A lot of people spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a new television set and don’t have the picture settings dialed in to get that natural-looking picture they paid for.

Did you know, improperly tuned TV pictures drive filmmakers crazy, because the audience doesn’t see the visuals in the way they want their stories told, potentially cheating you, the viewer, out of the fully immersive experience.

As this web site has long recommended, the best way to ensure you are getting the most out of your television’s picture capabilities is to ensure it is properly calibrated by a professional, who has been trained by the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF), THX or equivalent institution.

A professional TV calibration will use the proper (usually very expensive) tools and skills to adjust the set’s white balance, gray scale, gamma, brightness and color accuracy to properly match a 6500 degree Kelvin (D65) white level equivalent to natural sunlight. If this setting is off — as it often is in an off-the-shelf flat-panel television tweaked to look overly bright and vibrant in a store setting — images will appear either too blue or too red, running afoul of the look most filmmakers intended.

A TV calibration is the process of adjusting a TV’s settings to make the light it outputs balances with the brightness, gamma and color levels typically present in the room during viewing. The reason professional gear and training is best is that the human eye and brain typically can’t discern the brightness and gamma levels accurately enough without visual gauges and sensitive light meters.

All things considered, the best viewing environment is in a completely dark room with the set’s picture mode adjusted for that condition. But we all know, this is rarely the way most of us watch television, or even want to.

Of course, the downside to getting a professional calibration is cost, with typical service prices usually costing several hundreds of dollars, which many can’t justify against the price they paid for a television set.

The next best thing, then, is to adjust the television’s picture settings for the best performance level possible under the most typical viewing conditions.

Provided here is a check list of adjustments you can make to get your LED-LCD TV, OLED TV or even plasma TV set as close to look the filmmakers’ are going for when you watch one of their cinematic movies or programs.

The following are basic simple adjustments to help you quickly ensure your television is presenting the most realistic looking pictures possible:

Turn On Filmmaker Mode

A number of televisions on the market in 2021 and 2022 will include a feature called Filmmaker Mode. Most often this is presented as one of the Picture Mode options, but can sometimes be selected upon initial setup to engage automatically when supporting content is detected. This automatically turns off any picture processing settings that can make movies feel somewhat unnatural while also maintaining the film’s original aspect ratio, colors and frame rate to align with the creative vision. With one setting a host of adjustments are made, most especially turning off motion processing to help the set more accurately display 24 frames per second film-based productions. This will eliminated what is known as “Soap Opera Effect” where images appear overly sharpened like live video instead of the softer and warmer look of film that filmmakers insist upon. In Hollywood content is usually color-graded in darkened rooms using a maximum brightness of 100 nits for Standard Dynamic Range content, and Filmmaker ensures SDR content brightness is automatically reduced to this reference level. High dynamic range (HDR) content will require additional steps.

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Engaging Filmmaker Mode is different on various makes of televisions and will require looking at your model’s instructions to have it automatically engage (when available) upon detecting API identifiers in streamed film-based content, or in the case of HDMI-connected source devices like Blu-ray players an AVI InfoFrame Content flag will be used in more recently produced titles (not on older legacy discs and productions) to indicate when film-based content is present. Most supporting models will be able to engage Filmmaker Mode after the user manually presses a button or an on-screen control setting if the automatic setting is not available or does not engage. Brands offering some level of the Filmmaker Mode setting in 2022 typically include select models from LG, Samsung, Vizio, Hisense and Skyworth, with others seemingly coming onboard every year. Once in Filmmaker Mode you can skip most of the rest of these steps.

Find The Right Picture Mode

All televisions today will have a selection of basic Picture Mode settings that that address a number of parameters to make images appear their best for the type of content being viewed. The Picture Modes is usually found right at the top of the picture settings menu and typically includes selections for Vivid, Normal, Sports, and Movie/Cinema/Film. By default we recommend the Movie/Cinema/Film (the terms vary by the TV maker) or where available ISF Day or ISF Night (depending on the room lighting conditions). Note that some models will even include a Picture Mode preset control button directly on the remote. If and ISF mode is not present, the Movie/Cinema/Film preset is our next recommended setting because it typically offers the most accurate color and gamma settings for typical dark room viewing. This one setting will also reduce or turn off other dynamic picture adjustments that can add artificial sharpness. If the setting appears too dark (elements of the image get lost in dark shadows) the “backlight” (OLED brightness or sometimes “Brightness”) control can be raised or lowered to compensate.

