Iâ€™m not going to get into hue, tint, and color temperature and all that. If you want to be assured that your set is â€œrightâ€ in those areas, use the AVIA or VE disc, or higher a pro. Iâ€™ll just be using the basic adjustment parameters of any set: White level (often called the â€œContrastâ€ or â€œPictureâ€ control in many menus), Black level (often confusingly called the â€œbrightnessâ€ control), Sharpness control, and Color level. (Iâ€™ll also get to adjusting over-scan at the end, which can have a distinct effect picture quality). Iâ€™ll be using screen shots from my plasma gallery as examples. If you are going to give any of this a whirl, I encourage you to continually reference how real objects look â€“ say in your room or out your window, Vs what you are seeing on-screen.ADJUSTING COLOR LEVEL:
What I find to be an artificial cue in almost all images I encounter in the Home Theater world is over-rich color. Iâ€™m not talking only about garish factory settings featured in most show-room displays. Iâ€™ve seen quite a few professionally calibrated displays, including my own, that still struck me as looking like the equivalent of a Hagan-Daz world.
On CRTs when the color is cranked up we know it produces unnatural â€œblooming, where color bleeds and blurs into adjacent phosphors. Plasmas donâ€™t have the same blooming problem per se, but turning up the color can have much the same subjective effect â€“ it makes objects look like they are glowing. People like vibrant, colorful images; I understand. But if you look around you at the real world, on the whole color does not leap out at you with neon-sign-like vibrancy. Most real objects donâ€™t â€œglowâ€ as if they themselves are light sources. Real life, compared to video images, looks more plain, more matter of fact, colors included. Itâ€™s like photographic prints: glossy prints contain an artificial, overlaying element that artificially enhances the image, whereas real life strikes me as more plain, like a non-reflective mat print.
My approach is to use the over-all â€œColorâ€ control to start notching back the color level, in order to slightly desaturate the image. Among the effects this has, I find these three the most important:
1. Peopleâ€™s faces start to look less over-saturated, less â€œmovie poster-like,â€ and more normal looking. Same with clothes. If someone is wearing a red or other deep hued jacket, it no longer stands out like a neon sign, grabbing my attention in an artificial way. It just looks â€œred,â€ not RED!
2. This is a big one for me: That electronic â€œglowâ€ to the image begins to fade as I start desaturating the color. Get a real-looking close up of an actor on one of your DVDs. Start with your color at â€œ0â€ (which is pretty much were my ISF guy left mine).
Start dialing down the color a click at a time, and see how the image of his skin subtly becomes less â€œradiatedâ€ or flatter and smoother â€“ more matter-of-fact, like you are looking at real skin Vs skin made up of glowing pixels. You can see this more clearly by comparing your own skin, or looking at someone in your family, and comparing to the image. Once the color is dialed just right, the people on screen look less "glowy,â€ more like real people. For me, the adjustment can be this critical: One click down can make the difference between â€œglowing imageâ€ Vs â€œnon glowing image.â€ (I suppose we are doing the equivalent of turning a glossy print into a mat print). At just the right setting, youâ€™ll better see the texture of peopleâ€™s skin, you may notice the fine powder of make-up on a woman, instead of her simply looking flush from itâ€™s coloring. Clothes no longer â€œradiateâ€ color, but instead look like fabric, and you become more aware of the texture of the clothes. Itâ€™s not necessarily about true increases in textural detail, but you are playing with how your brain directs its attention at the imageâ€¦if you see where Iâ€™m coming from.
3. Desaturating the color has the effect of slightly increasing perceived sharpness. In the case of CRTs, having the color turned up too high causes true bleeding of the color onto adjacent phosphors, blurring the image. So, properly adjusting color on a CRT objectively affects the clarity of the image. Plasmas donâ€™t â€œbloomâ€ per se, but having the color dialed up produces much the same subjective effect as a blooming CRT â€“ people and objects look over-rich and less defined. As I understand it, our eyes see more detail in black and white images. Perhaps this is part of the explanation why desaturating the color tends to make it look a little sharper. Try it and see if it has this effect for you.
Of course de-saturating the color too much can make the image, and actors in particular, look unnaturally pale. Also, youâ€™ll notice that when you notch the color UP it increases the color depth, color detail and the dimensionality of the image. You have to find the balance that looks right to your eyes. Generally I find if skin tones look convincing, the image usually remains quite dimensional as well. And lest you think an image adjusted this way might look â€œdull,â€ it looks anything but. It still looks rich and vibrant, but in a realistic way. On your typical shot of, say a butterfly close-up in Hi-Def the reaction is not: â€œWow, this display has amazing color,â€ itâ€™s instead â€œWow, that BUTTERFLY is beautiful.â€ The sensation is looking at the object as it really is not how your display is interpreting and enhancing that object.
