Merck's COVID pill DNA finds Sitting Bull's descendant 2023 Chevy Corvette Z06 Tiger King 2's wild trailer Trailer for Toy Story spinoff Lightyear PS5 restock tracker

Eye pain may actually be your TV's fault. Here's what you can do about it

Believe it or not, getting a bigger TV or sitting closer to your current set may actually help with eye pain.

tcl-4k-hdr-roku-tv-26.jpg

Your HDR TV could be the cause of your eye pain if you're watching it in the dark. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Nearly all modern televisions are compatible with high dynamic range video. While that doesn't mean they all perform the same, many HDR TVs are brighter than their older, non-HDR counterparts and innovations like mini-LED make them even brighter. Some of the brightest TVs we've reviewed are also some of the best TVs, including the Samsung QN90A, the TCL 6-Series and the eye-watering Hisense U8G. Their bright, colorful images are a wonder to behold. Brighter doesn't necessarily mean better, but it can make the TVs easier to watch in a bright room and it makes the highlights of HDR really pop. 

High-quality movies and TV shows are best enjoyed in a dark room, however, to reduce reflections and help increase contrast. And with the lights down low, the extreme brightness of many of these TVs can cause eye fatigue and 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.

how-to-tech-tips-logo-badge.png
Brett Pearce/CNET

What is HDR and why is brightness an "issue"?

High dynamic range, or HDR, is the latest TV tech. It's available on PlayStation and Xbox game consoles and streaming services including Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu. Nearly TVs and streaming devices that have 4K resolution also handle HDR. Mid- and higher-end TVs offer significantly more brightness when watching HDR content. For example, 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 sizzling 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 for this section because the exact same thing can happen with non-HDR material. Any TV that's too bright in a dark room can cause eyestrain. Modern TVs are so much brighter than older TVs that even at lower backlight settings they can still be eye-searingly bright.

Dolby_HDR_Demo.jpg

The highlights of HDR content on HDR TVs are much brighter than "normal" standard dynamic range TVs (Image for illustrative purposes only. Actual HDR on an HDR TV will be physically brighter).

Dolby/Geoff Morrison

Why your TV might be hurting your eyes

Someone shining a flashlight in your eyes at night 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 get fatigued, causing the tired, scratchy feeling. 

In general, the way to prevent this is reducing the average 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.

How to watch TV without the painful eye strain 

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. 

Personally I'm a fan of projectors, which create even bigger images and aren't as bright as TVs. Way easier on the eyes.

2. Turn down the TV's light output.

tcl-55s435-4-of-6

Adjusting the backlight can help, though not always.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

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. 

Read more: Want better TV? Change these 9 TV picture settings today (you'll thank us later)

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 for your setup.

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.

bias-lighting-fixed.jpg

A bias light, like this laptop shown above, is a neutral-white light that brightens up the room a little. 

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 for the average room. HDR does potentially make the problem worse, since they are, on the whole, much brighter than older, "SDR" TVs. If you experience eyestrain with HDR or other material, hopefully our fixes can help.

Note (9/2021): This article was first published in 2017 but has been updated with new links and info.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on Instagram and his travel video series on YouTube. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, along with a sequel