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Projector Brightness

By Art Feierman

Overview on Brightness

The ability of your projector to be bright enough for your screen, and your room, and your viewing habits to provide at least satisfactory viewing, has always been a key variable.  It has become even more important with the advent of 3D capable projectors.  That said, let’s start with the basics, and then get into practical examples:

We like to refer to “best” and “brightest” modes in our reviews.   Typically a home projector today comes with anywhere from 4 to 10 different picture modes (with names like Cinema, Film, Theater Black, Standard, Natural, Living Room, Stage, Game, Dynamic). They vary in terms of picture accuracy (including color accuracy), brightness, and some other characteristics.  Typically there are multiple brightest modes.  The brightest of those modes is normally the one with the least best picture.

Different modes are optimized for different compromises.  Really bright modes for fighting ambient light, modes with pumped up color and saturation to cut through ambient light, good looking color modes not near as bright, but very enjoyable to watch, because the extra brightness more than offsets the slight loss of accuracy.  (If everyone really wanted exceptional picture quality, no one would be buying LCDTVs.)  In other words you get lots of modes so you can dial in the mode that best suits what you are watching in terms of content, and room lighting.  You might favor, for example, one mode for sports, another, less, but still fairly bright mode, that’s got better color  for watching Discovery HD, while switching to a calibrated mode only for movie watching with the room at its darkest.

Considering A Projector’s Brightest Modes

As you compare many projectors, you should understand that the absolute brightest mode on some projectors have decent, or even pretty good color (never exceptional), while others may have their brightest mode looking so bad as to be unwatchable to most people.  The most common example of “unwatchable”, often is due to the image being so heavily green oriented, that it starts making The Matrix movies seem like natural color. Can you say:  Ugly?    The good news, is that there’s almost always in such cases, another “bright mode” that’s close to the “green” one, that has much better, and watchable color.

That’s why in our reviews when we normally refer to “brightest” mode, we’re talking about “brightest watchable” mode rather than “brightest measured” mode.

Sometimes we refer to our calibrator Mike doing a “quick-cal” of a “brightest” mode.  Understand, that’s not at all a full calibration, but it is taking a “brightest mode” with Mike adjusting it only slightly to improve the color, but within one parameter:  Improving color as much as possible, but without giving up very much brightness.  Typically you’ll see in our reviews a “quick-cal brightness measurement that’s 5 to 15 percent less bright than that same “brightest” mode untouched.

While you might not want to watch a movie in a “brightest” (watchable) mode, you’ll probably find it just fine for that next sporting event, or the kids cartoons…

Most home projectors offer “brightest” modes that offer between 750 and 2400 lumens.  Just four years ago, before 3D projectors hit, that higher number was more like 1500 lumens, but 3D screams for “more lumens” to deliver reasonable brightness.

Quicktip:  Despite all these modes, theoretically, if you calibrate them all, brightest, least bright, or modes somewhere in the middle, as long as the projector has a full set of controls, if you calibrated every mode, they would all end up essentially the same, with the same brightness. 

Best Mode Brightness

While most home projectors have more than one “best” mode – each a bit different, we’re talking about the one with the best performance in terms of picture quality. We normally calibrate a projector starting from one of those “best” modes, and make it better.  Realizing that most people spending anywhere from less than $1000 to several thousand dollars, are reluctant to spend $300 to $600+ for a professional calibrator, so we publish the settings Mike, our calibrator ends up with.  That’s not as perfect as calibrating your projector individually, but most report that trying our settings is an improvement over the default settings.

Most projectors (other than low cost home entertainment projectors) calibrate to somewhere between 400 and 800 lumens.

Here’s the interesting thing:  With some projectors there’s little difference between “best” and “brightest” modes.  It’s typical in fact that most projectors “brightest modes” are less than 50% brighter than calibrated best.

But with some projectors, the difference can be two to over three times the brightness.  There’s a reason.  Typically, that situation, with the big difference comes with LCD projectors, but not DLP or LCoS projectors.  Why is that?  Well, the two primary players in 3LCD home theater projector space are Panasonic and Epson, and both use Epson 3LCD panels.   With Epson’s and Panasonic’s home theater projectors, the PT-AE8000U And Epson HC5020UB and PC6020UB projectors, you get about a three times jump going to brightest, because these projectors have a special color filter that only goes into the lightpath, when in “best” modes.  That is, by adding this filter, color accuracy increases, but it costs tons of lumens.  Fortunately, these projectors are already typically bright calibrated, so the end result is that they are the brightest projectors out there, at brightest.  By comparison, the Epson 3020 lacks that filter, so the difference between best, and brightest, is more typical.

Dedicated Home Theater brightness.  Having a room with great lighting control and that that can be almost completely darkened means that you really shouldn’t need a super bright “brightest mode”. With good control of lights, you should be able to have some ambient light present, that allows socializing for things like sports or TV.

As a result we tend to think of all projectors that can’t put much more than 1000 or so lumens on the screen in brightest mode, as projectors for dedicated home theaters, while projectors with very bright brightest modes as equally fine in the dedicated theater, but far better choices for family rooms and other environments with far less perfect lighting control and brighter room surfaces.

Now remember, that lamps dim over time.  By the time a projector lamp reaches it’s claimed “life” that lamp has lost 50% of brightness.  When you buy a projector you want enough lumens so that the projector is still acceptable in brightness as the lamp nears the end of it’s life.

How Many Lumens Do You Need?

Let’s forget about ambient light and best modes, and stay in the dedicated theater for a moment.  By official standards (SMPTE – the motion picture technicians), all you need to fill a 100” screen is about 350 lumens, actually a bit less.   But, you’ll probably want 500 lumens so that the projector never gets much dimmer than the minimum at lamp life end.

Remember, the more screen gain, the less lumens you need.  As most screens are 1.1 to 1.5 gain, (I have 1.3 and a 1.4 gain screens as my primaries), that helps.  You’ll get the same image brightness from 500 lumens hitting a 1.4 gain screen as a 700 lumen projector hitting a 1.0 gain screen.  Just note that once you get much above 1.5 gain, there are some real screen issues/trade-offs.  To quote Robert Heinlein:  “There ain’t no such thing as a free lumch” (from the class science fiction book:  “The moon is a harsh mistress”.)

Typical screen gain, typical theater setup, you’ll likely want 500 to 1000 calibrated lumens depending on screen size.

Ambient Light Changes Everything!

Want to watch March Madness Basketball with a bunch of friends, with enough light to party?  Don’t expect that same 500 lumens to get the job done. Can you say washed out?

And that is why projectors good for family rooms etc., typically have more maximum brightness.  Life is simple if you have a theater with good lighting control.   Life is challenging a a room with windows, and off white walls, and lights on.

Still, having 2000 lumens – about 3 times that of a calibrated home theater projector, is enough to do a respectable job in “Improved” rooms, and even some really terrible rooms as long as the screen choice is a good one.

Please check out our Projector Reviews TV video on Choosing the Right Projector Screen.

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