There are many ways of calibrating your TV or Projector. Some newer displays come with calibration test patterns and maybe even special colour modes built-in. THX and Sony Blu-Rays often have their own testing programs embedded in the disc that can be accessed via the menu or special remote control code. There are also commercial discs available that have specially-made testing routines to help calibrate any display. Some calibrations even require filtered lenses which always seem to be sold separately. And finally, there are do-it-yourself video calibration downloads available online for free that you can burn to disc.
These methods are all perfectly valid, but we think they're overkill. Instead of all that noise, we've devised our own quick calibration method that works no matter what type of display you have. It takes about 5 minutes of your time, and you can do it without any special hardware. You might be surprised just how much better things can look with a little bit of educated fiddling!
Our goal with this guide is to perform a quick and simple calibration of your TV, Monitor or Projector with a focus on getting a great image for live-action movies. Specifically, we want to get skin-tones right. Our theory is that as long as the people on-screen look natural (and not like lobsters or mimes) then everything else will fall in line.
Any errors in the other colours aren't as noticeable or as important as skin tones. We see people every day and we can tell when they're off-colour - but who's to say exactly what shade of blue our hero's jeans are? The outcome of this calibration is to make sure that no detail is being lost in the shadows or blown-out in the whites, and that people look healthy. Once you have those things right, everything else should look equally amazing.
The good part about this is that it can cross cultures, and is just as valid when working with caucasian skin tones as it is with any other. For example, if you watch a lot of Bollywood films, feel free to use Indian actors - stick with what you know!
TVs in particular start their lives on the showroom floor. Even if your screen came out of a factory-sealed box, the manufacturer would have set it up to look best in a brightly lit retail display (just in case). These default settings are often quite bad for home theatre viewing, as we like to watch movies and TV shows in the dark. By adjusting the settings to suit your home, you can enjoy a better quality of picture. Even a 10% improvement on visual fidelity is good value for the low, low price of free. After all, you can write your current settings down and go back to them later if you don't like how things have turned out!
The one pitfall here is that we generally perceive increases colour saturation and brightness as good things, and scaling that back often leaves us feeling like we've gone backwards in terms of picture quality. Try your best not to fall into this trap. Since our eyes have their own 'Auto White Balance', it's generally better to gain detail at the expense of vibrancy. Once your eyes adjust to the new settings, you'll think you're seeing a bright image again. It's all about balance, and choosing settings which make you happy.
You'll need a couple of basic things to conduct this calibration:
This is the easy part. First, set your room lighting to how you normally have it when watching TV. If you're usually on the couch from 8:00pm, either conduct the calibration then, or make sure to block light coming through any windows or open doorways. If your display uses dynamic contrast, it's best to turn this off. Don't worry if this degrades your image quality at first, because we'll be fixing that up right away. Also, get your movie or our test pattern up on-screen and be ready with the pause button on your remote.
Access the colour calibration settings for your display. They may be hidden in a sub-menu, but you'll know when you find them - they'll be labelled Brightness, Contrast and Colour (or something close to it). If the settings are locked out, you may find the display is pre-configured with modes like 'Movie', 'Sport' or 'Game' - change between these settings and look for one called 'User', 'Custom' or 'Normal' so that we can fiddle with the numbers for each slider. Unfortunately, finding these option screens can differ between display type and manufacturer. Here's an example of a calibration screen from a Panasonic LCD TV just to give you an idea of what you need to look out for (click to enlarge).
Contrast is the very poorly chosen term used to define the White Level of the picture. If you've ever played with a histogram on your DSLR camera or used a Levels adjustment in Photoshop, you already have an idea of what White Level does. At this step, we want to turn Contrast down to its minimum setting (or off altogether) so that our white level doesn't skew results for setting the black level. Don't worry about how bad it looks, as we'll come back to Contrast shortly.
Brightness is the poorly chosen term used to define the Black Level of the picture. Now's the time to get our test image up on-screen (or pause your DVD at a good spot). Change the Brightness setting of your display up and down, looking in particular at the shadows. See the muddy bit at the base of the stone wall, or the dark patch behind the bride? Both of these areas contain detail in the dark. You want your black level to be set so that the grass and shrubs are visible in these locations. Ideally, you'll want the truly black parts of the image like inside the stone archway to remain nice and black, while still showing something in the shadows. If the shadows are totally blacked out, your Brightness is too low. If the archway interior looks grey, it's too high.
Now it's back to the Contrast setting to get the White Level adjusted. This is the same tweaking as with the brightness above, but this time we're keeping an eye on the bride's dress. The ideal here is to have the wedding dress retain its details while still having a vivid, pure white in the area at the front of her torso and on the groom's cuff. If you start to lose detail in the train material bunched on the ground in front of the groom, or if his vest starts to look white also, you've gone too far.
Ignoring the fact your menu system will probably use American spelling, it's time to get the skintones right. For this, fiddle with the Colour slider. The results from this step are subjective, so the best advice we can give here is to try and get our bride and groom looking healthy. Keep an eye on their faces, which should be a nice medium tan, leading to some red on the outside edge of her exposed arm. If you're using your own DVD or Blu-Ray footage for this test, it's a good idea to use a shot of a face filling three-quarters of the screen, and avoid testing on actors with naturally pale skin or who happen to be green aliens. We're on to you, Captain Kirk.
Chances are the above steps have landed you with a very nice picture. If you're happy, stop now. However, if the previous step has robbed your picture of too much colour saturation in evening out those skintones, there are still some things we can try changing. First of all, run through the Colour Temperature options if your display has them. They're usually Cool, Normal and Warm. See if any of these improve the picture and stick with it. If things are still a bit too drab for your tastes, many displays have a Tint slider. This can also be adjusted to bias the colour output, but be wary of any bias already in your image. Our bride and groom test shot has plenty of blue and green, but nothing really red. Try viewing other scenes to make sure your changes hold up.
There are probably more settings in your menus you can play with, and you're welcome to go nuts to see what impact they have on your viewing pleasure - just keep checking that all the details in the blacks and white is preserved and you'll never miss a thing.
We're confident that you'll be pleased with what's been achieved here. Deeper blacks. Detail recovery. Less eye-strain from over-bright images. All that good stuff. Everything in between is up to your own personal preference for colour balance. Now it's time to put on your favourite film and see what you've been missing!