The screen will not be black. It will be bright gray or grayish black. Your goal will be to make it totally black without making it dark.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

Monitor madness: Brightness' and 'Contrast' actually control something else

December 27, 1998

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

   Your computer monitor is all messed up. It probably came from the factory that way.
   Not only are the settings of most computer monitors out of whack fresh out of the box, they're almost guaranteed to stay that way. Try as you might, you're surely going to misunderstand how the controls work, and maybe make a bad thing even worse.
   Why? Because the two most important controls on your computer are mislabeled. No one could blame you for thinking the "Brightness" control adjusts the brightness and the "Contrast" control adjusts the contrast, right?
   But they don't. Once you understand that, you have a fighting chance of getting a good picture out of your monitor. But as long as you turn up the Brightness control to make things brighter and the Contrast control to make things -- well, contrastier, I suppose -- you'll be forever looking at a washed-out, dull and lifeless set of images on your screen.
   What those controls actually do is adjust the black and white aspects of the picture. The brightness control adjusts the level of black, and the contrast control adjusts the level of white. Technically, "level of black" makes no sense, so I'd better explain something. The only way your computer monitor can create black is not to create white (or blue or green or any other color). "Black" is what you see when you see nothing. Black is a dark screen. The electron gun that shoots stuff at the screen skips areas that are supposed to be black.
   Adjusting the black and while levels is actually easy. Start by getting something on your screen that's totally black. The easiest way to do this on Windows PCs and Macintoshes is to make the desktop background black.
   On a modern Windows PC, right click on the desktop and choose Properties. Make sure Pattern and Wallpaper are both set to "None." Click the Appearance tab and click once on the background of the virtual desktop shown in the window, then click the Color: button and choose the second color from the left in the top row. It's totally black. Click OK to close the window. On a Mac, open the Control Panel and choose black as the background for the desktop.
   Now turn the contrast down all the way. That reduces the while level to as low as possible. Find the brightness control and turn the brightness all the way up. That makes the black as bright as possible.
   The screen will not be black. It will be bright gray or grayish black. Your goal will be to make it totally black without making it dark.
   Here's how to do that. Slowly turn down the brightness while you watch the screen. At a certain point the screen will turn truly black. Turn the brightness up a little, bit by bit, until it looks gray again, then turn it down just below that point. That way "black" will be truly black and not gray.
   If a knob controls the brightness adjustment, use a marking pen to put a reference point on the knob, then tape the knob in its current position. If a menu on the screen does the adjustment, take note of the adjustment. Write it down somewhere. And be sure to tell everyone who uses the computer that the brightness control cannot be changed. (You should never have to change it unless you move the monitor to a brighter or dimmer room.)
   Back to the contrast. Turn it up a little and put something on the screen that has white, gray, black and the basic colors in it. I have a test pattern on my Web site that is perfect -- it's linked to this article -- but you can also use a display of icons in a window. (Make the icons large if they're small using the View menu.)
   Turn up the contrast slowly until whites start to "bloom" on the screen. Then back off on the adjustment a bit so that whites are strong and clear. This adjustment isn't sacred, so feel free to turn it higher or lower based on the kind of lighting in the room.
   You're done. The picture should look much different from what you're used to -- with rich grays and real blacks and real whites. It might also look too "dark," but that's because it's no longer washed out by a black-level (or "brightness") control that's turned too high. If you're tempted to turn the black-level control -- the so-called "brightness" -- back up, slap your wrist and leave it alone for a few weeks. I bet you'll never want to return to the ugly past once you're used to how good your display can be.