Reduce Brightness

As mentioned, most SDR movies and programs are graded in final production for 100 nits of peak brightness. Unfortunately, most televisions out of the box are set for levels much brighter than this to catch the eyes of shoppers in the store. Unfortunately, without a light meter and/or calibration software it will be very difficult to determine what 100 nits looks like exactly, but you can adjust the level to something that looks close to natural to you. Under most circumstances, the best control for this is labeled “Backlight” or “OLED light”. Some manufacturers or models will only offer a “Brightness” control, which can be used in such cases to adjust overall picture brightness, but generally speaking when a “Backlight” control is available “Brightness” is best left alone. Due to the often non-intuitive label of the setting, different manufacturers today use the Brightness control to adjust different things. It used to be that Brightness was used to adjust only the dark elements (or black level) of the SDR image, hence the confusion over the name.

Adjust Contrast

The Contrast Control on the other hand is used to adjust the look of high brightness without compromising colors and details in highlighted areas of an SDR picture. Typically when an HDR signal is detected, this will be turned all the way up to max to enable the set to display bright specular highlights, and there is little more to be done, unless you really know what you’re doing.

For SDR, however, it’s possible to fine tune this variable by purchasing a TV calibration disc, like the Spears & Munsil 4K UHD Blu-ray Test Disc or a similar tool. These will include a chart with graduated levels black and white contrast range rising from black in increments of gray all the way up to bright white. Using the Brightness control (for black, typically), and the Contrast for the White shades, you can find the right balance for the best white level position. These discs should all provide you with user guides to find the correct level for each area of the scale. With some 4K UHD TV sets adjusting the base SDR levels correctly will provide a good foundation for HDR content performance. However, this varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. It’s best to leave the HDR setting alone unless you have the proper tools and training to perform a proper HDR 10 or Dolby Vision calibration.

Turn Off Unnecessary Processing Systems

Some televisions will have separate image processing settings for Noise Reduction, Dynamic Contrast, Advanced Sharpness, Edge Enhancement, Motion Smoothing and so forth. Most often, to ensure the most natural looking image, it’s best make sure these are all turned off, especially when viewing film-based content. If not already defeated by the Picture Mode setting or Filmmaker Mode, it’s also stressed that the motion smoothing/handling controls be turned off. This will help ensure pictures do not appear overly sharpened, overly bright, and colors aren’t overly saturated. Although these controls are intended to improve the look of pictures with a quality issues, more often that not they create problems of their own. That’s why it’s a good idea to ensure any television you purchase has a native 120 Hz refresh rate or better. The panel will inherent correct many monition blurring or judder probems without resorting to these additional artificial enhancement measures. Of course, if you prefer movies to look more like sharp video rather than the overall warmer, flatter look of film, by all means, turn motion processing on. It’s usually the best way to view live sports.

Ensure The Correct Color Temperature

Few adjustments make as much difference in dialing in the natural look of a picture than color temperature. The goal here is to find the setting closest to 6500 degrees Kelvin (D65), which is the look of natural sunlight. Colors will have a slightly yellow hue overall. If the color temperature is set too high (or cooler) than this, all colors will take on an overall blue-ish hue. If too warm, the colors in the image will have a hue that is too red. The correct setting is generally listed as “Warm” in the color temperture control options, but it is sometimes “Warm 2” and rarely “normal.” Color temperature is almost certain to be too blue under the “Cool” or “Normal” settings, however. The good news is if you have Filmmaker Mode activated or the picture mode set to Movie/Cinema/THX Day/THX Night the correct color temperature should be already dialed in. Check for yourself.

Do It Yourself Calibration

If you are a real enthusiast, the best way to calibrate your television is to invest in proper calibration tools. It will cost a few hundred/thousand dollars to get started, and if you’re really serious, we urge anyone to take an Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) calibration course. You can find where and when classes are coming to your area on the ISF web site. One of the best software programs to perform a pro-level calibration is Calman from Portrait Displays. The program will provide step by step settings to adjust brightness, gamma, grayscale, and color management settings while giving you a visual gauge to find the correct level for each variable. In addition to this you will need a light meter or colorimeter to read the screen and send the data to the Calman software. A good basic light meter or colorimeter would be a SpectraCal/Portrait Displays C6-HDR or a Spyder5 from Datacolor. It’s also a good idea to get a decent Test Pattern Generator (TPG) like a Murideo Six G or a Video Forge from Portrait Displays. In some cases, like better LG TV models, test patterns are built into the TV firmware for your use.

Then again, you can go to the ISF web site and find a certified ISF professional calibrator in your area and let them do it. If you have invested in a really good set, it will be money well spent to ensure you are getting the picture you paid for in the lighting conditions specific to your room and your viewing comfort.

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By Greg Tarr

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