows, dark clothing, night scenes. Near-dark objects (like a black leather jacket at night) will be invisible and part of a black background. Set too high, and the image will be washed out. Blacks will be light gray.

Color – Controls the color saturation. Too high, and it’s a cartoon. Too low, and it’s black and white. This can only be set with a test pattern and a blue filter, or a “blue mode” which some TV’s have deep in the user menu. This setting, and Tint, are generally fairly close to correct when in the Movie or Cinema mode.

Tint – Controls how greenish or reddish the image is. Like Color (the setting) this can only be set correctly using a test pattern and a blue color filter. Also like Color, it is usually pretty close to correct in the Movie mode.

Sharpness – This control doesn’t actually make the image sharper. Instead, it controls the amount of edge enhancement added to the image. Edge enhancement is a highlighting of dark edges. Up close this looks like a slight halo along objects. At casual glance a highly “sharpened” image may look, well, sharp. In reality the edge enhancement is actually masking fine details. In other words, your TV will have better detail with this control at or near off. Take care, though, as on some TVs when the sharpness control gets to the absolute bottom of its range, it actually actively makes the image softer. If this seems bizarre to you, know it does to us as well.

Color Temperature – This is how warm or cool the image looks. Or to put it another way, how reddish (warm) or bluish (cool) the whites are in an image. On most TVs, the most accurate and film-like setting is Warm, or at rare cases, Medium. Like Sharpness, if you’ve never watched a TV in the Warm color temp mode, it’s going to look weird. Give your eyes a day or two to adjust. The Movie mode will often automatically switch to one of your TV’s warmer color temp settings. For further info on this important setting, check out What is TV color temperature, and why does it matter?.

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Backlight – This control, found only on LCDs (and not all of them) controls the total light output of the TV. At lower settings, the black level will be lower, making the TV seem better looking at night. Lower settings also draw less energy, and can be easier on your eyes.

Cell Light – Samsung plasma TVs have a control called Cell Light that functions sort of like the backlight control on an LCD. It controls the overall light output on the TV. Like a backlight control, lower means better black levels, and lower energy consumption, but a dimmer picture.

Aspect Ratio – We’ve actually done a whole article on this.

Noise Reduction – Most sources, other than Blu-ray, can have video noise of some form or another. Most TV’s noise reduction processing is pretty good. At higher settings these can soften the image, though. I recommend checking the lower settings, if you’re bothered by noise on the source your watching. If you’ve got a lot of “noise” on a Blu-ray, it’s likely film grain the director intended to be there.

Film Mode – Rarely will you need to adjust the film mode. This is how the TV deals with 24 frames-per-second content like movies and most scripted TV shows. Leave this in Auto mode.

Dynamic Contrast – Found on many TVs, Dynamic Contrast adjusts, in real time, the contrast and brightness controls of your television (no, you can’t see the sliders move, it’s all internal). This “feature” manipulates contrast and brightness to make the TV appear to have a better contrast ratio. In reality, what’s happening is it’s crushing the near black and near white information, creating an inaccurate and potentially weird looking image. In other words, clouds will lose all detail, shadows will disappear into blackness. Any time you spent with a setup Blu-ray will be lost as the TV screws the settings up as you watch. Disable this feature.

Not too bad, right? For most of these settings, we highly recommend getting a setup disc. We reviewed a bunch in our Must-Have Blu-ray TV Setup Discs article.

The next step, if you want to eke out the last bit of accuracy from your TV, is contacting a TV calibrator like those trained by ISF or THX. They’ll come to your house, make sure everything is set up correctly, and calibrate your TV’s color temperature (and sometimes color points). Prices vary, but if you want the most from your TV, this is the way to do it.


Geoff Morrison @TechWriterGeoff
Geoff’s book is now in paperback


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