This color effect is probably the most fragile concept to illustrate via a screen-shot. However, take a look at these images. If your computer monitor is reasonably calibrated, you should get this â€œmatter-of-factâ€ realism to the images. The sense that my digital camera was photographing not a TV, not a movie poster, but real people, with normal, natural skin:Screen Shot Of Willy Wonka KidPeter Parker WavingBruce Willis Waking Up - Fifth Element
Bruce Willisâ€™ face is naturally red in this â€œwake-upâ€ scene. But itâ€™s a great shot for dialing the â€œnot glowing but real-skinâ€ effect, especially looking at his shoulders.
FWIW, On my Panasonic plasma, my color control tends to ride between â€“1 and â€“4.BLACK LEVELS
The deeper, darker you can get black levels, the smoother, more noise-free and best of all, the richer and more dimensional the image becomes. Iâ€™ll take a DVD scene or shot that has a good range of shadow detail, right down into pitch black. I just want as deep blacks as possible, without loosing significant detail in the dark areas.
Increasing the black level (turning down brightness) makes the image pop out in a more three-dimensional manner. But push it too far, loose too much shadow detail, and dark areas start to look like black holes on your screen.
My screen shots are actually good for illustrating problems with black and highlight detail. Shadow and highlight detail plainly visible on my plasma was lost in many screen-shots. But as an example how Iâ€™d adjust an image for black level, look at this Green Goblin Shot from Spider Man:Green Goblin Screen Shot
I would dial down the black level, making it deeper, until the Goblin image popped realistically out of my screen. Then Iâ€™d take stock: are the dark areas too dark? The screen within the Goblinâ€™s mouth area should have detail. In fact you can see William Dafoeâ€™s mouth right through the screen with a properly calibrated image. Shadings around the shoulders should be smooth, not blocky. In real life detail rarely drops off a cliff into blackness, so my eye picks up those areas that appear unnaturally, black-hole-like dark. Now, the problem is that many DVD images actually DO have no detail in the shadows, and in fact the Panny plasma can loose a bit of detail in the darkest areas itself. If I perceive too-black shadow areas, Iâ€™ll adjust the black level up just until the image evens out, and those blackened areas no longer stand out and catch my eye. So itâ€™s not strictly about loosing or gaining detail within the black areas. Itâ€™s about creating an image that TRICKs your eyes into feeling they are seeing a proper level of contrastâ€¦so they donâ€™t go noticing defects. Get enough contrast to make the image realistically dimensional and rich, but not enough to make it look artificially contrasty. Sometimes when adjusting black level I will not concentrated only on the dark areas, Iâ€™ll just take in the whole image and watch how it becomes over-all more or less convincing with changes in brightness (black level).
Here's another example of black levels in play during a normal, well-lit scene. Again, the boy from the Willy Wonka DVD:Screen Shot Of Willy Wonka Kid
Adjusting the black level downward will increase the realism and vividness of the boyâ€™s dark hair, and the boyâ€™s face over-all. But some small areas of his hair DO fall into little or no detail. Youâ€™ll start to get the â€œtiny patches of black wholeâ€ effect in his hair - particularly the patch of hair in front of his left ear (screen right for the viewer). If I notice this, Iâ€™ll notch the black levels up a tad; evening things out to were my eyes donâ€™t notice the too-black areas.CONTRAST
Same thing applies here. I want my image to have a realistic dynamic range, to mimic the brilliance of real life (whereas my ISFâ€™d image appeared too flat and dim to convince). But I don't want it pushed into artificial territory. (I should also mention that, since my family watches tons of NTSC, my contrast settings are almost all the way down for those signals. The contrast for the DVD / HD image may be higher, but proportionally the display spends most of itâ€™s time in a life-span-saving low contrast mode). And I donâ€™t need my contrast levels cranked for this effect. They sit around â€“ 14 on my S-Video input for movies.
When the sun is highlighting an object, I like it to have a realistic brilliance, but not into artificial or eyestrain territory. Again, â€œrealâ€ not artificial. Iâ€™d start at the contrast setting of â€œ0â€ and work downward (â€œ0â€ will inevitably look too hot, especially in a darkened viewing environment). I observe those objects that are catching my eye in an artificial manner. Someone is wearing a white shirt? Is it blazing like a flashlight? Like a light source? I adjust until it gains the impression of fabric. But maybe the highlights along that white shirt have no detailâ€¦there is none even on the DVD transfer, those details just blew out. Well, does my eye pick this up?
