Are your blacks washed out, your whites a blur and does everyone look like an oompa loompa? If so, you might need to spend a few minutes tuning up your TV’s picture settings.
Follow our guide and you’ll find shades of grey you didn’t know about, realistic skin tones, sharp edges and smooth colours. Best of all, they’ll all be set up for your eyes and your viewing situation.
HDMI or bust: ditch your analogue video cables
There may be several different types of connector on your TV and related devices like BT TV, a Blu-ray disc player or a games console. The good news is that only of them matters: HDMI.
Invest in an HDMI cable and you can ditch all of the old analogue cables like chunky Scarts, component video and composite video. Your TV aerial cable needs to go into your TV tuner - such as your BT TV box.
Your HDMI connection should carry sound as well as pictures, but you might still need an optical or coaxial digital audio cable to connect a separate home cinema amplifier.
If you are confused by what these connections all do, check out our article: Audio and video connections explained
Ultra HD: use the right socket
Not only is the resolution of Ultra HD TV images four times that of the old HD standard, but 4K games and broadcasts are capable of more colours and greater frame rates for smoother viewing. As a result an upgrade to HDMI was needed to keep up with the demands of the technology.
These new standards are called HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 and essentially mean that you'll see new sockets on your TV and kit. When you connect a TV box you’ll need to plug the HDMI cable into an HDMI socket that’s ready for HDCP 2.2. These are sometimes labelled as MHP, and some Ultra HD TVs only have one or two.
What sort of HDMI cable should I buy?
The TV industry loves to be confusing, so HDMI cables aren’t labelled in the version numbers used for the sockets on TVs and TV boxes.
Instead, there are Standard cables with a speed rating of 10Mbps and High Speed cables rated to 18Mbps. A standard cable will be great for Full HD, and for 4K Ultra HD you’ll need a High Speed HDMI cable.
The good news is that good HDMI cables are not very expensive. If you do want to spend a little more, buy very long cables with good quality physical shielding so they don’t get damaged; you don’t need to worry about the dubious benefits of technologies like oxygen-free copper and gold-plated connections.
Picture presets: should I use them?
TVs come with a range of preset picture quality settings such as Cinema, Sport, Natural, Vivid, Game, Eco and Dynamic. Some of them are useful and some of them are more effective than others. Flick through them and you can see the difference they make.
Natural (also called Standard) is usually effective for daytime viewing.
Cinema (or Movie) will give you a richer experience with deeper blacks and more subtle ranges of light, dark and colour, especially if you turn the lights down to enjoy a bona fide cinema experience.
Game mode is designed to balance picture quality with a fast response, but it has the advantage of disabling a lot of picture processing which is often very annoying.
Sport mode is designed to make fast-moving events more lively, but its bright colours usually end up being garish.
Dynamic (or Intelligent) mode will change the backlight, brightness and contrast as the light level in your room changes. The intention is good, but as the sun goes in and out of the clouds, it’s never less than annoying.
Vivid mode might be useful if you’re watching in very bright daylight, but the picture will be full of jagged edges, blacks will look grey and whites will be washed out.
Eco modes might be available from a different settings menu, and while they do save a little power, they impact on picture quality by powering down the backlight. For the best picture, set Eco to off.
The truth about Brightness and Contrast
The first thing to understand about Brightness and Contrast is that they’re called the opposite of what they do: Brightness controls the black level of your screen, and Contrast controls the white level.
If you want to improve your Contrast, start with the setting you like and find something with a lot of bright areas in the image: golf and tennis are usually good references here.
Turn up the contrast until you start losing detail in the white areas - clouds and clothing, for example - then turn back down until the detail returns and you’re happy.
Dynamic Contrast is a setting that tries to improve shadows by reducing the brightness for dark scenes. Unfortunately it can make the screen pulse by changing too fast, so keep it low or turn it off altogether.
To adjust Brightness, find something dark like the Batman Dark Knight movies or a horror film and pause it on a dark scene. Turn the brightness all the way down, and bring it up slowly as you watch the details emerge and you find a balance between darkness and detail.
Other screen settings - use or refuse?
How to adjust sharpness, colour, motion compensation, noise reduction, and local dimming
Tuning up your brightness and contrast should have improved your picture, but today’s TVs can control a lot more. If you do something you don’t like, just use the factory default settings to start again.
Sharpness is another setting that professional screen tweakers use with caution. It controls the image processing that TVs use to improve edges, but it can create edges that aren’t really there.
Start with the Sharpness turned down, and gradually turn it up. You’ve gone too high when you start to see white borders around objects and smooth shades go blotchy. Turn it back down a notch.
Colour is hard to set without professional equipment, and it’s usually calibrated for the viewing mode you’re in. Warm and low settings will give the most realistic hues, but it’s also a very personal choice, because everyone sees colours in different ways.
Local dimming can be very crude on older or cheaper LCD TVs and edge-lit LED TVs, and is very noticeable on low-light scenes whcih feature a few bright objects like candles or spaceships. If you notice halos and blobs of light, turn it off.
Motion compensation comes in many names: Trumotion (LG), Intelligent Frame Creation or IFC (Panasonic), Motion Plus (Samsung), and Motionflow (Sony) to name a few.
At high levels, motion compensation throws blocky flickers around moving objects from footballers’ feet to racing cars that can make it hard to see details. Find a test scene with lots of movement and set the lowest level you’re comfortable watching. Turning it off is not a bad choice.
Noise reduction is another feature where a little goes a long way. It can help if you watch a lot of older standard-definition shows that have been upscaled on your HD or 4K TV, such as older series on ITV4. For made-in-HD channels, it will introduce noise that isn’t there: turn it off.
Apps and test cards for improving picture quality
Once upon a time you had to wait for TV to close down at night to use the BBC test card for fine-tuning your picture. Today there are apps and tools you can use at any time.
The free THX tune-up app for iOS will help you to tune up your TV and sound system from your iPhone or iPad, via an HDMI cable or Apple TV.
Android phone and TV owners get a lot less choice, but the Screen test app is free. You’ll need to connect your TV via HDMI cable or Google Chromecast.
The Xbox One comes with a TV calibration tool, found in the Display & Sound section of the Settings menu, which will walk you through your TV’s settings.
There’s a lot of help on YouTube if you can access it on your TV (or connect a laptop or phone via HDMI, Chromecast or Apple TV). Try these searches:
Search for Full HD test card or 4K test card to find a lot of helpful test patterns. For really in-depth calibration patterns, search for AVS HD 709 and you’ll be rewarded with test screens created by enthusiasts for the free AVS HD 709 project.
Finally, if you have a Blu-ray or DVD player, you can buy the Disney WOW: World of Wonder disc. It’s a complete optimisation tutorial with cartoon favourite Goofy that uses Disney films to help you set up your screen.