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Why Do 4K/HDR Movies Look Dark?


4K and High Dynamic Range (HDR) have made the average viewing experience more enjoyable. The jump in picture quality has been incredible, and more people enjoy it every day. 

However, the upgrade has not been without its problems.

There’s nothing worse than spending a large sum of money on a new television or projector, only to sit down and find out that the movies and shows you’re planning to enjoy are too dark. 

So, why does 4K look dark? Isn’t HDR supposed to enhance brightness and the viewing experience?

Both are good questions and deserve detailed answers. 

The two standards are often misunderstood. That’s why this article will delve into why 4K and HDR sometimes look too dark.

4K and HDR offer higher picture quality and a wider range of color options. If your television isn’t suited for HDR viewing or your settings aren’t properly calibrated, 4K and HDR can look too dark and dampen your viewing experience.

Let’s delve into what 4K and HDR are and why this problem persists. 

What Are 4K and HDR?

4K and HDR both improve image quality.

They’re similar in this regard. However, the way in which they improve image quality differs greatly. 

What Is 4K?

A 4K TV

4K refers to screen resolution, i.e., the number of pixels that fit a screen.

It’s also known as Ultra HD, or UHD. The horizontal display resolution is approximately 4,000 pixels

It should be noted that 4K differs between consumer standards and movie standards.

4K refers to 3840 x 2160 pixels for consumer media and television. However, in movie projection, it often refers to 4096 x 2160 pixels.

This significantly improves quality because it consists of four times as many pixels as the next best display, 1080p. It’s also more than 23 times the resolution of standard-definition television. 

What Is HDR?

High Dynamic Range (HDR) is often confused with 4K. In fact, they’re sometimes used interchangeably.

However, this is false.

While 4K refers to resolution, HDR refers to color range and contrast, i.e., the difference between the darkest and lightest tones in any given image.

Therefore, HDR intensifies contrast without overexposing the bright tones or underexposing the dark tones in an image.

HDR creates more contrast than Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) and has more visual impact. Compared to SDR, HDR has more detailed images, better color shading, and more accurate colors.

Therefore, while 4K sharpens an image, HDR ensures it is highly contrasted.

Because of this, 4K and HDR are not mutually exclusive. HDR expands color range and light, and is often available in 4K. 

While not all 4K content is HDR, the content available in 4K HDR is enhanced both in terms of clarity and contrast.

So then, why does 4K look dark? Let’s delve into the possible reasons below.

Why Do 4K/HDR Movies Look Dark?

A working TV in the dark

Since 4K and HDR are some of the latest developments in clarity and contrast, many ask, “Why does 4K look dark?” 

When it comes to 4K HDR specifically, many wonder why HDR doesn’t “fix” the darkness. This is because of a misconception about what HDR does. 

Many believe that HDR improves brightness and makes colors more vivid. This is simply not the case.

HDR simply improves contrast, making the darkest and brightest facets of each image true-to-life. 

The following are some of the reasons why 4K HDR can look dark.

HDR 8 vs. HDR 10

Two monitors in the dark

Generally, when we speak about HDR, we often discuss HDR 10, HDR10 Plus, and Dolby Vision.

However, some manufacturers also market their televisions as HDR 8. This is possible since HDR can be defined in terms of both contrast and color depth.

That being said, there’s a massive difference between HDR 8 and HDR 10.

HDR 8 can display a maximum of 16.7 million colors. This may sound impressive until you hear that HDR 10 displays over 1 billion colors per pixel.

HDR 10 has more true-to-life levels of black, and the gradients between each color are less noticeable because of the multitude of colors available. This isn’t true for HDR 8, leading it to appear darker.

Television Defaults

A TV hanging in the living room

When some televisions and screens switch to HDR mode, they default to the maximum contrast and brightness levels.

Because of this, you’re no longer able to increase brightness and adjust it to your liking the way you can with SDR.

Black Levels

A 4K Ultra HD TV

4K HDR content has true-to-life black levels. So, why does 4K look dark?

One of the reasons is because movies are made to be watched in dark theater rooms, and watching these in brightly lit areas can make them look darker than intended.

HDR Failings

A couple watching TV together

Some consumer television sets are marketed as HDR but fail to live up to those standards. Value 4K HDR televisions, in particular, do this. 

If you’re wondering, “Why does 4K look dark?” when watching your favorite show or movie, it may be your hardware.

In order to make up for HDR failings, many televisions darken the image as a whole.

Since it can’t replicate the brightness, the television set performs a tone-mapping process and tries to adjust the HDR content to fit its capabilities. 

For example, if you’re watching a show with a scene with a 1000-nit highlight, but your television can only display it at 300 nits, the entire image has to be adjusted, so the highlight is reduced to 300 nits.

Your television will either preserve the average brightness of the scene but blow out the highlights or lower the overall brightness, so that the resulting image is much darker.

When the latter happens, it leads people to wonder why 4K and HDR are so dark.

Why Do 4K Movies Look Washed Out?

Man holds a remote control and watches TV

We’ve been watching television shows and movies in Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) for many years.

When it comes to bright whites, contrast is usually measured in nits. For SDR, the brightness goes up to approximately 100 nits. 

However, our televisions and screens are capable of displaying 300 nits or more. Because of this, we can increase the backlight and make the movie or show we’re watching brighter. 

On the other hand, HDR is capable of 1,000 nits or more, depending on your television. Therefore, some parts of the same image are brighter.

Increasing brightness doesn’t work the same as in SDR. Instead of brightening the overall image, it just washes it out. 

Is 4K Darker Than HD?

Another answer to “Why does 4K look dark?” is the backlight settings.

For HD, the backlight settings are usually 12/20, but 4K has completely different settings. Therefore, even at 20/20, 4K can appear darker than HD.

can a tv with hdmi be used as a computer monitor

Conclusion

If you were wondering, “Why does 4K look dark?” we hope we’ve answered your question.

In addition to being darker because of backlight settings, the colors often don’t show up true-to-life because of software and hardware capabilities and default settings.

Adjusting gamma/black level settings and different picture modes should significantly improve this problem.


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