Too bright highlights on objects will start to look detached from the object, as if they are light sources themselves and not an object reflecting light. If this is so, Iâ€™ll notch down the contrast until the high-lights â€œattachâ€ to the object â€“ say the white shirt of a metal object.â€ I adjust contrast until my eye is not distracted by the artificial looking highlights.
Look at this shot from the Fifth Element.Fifth Element Dude
Check out the manâ€™s forehead. On my plasma there is detail in that bright area on his forehead, but my digital camera blew out those details. If in fact this DVD image looked like this on my plasma, Iâ€™d make sure I wasnâ€™t distracted by the fake patch of nothing on his forehead, by notching down the contrast (bright area), evening out the tones in his face until the high-light looked like a natural intensity for light reflecting off skin. At that point it the lack of detail in the highlight area does not call attention to itself. Again, there may be problems in any image â€“ I just donâ€™t want them to stop my eye, or grab my attention.
But I always want to try and retain as realistic a level of contrast as possible. A plasma image with good dynamic range has a realistic â€œsurpriseâ€ or â€œpopâ€ about it. Youâ€™ll probably notice changes in weather on-screen more, and lighting conditions have a more natural variation. Cloudy days look right, but sunlight streaming through a window looks properly brilliant and â€œrealâ€ADJUSTING SHARPNESS.
Iâ€™ve found adjusting the sharpness on plasmas to be less egregious than on CRTs, which tend to look grainier and more card-board-cut-out-like more quickly with sharpness adjustments.
I want the image to look realistically sharp and clear. Real life, depending on your eye-site, has an absolute sharpnessâ€¦just not artificially so. Take a good DVD image and if it does not look realistically sharp, try notching up the sharpness control, while keeping an eye on increasing grain and ringing (white outlines around objects, brought about by the sharpness control). It may bring about such artifacts, especially visible if you get closer to your screen. But if increased grain or ringing is not visible, or distracting AT YOUR VIEWING DISTANCE and the picture has gained a more realistic sharpness, then that is the point. Also, if your DVD player has a sharpness control, test it against that of your display. In my case, I find the sharpness control of my DVD player looks a little more natural than the plasmaâ€™s control.
Iâ€™ve found my S-Video image to be so precise and clear that I rarely need the sharpness control. But, Iâ€™m not afraid to use it when needed. Forget test patterns: fool your eye.DIE OVERSCAN, DIE ! !!
For those unfamiliar with the term, my laymanâ€™s interpretation is that it loosely describes the fact that most displays are set to slightly â€œzoom inâ€ on the picture. Source material often varies in exact size â€“ different cable channels for instance can send a slightly larger or smaller image, or be shifted slightly left, right, up, down on your screen. On a screen with zero Overscan youâ€™d see these miss-centered images, and often notice the edge of the cable image has intruded onto your screen.
Slightly zooming in on the picture makes sure even mis-adjusted signals fill the screen.
But zoom in on any picture, as Overscan does, and you soften it. If you can reduce over-scan on your plasma image, especially if you can eliminate it, youâ€™ll be squeezing MORE image information on to your screen, making for a sharper, denser, more convincing-looking image. Use the appropriate AVIA test pattern for adjusting the size of the image, and use your plasmaâ€™s horizontal / vertical size and position controls to squeeze the image until it just fits onto your screen. In my case, my Pannyâ€™s component signal had little overscan to adjust, but my S-Video input had significant over-scan. Once Iâ€™d adjusted my S-Video signal, squeezing all of it onto the screen, the image was sharper and more convincing than my component signal.
Especially if you own a Panny plasma, adjust overscan on the S-Video input (and if possible, the Component input), play a DVD and see which input looks better. BTW, you can do a quick â€˜n dirty overscan adjustment by putting on a 1:85:1 aspect ratio DVD, such as Spider Man. A DVD of that aspect ratio is the essentially the same shape as the typical 16:9 plasma. If you adjust the edges of the image to perfectly fit within your screen you should notice an increase in sharpness and the sculptural, dimensional palpability of the image. (Geometry may not be perfect, but youâ€™ll get the idea).
And there we are. Weâ€™ve calibrated for the look of â€œREALISM.â€ You should have a subtly, but distinctly more believable image. The best source material should produce images that are sharp, realistically vibrant, naturally even and smooth with normal looking people on screen. Your plasma should appear less like a glowing display and more like something you are looking â€œthroughâ€ to real objects.
If anyone actually tries this, Iâ€™d appreciate some feedback: whether positive or negative.