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Does HDR hurt to watch?

Do the brighter images of HDR content hurt to watch in a dark room? Maybe.

More and more TVs are HDR-compatible, and the brighter, more colorful images are a wonder to behold.

But brighter isn't always better. Depending on the size of your TV, how close you sit. and several other factors, it's possible that brighter images -- HDR or non-HDR -- might cause eye fatigue, or in some cases, even irritate your eyes.

There are a few things you can do about this, but it's not quite as simple to fix as you might imagine.

The HDR brightness 'issue'

High dynamic range, or HDR, is the latest TV tech. When watching HDR content, the better HDR TVs can produce super-bright highlights. The sun or a streetlight will be noticeably brighter than the surrounding scene. This is great, as it makes an image that really pops in a realistic way.

However, if you're watching TV in a dark room, which we highly recommend for any high-quality video experience, those searing highlights may seem too bright, causing your eyes to become sore or scratchy. If you've ever stared at your phone in a dark room, you've probably experienced this.

I put "issue" in quotes because the exact same thing can happen with non-HDR material. Any TV that's too bright in a dark room can cause eyestrain. In fact, HDR done right isn't necessarily any brighter than non-HDR overall, it just has flashes of bright highlights and a more realistic treatment of real-world bright and dark areas in general. 

The highlights of HDR content on HDR TVs are much brighter than "normal" standard dynamic range TVs.

Dolby/Geoff Morrison

The problem

Staring at a flashlight in a dark room is annoying, right? But standing in a room with the lights on isn't. Your eye adjusts to the average amount of light hitting your retina. A dark room with a bright TV is still, on average, dark. So your iris is wide open. But the parts of your retina getting hit by the light from the TV are overwhelmed. They fatigue, causing the tired, scratchy feeling.

In general, the way to prevent this is reducing the amount of light hitting your retina. You can do this by turning down the overall light output of the TV, or, counterintuitively, increasing the light in the room.

The fixes

1. Get a bigger TV, or sit closer.

Want an excuse to get a bigger TV? Here's a good one. 

A small, bright object in a dark room confuses your eye. The "average" amount of light is low, your irises open up, and the bright "pinpoint" of light strains part of your retinas. A larger TV, or sitting closer to your current TV, will fill a greater percentage of your field of view. With more of your eye filled with light, your irises will contract, so less light overall is hitting your retinas. Generally this will mean less eye fatigue.

2. Turn down the TV's light output.

Though the obvious solution, this isn't necessarily the most ideal. Many TVs automatically set their backlights to maximum to show HDR content. Turning the backlight down (or turning down OLED Light on an OLED TV), can impact how the TV displays HDR content. It's possible the image might look odd. How odd is hard to say -- it will depend on the TV. 

This isn't the same as the Contrast or Brightness controls. These controls typically have nothing to do with how bright a TV is (one exception is newer Sony TVs, where Brightness controls the backlight). Check out Picture settings explained for more info.

Most HDR-capable TVs will have multiple HDR presets. These might be obvious in the picture settings menu, and they might not be. These could be labeled, for example, Dolby Vision Bright and Dolby Vision Reference, or HDR Bright and HDR Normal. In these cases, Bright would be designed for brighter rooms, while Reference/Normal is better for dark rooms.

Your TV might not have these modes, or the lower setting might still be too bright. If so, there are other fixes.

3. Add a strategically placed lamp.

Turning a light on is another option, but of course, this can create reflections (or worse, be a distraction in your eyeline). Again, you may not care about either of these two drawbacks, but I'm hoping to help you find the most perfect solution.

Ideal lamp placement is somewhere not in your eyeline to the TV, and not somewhere it causes a reflection. This might have to be somewhere out of the ordinary, like behind a sofa.

Dimmable recessed ceiling lights might work too, but of course, it depends if they cause reflections on the TV. A TV mount you can move or pivot might help with reflections, too.

The point is, adding more light to the room raises the "average" amount of light in the room, making your irises close a bit, letting less light in, and potentially causing less eye fatigue.

4. Add a bias light.

Taylor Martin/CNET

One step further than a lamp is a bias light. These neutral-white lights add a bit of light to the room, they don't negatively impact the image on the TV, and they reduce eye strain.

The color is important because whatever color the lights are, that color is "subtracted" by your brain from the color you see on screen. So if you have a blue light behind the TV, the TV will look red. The right color for bias lights is a neutral white; as close to the D6500 color temperature standard as possible.

Bottom line

This isn't a new issue. TVs have long been far brighter than necessary in the average room. HDR does potentially make the problem worse, since they are, on the whole, brighter than their normal "SDR" counterparts. If you experience eyestrain with HDR or other material, hopefully our fixes can help.

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, TV resolutions explained, LED LCD vs. OLED, and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel.