The factory adjustment for your computer monitor is nearly always wrong because the brightness is turned up too high. What's more, the contrast is nearly always turned down too low.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

New PC? Take the time to adjust the monitor

Enter the Technofile / Stars Magazine photo contest
Dec. 30 , 2000

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright ©2001 Al Fasoldt
Copyright ©2001, The Syracuse Newspapers

   If you have a new PC or a new computer monitor, set aside a few minutes over the New Year's holiday to do something the manufacturer never does. Adjust the display so that it's right.
   Companies that make computer monitors just send them out the door. They don't take the time to adjust the two settings that make a world of difference on your computer screen -- brightness and contrast. A few minutes spent twiddling these two controls can make the difference between a good computer display and one that is just plain bad.
   I've been telling people how to adjust their displays for years. In my professional life, I've seen thousands of new computer screens, and my guess is that only a few arrived from the factory with the controls properly set. I think that's a scandal.
   But I have a personal side to this, too. It wasn't until I learned how to adjust my own computer screens that I finally started to become an accomplished digital photographer. I was dabbling until then. Judging the quality of my own work was impossible until I had a standard way of displaying it. Now that all four of the computers in our home have properly adjusted monitors, my wife, Nancy, and I are able to know at a glance if a digital scan or an image from a digital camera looks good or needs more tweaking. We're able to get things right without a lot of effort and agony.
   There's a secret to adjusting a computer screen properly. Nobody who's new to this kind of thing ever believes me when I tell them this secret. They must think I am kidding. Or maybe they assume that there's more to it than meets the eye, so to speak. But the secret is just as simple as it sounds.
   Here it is: The factory adjustment for your computer monitor is nearly always wrong because the brightness is turned up too high. What's more, the contrast is nearly always turned down too low.
   Duh, do I really mean that's all there is to it? Yep! Just turn the brightness 'way down and the contrast 'way up and you'll have a much better picture. End of story.
   However, if you want to do it scientifically, I'll tell you how to get your display so perfect even your eye doctor would approve. But first I should explain the problem. I'll keep it simple, hoping for forgiveness from everyone who knows that "simple" doesn't always mean "accurate."
   Because of a trick of the eye, all of us prefer bright things to dim ones. Our retinas are a lot happier when they're bathed in light, you might say. But we don't see color the same way we see black-and-white scenes, so the fact that our eyes prefer brightness gets confused with how we judge things that are colorful.
   As a result, we're fooled. Our eyes and brain mistake bright colors for good colors. We'll all seen signs of this outside the world of computers, right in our own living rooms. In homes all over the world, color TVs are adjusted so that everything is much brighter and much more colorful than in real life.
   But color TVs actually have color-intensity controls that are separate from the brightness adjustment. Computer monitors have no such thing. Computer monitors don't need a way to control the intensity of colors. It's already under the control of the graphics card in the computer. All they need is a way to make overall scenes brighter or darker -- and a way to make blacks more black and whites more white.
   And that's the rest of the secret. The brightness of overall scenes is controlled by the brightness adjustment, of course. But since there's no color-intensity adjustment, the brightness control on your computer monitor does the wrong thing. It makes colors look false by making them both bright AND washed out.
   That's why the contrast control is so vital. It restores the proper balance. Computer color experts who know what they are talking about -- and I say that because many simply do not -- sometimes say that the brightness control is misnamed. The real "brightness" control is the one labeled "contrast." It's the one that makes scenes look bright or dim.
   Our eyes have been fooled so long that you might have a hard time seeing this for yourself. But give it a try. Turn the brightness control down all the way, then turn the contrast up half way. Make sure you have at least some black areas on the screen, then start turning the brightness up. As soon as the black areas start looking gray, back off on the brightness a bit. Keep the blacks black.
   Then turn the contrast up until white areas look good and white.
   That's all you have to do. You might notice that some computer games will seem too dark (because they were programmed with the assumption that typical computer displays aren't adjusted properly, of course). Just turn the brightness up a bit for those games.