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How to set your TV up to display the correct colour levels

With the increasing sales of flat large screen TVs, I wonder how many people simply take it straight out of the box, plug it in and leave it there without taking time to properly set it up for the ambience of the room it’s to be used in. Every new TV leaving the manufacturer today has the maker’s default settings which although provide vibrant colours and high contrast pictures which look brilliant in the shop display these default settings are not meant to be used in the home. In fact, these factory defaults do not do any justice to the care and attention the programme maker has put into the finished production in an attempt to provide you with the optimum viewing experience. Recently several famous Hollywood directors have spoken about their concern over how their masterpieces are being viewed in the home. They would like you to experience their work exactly how it was originally intended to be viewed.

If you delve into the settings menu on any new TV you will find a bewildering array of controls all of which can be used to tweak picture adjustment to enhance your viewing enjoyment.

First, start with the choice of TV which is right for you. There is no point in having a 50in screen if you are only going to be sitting 2-3 feet away from it. Similarly, if you are lucky to live in a mansion then it’s pointless buying a 19in screen and having to watch it using binoculars.

Choose a TV with plenty of input connectors for your needs. Sky Plus box, games console, Blu-ray players, all require their own specific connections and it might surprise you to know that many new TV sets have separate picture settings for each item connected to it. This enables you to set the optimum video levels for high definition (HD), standard definition (SD), games and HD movies. Even the in-built FreeView tuner will have its own bank of controls.

Think about the position of your TV in the room. Light shining onto the screen surface will not enhance your viewing.

Calibrate each video channel of your TV. This can be time consuming but it’s well worth spending a few minutes doing this as most default factory settings are far too bright and are set with a high contrast level for viewing on a brightly lit shop floor. If you are unsure of the setting to make, the best way is to turn everything down. Brightness should be set at about 45 per cent, contrast at 65 per cent and colour at about 50 per cent. Turn any sharpness control off and any digital picture enhancement control should also be turned off. Initially you will feel that the picture looks flat and far less vibrant but stick with it and you will soon find your eyes will adapt to the new settings.

Setting the levels by eye is very much a personal thing but it’s nice to have a starting point from which you can tweak the settings for your personal viewing pleasure. To do this you need to use a visual guide in the form of a standard picture. Some TVs have a test picture you can display to help with the adjustment or you can get good results by accessing the “Special Features” section of some DVDs, notably “StarWars – Revenge of the Sith” features a “THX Optimiser Mode” which includes suggestions on how you can adjust your television picture for enhanced viewing.

The best picture to use when setting up your TV is the old BBC Test Card W which features the girl with the clown. Sadly, since the BBC HD channel became BBC 2 HD the test card is no longer transmitted but you can download a copy here:


Now for an explanation about the test card and how to use it to line up your TV.
The first thing to do is to make sure you know where the controls are in the menu system and having the TV manual to hand would be most useful. If you’ve lost the manual then most are available on-line if you search for the Make and Model of your TV and can be downloaded as PDF files.
Do NOT attempt to make significant changes to your television if you are not sure what you are doing and always make a note of where the controls were set initially so that you can go back to the defaults if there is a problem.
It’s best to carry out these adjustments in a room with low lighting levels so there is no light falling onto the screen. Change the picture settings from “auto” to “manual” otherwise you will be unable to access all of the controls which would normally be greyed out.
Turn the sharpness setting to off or zero. If there are any picture enhancing options, make sure they are turned off or to zero (if you can). Remember, on some TVs the sharpness control has a centre zero allowing you to soften pictures – please don’t do that!
So using the BBC Test Card W, let’s begin.

There is a GREY SCALE to the left of the picture on the test card.
TV Testcard Grey Scale
It’s there to show the correct black and white levels of the picture. The top white block has two spots. The white block is peak white with the right spot higher (super white) and the left spot slightly lower. The bottom black bock has two spots, the right hand one is below black level (sub black) and the left is slightly above black. Aligning TV Grey Scale
Turn your brightness up until you can see both black spots. Then turn the brightness down until the sub black spot disappears but the lighter spot is still visible.

Now adjust the contrast until you like the overall look of the test card while you are doing this, keep an eye on the spots in the top white block to make sure you can still see the left hand one. It doesn’t matter if you cannot see the super white spot.

Again colour level is very subjective and mostly to personal taste but most TVs have the colour set way too high for domestic viewing. This can cause colours to bleed out and look noisy. Saturated reds are practically susceptible to chroma bleed. The centre picture of the test card has all you need to enable you to get the colour right. TV colour test card The girl’s face should look natural with good flesh tones, not too red so she has a suntan and not too blue so as to make her look anaemic. The primary colours in the picture (red dress and green and blue of the clown) should not be very bright.

Generally the sharpness control should be set to zero but you may want to add a little bit to make the picture look crisp if it looks very soft. Remember the setting for high definition will look far sharper than normal standard definition pictures so take this into account when making your adjustments.

TV Image Sharpness
To the right of the picture is a set of “frequency gratings”
The frequencies are:1. 5MHz 2. 10MHz 3. 15MHz 4. 20MHz 5. 25MHz 6. 30MHz
Most domestic displays will show 1-3 correctly but the 4th might not look quite right. A 50-1080p television should be able to resolve the 4th grating satisfactorily.

Not all TVs offer menu settings that allow you to change picture size and position. Even if your TV does allow you to adjust size and position, it’s a good idea not to make anything but small changes unless you know what you are doing. Make a note of the current setting BEFORE you change anything!
The full test card should look like this, with the diamond points just touching the edge of the screen all the way round. Full TV Testcard
Most domestic televisions lose a small amount of picture all round. This is called “overscan”, it is perfectly normal and programme makers take this into account. Some flat screens do have the option to either turn overscan off or reduce the picture size. By reducing the picture you may well see a series of moving white lines at the very top of the picture that would not normally be seen, this contains digital data.
Most television sets have controls for viewing at various aspect ratios notably 4:3, 16:9, 14:9, Zoom, Wide and Auto. All high definition material is transmitted in 16:9 using 1920×1080 pixels however standard definition is still transmitted as 4:3 (720×576 pixels), even 16:9 pictures are transmitted in 4:3 but as an anamorphic image which means the picture is squashed up width wise. The TV automatically stretches out the anamorphic picture to make it widescreen. The aspect control allows you to override the TV’s auto function as sometimes the original 4:3 programme is stretched to widescreen making everything look squat. You can overcome this by forcing the TV back into 4:3 mode which will give you black lines either side of a normal looking 4:3 picture.
When setting up your picture, make your adjustments quickly without trying to be too picky. The longer you take with each adjustment, the more time your eyes and brain have to adjust to what they see, which can trick you into thinking something is correct when it’s not and vice versa. When you are adjusting a control and trying to decide between two settings, look away after you change the setting and let your eyes rest for a minute. Then look back and evaluate the image.
Finally, if you download a hardware update for your television model you will need to re-adjust all of the settings for each video input as well as the Freeview tuner again as the download will have automatically re-set everything back to the manufacturers defaults so it’s worthwhile making a note of the adjustments you have made to save time later.
For those with surround sound systems, here are some links that will help you to correctly set up your audio channels:

DTS HD Audio Test for 7.1 Surround Sound

5.1 Surround Sound helicopter demo

Or you can download our Dolby Digital Test Tones which are available here:





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