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How to set a TV up by eye

Sometimes you don't have access to a setup disc but want to do a rough setup using the tools in your head. This guide should help you get a TV watchable.

Now playing: Watch this: Calibrate your TV by eye
Contrast control example
The image on the left is correct. The image on the right is a simulation of what the same image would look like with the Contrast control set too high. Notice how the clouds lack all detail and are merely white blobs. Geoffrey Morrison for original image and modification

Let's say you're at your father-in-law's house and he just got a new TV. You're stuck in a corner, having recommended the TV, and you're the only person who knows contrast from composite. What to do?

In an ideal world you'd have a setup disc on hand to set it up for him. Better yet, you'd have the number of a local calibrator instantly available and pop-in-law is willing to spring for a full calibration.

But that's not always possible. Here are a few tips that will help you get the picture settings on his TV close to ideal -- or at least closer than it was.

Check out my primer on HDTV settings to make sure you're caught up on all the jargon. Also, hopefully your computer monitor is reasonably well set up, or my images aren't going to look right. This guy has a bunch of patterns to make sure your monitor is correct.

The first place to start with your TV cal challenge is select a picture mode you think the TV owner will like. Sure, Movie or Cinema mode are the most accurate, but has this person ever seen an accurate TV? If not, he's probably not going to like the accurate color temperature and colors of those modes. It might be worth a few minutes to extol the virtues of accurate colors and color temperature, but know it will likely be an uphill battle. Personal preference at this point, then. Check out What's the best picture mode? for more info one what the modes do.

With any of the tricks below, it is best to check them on multiple pieces of content, as there is no way to be sure that any one clip is actually correct. For example, a show like "Grey's Anatomy" has a softly lit look to it that isn't typical. Many reality shows, on the other hand, have hyper-exaggerated colors that may lead to setting the Color control too low. Each "CSI" show has a decided color shift, and shouldn't be used, either.

To set Contrast, you'll need something with a lot of bright areas of the image. Baseball works pretty well for this -- a fly ball, pop fly, home runs, something with shots of the sky -- or skiing (depending on season, clearly). What you're aiming for is a bright image, but still with highlight detail. In other words, the bright areas of the image still have detail, and aren't just awash in white. Turn the Contrast control up until you start losing detail. Clouds will cease being clouds, snow will just be glare. Now turn the control back down till you see detail again. Somewhere in this range will be ideal. Check out the clouds in the right image at the top of this article. This is what bad looks like.

To set Brightness, you're looking for the opposite from contrast. Dark movies, like "Aliens" or "The Dark Knight" are perfect for this. Turn the Brightness control down until everything disappears into blackness (or something close). It should be readily apparent what this control does.

Brightness control example
The image on the top is correct. The image on the bottom is a simulation of what the same image would look like with the Brightness control set too low. Notice how all detail in the stones is gone. Admittedly, this may make the photo a bit cooler, it isn't how you want your TV setup. Geoffrey Morrison for original image and modification

Turn it back up so you can see detail in everything, but the image doesn't look washed out. Another test for this is a darker scene with someone with long hair. The underside of their hair (I don't know what you people with hair call it) away from the light can be a good place to spot shadow detail. Also, dark coats at night. The TV show "Castle" does this sometimes, with dark jackets at night at a crime scene.

Have no doubt, this is the hardest control to eyeball. It's rarely going to look absolutely correct, and worse it may look OK on some content and not on others.You'll spend more time getting this setting right than all the others combined.

Generally, the Color control will be reasonably close to correct out of the box, especially in Cinema/Movie mode (if you've gone that route). With most TVs I review, I rarely move this control much, but I'm using the most accurate picture mode, so YMMV.

Leave the Tint control where it is. It is likely correct, and without test patterns you can't really set it.

The Sharpness control is going to lead to a debate. The accurate setting for this is going to be at or near the bottom of its range. This will result in a softer-looking image that actually has more fine detail.

Sharpness control example
The image on the top is correct. The image on the bottom is a simulation of what the same image would look like with the Sharpness control set too high. Notice the hyper-defined edges, and the white outline to the arch. This is edge enhancement, and is masking fine detail (not that you can tell from this 610-pixel-wide image, but trust me). Geoffrey Morrison for original image and modification

Set it low, but not so low as you lose detail, and see how the TV's owner likes it. Tell him what you did, though, and that after a day or so, he'll like it way more than if the Sharpness control was set higher. I use fine details like wrinkles or hair for this. Check out the image above for what edge enhancement looks like.

If the TV is an LCD, it should have a Backlight control. The best thing you can do here is show the owner where the control is, and leave it around 80 percent. This will be plenty bright for most viewing, but tell them they can increase it if they need to, or turn it down further for better black levels and lower energy consumption. Check out Contrast ratio (or how every TV manufacturer lies to you) and LED LCD backlights explained for more info on this.

As mentioned above, Color Temperature is a difficult one. Yes, the Warm mode is likely the most accurate, but if someone isn't used to an accurate picture, it's going to look really red. If available, try a middle mode (Normal, Standard). Or just let them set it. Check out my article on color temp and why it matters for more info.

That should do it, or at least as close as you can get it. Recommend a setup disc, bow, then run like hell.

Don't just assume that you can give a gift of calibration, though, as some people don't take too kindly to it.

Lastly, make sure they have their HD equipment hooked up with HDMI cables. If not, this could be an easy way to vastly improve their image. It shouldn't cost more than $20 or so for all the HDMI cables you need. Check out my article on why cheap HDMI cables are perfect.

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like HDMI cables, LED LCD vs. plasma, active versus passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.