A better TV picture in an hour or less

The holidays are the prime season for new TVs. You may have bought one on sale. Or you’re encountering a “new” set because you’re visiting friends or family or taking an extended stay in a hotel or Airbnb. The ugly truth is that most TVs, even great ones, are left at their factory default settings, which are often flawed. They suffer from unnaturally smooth motion, garish colors, washed-out blacks, or parts of the image clipped out of existence.

We get bad defaults because manufacturers make a consensus choice across many tastes, TV content, and lighting conditions. That setup isn’t for you if you care at all about mirroring the creators’ artistic intent on a movie or TV show.

Better days are ahead for that TV with a few minutes in the system menus. If you have the extra time, you can calibrate brightness and contrast in under an hour to make the picture even better.

Film optimized picture mode

Selecting the correct picture mode sets the foundation for your TV viewing experience, bundling multiple TV settings into one umbrella option. Picture mode should be prominent in your TV menus, and because it’s a simple toggle, it’s easy to experiment and revert without any fuss.

The best mode for many brands, including Hisense, LG, Samsung, and Vizio, is “Filmmaker Mode”. For Sony TVs, their equivalent setting is called “Custom Mode.” Other TVs often use names like “Movie,” “Cinema,” “Normal,” and “Standard.”

Avoid any picture mode setting with punchy wording like “Vivid” or “Dynamic.” Also, avoid picture modes focused on a specific activity like “Sports” or “Game” (the exception being if that’s what you happen to be using it for. On my older Vizio, I use a Game picture mode for my Xbox, and a Calibrated mode elsewhere.)

Note that most film-friendly picture modes are built around dim lighting conditions. If you are watching most of your TV in a bright environment, you may have to alter the brightness and contrast from the default picture mode. Keep reading.

No motion smoothing

Motion interpolation combines and inserts additional frames beyond the default 24 or 30 frames per second. The tech can help smooth out motion blur, which is commonplace in sports viewing with sudden onscreen movement and frequent camera pans. But the effect on TV and movies can create odd digital artifacts and glitches. It also presents an unnaturally smooth look (the so called “soap opera effect”), scrubbing out the more theatrical look that all modern film and TV shows use. Sadly, it’s enabled on most TVs by default. You want it off.

The correct picture mode on a new TV can turn this off automatically. But to be sure, dive into your system menus and look for a setting with the word “smoothing” or “motion” in it. Popular phrasing, depending on the TV brand, includes Action Smoothing, Motion Enhancement, TruMotion, or Auto Motion. Here’s a step-by-step guide on where to access motion smoothing across the most popular TV brands.

Calibrated brightness and contrast

Brightness and contrast set the darkest and lightest parts of your visible TV image. You can lose image detail or wash out the picture when either control is off. Adjustments here can be especially beneficial because the room’s lighting conditions impact both controls and because that can differ so widely.

You set brightness and contrast with test patterns. The ideal starting point is a professional calibration Blu-ray disc like those offered by Spears & Munsil. For those committed to calibration needs beyond this article, they are well worth the investment.

However, for purposes of expediency – especially in light of many setups not having a Blu-ray player in the first place – several patterns are available on YouTube. We’ll cover setup instructions for those here.

Start by setting the lighting in your room based on how you watch TV most of the time. Let the TV warm up with some material for about fifteen minutes with a movie or show. Write down your initial brightness and contrast settings to always revert if something goes wrong.

Now that your eyes have adjusted to the lighting open up the sample contrast pattern. Increase contrast to the point where the whites are clipped – none of the bars will flash. Then, slowly decrease the contrast until the bars begin to flash. Make sure you can see the flash through the bar labeled 234. If the whites still look punchy, you may want to decrease contrast even more to the point where bar 240 flashes.

Next, open the brightness pattern. Bump up the brightness to the point where all the pattern’s vertical bars flash. The image will look washed out. Decrease brightness to the point where bars from levels 1 to 16 do not flash, while the flash of bars 17 and 18 are just barely visible.

Finally, return to the contrast pattern and recheck the image’s appearance. Ideally, you’ll see a similar flashing pattern to what you had before, but if not, run through the calibration steps one last time.

Watch and enjoy

The benefits of the TV tweaks covered here may take time to become apparent. Viewers can have a range of sensitivity to motion smoothing. The proper color temperature can feel unusually warm at first. Small changes in brightness or contrast may make little difference with midrange content lacking in shadows or highlights.

However, over time, you’ll notice the difference. You’ll see more of the picture the way the filmmakers intended. You also likely find the image more comfortable because you won’t struggle to make out details that were blown out or murky. Considering the time you, your family, or friends spend looking at a TV, it’s the kind of technical deep dive that will prove out to be a great investment.