Your HDR TV may be the real cause of your eye strain. Here’s how to fix it

Your HDR TV could be the cause of your eye pain if you watch it in the dark.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Almost all modern televisions are compatible with high dynamic range video. While doesn’t mean they all work the same, many HDR TVs are brighter than their older, non-HDR counterparts, and innovations like mini LEDs make them even brighter. Some of the brightest TVs we reviewed are also among the best televisions, including the Samsung QN90A, the TCL series 6 and tears in my eyes Hisense U8G. Their bright and colorful images are a wonder to behold. Brighter doesn’t necessarily mean better, but it can make TVs easier to watch in a bright room, and it really brings out the strengths of HDR.

High-quality movies and TV shows are best enjoyed in a dark room, however, to reduce reflections and help increase contrast. And with the lights off, the extreme brightness of many of these TVs can cause eye strain and in some cases even irritate your eyes.

There are a few things you can do about it, but it’s not as easy to solve as you might imagine.

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Brett Pearce / CNET

What is HDR and why is brightness an “issue”?

High dynamic range, or HDR, is the latest TV technology. It is available on PlayStation and Xbox game consoles and streaming services including Netflix, Disney plus, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu. Near televisions and streaming devices who have 4K resolution also supports HDR. Mid-range and high-end TVs offer a lot more brightness when watching HDR content. For example, the sun or a lamppost will be noticeably brighter than the surrounding scene. This is great, because it creates an image that really appears realistically.

However, if you are watching TV in a dark room, which we highly recommend for any high quality video experience, these sizzling reflections may appear too much shiny, which makes your eyes sore or itchy. If you’ve ever looked at your phone in a dark room, you’ve probably experienced it before.

I put “problem” in quotes for this section because the exact same thing can happen with non-HDR material. Any too bright TV in a dark room can cause eye strain. Modern televisions are so much brighter than older televisions that even with lower backlight settings they can still be startlingly bright.

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The highlights of HDR content on HDR televisions are much brighter than standard “normal” dynamic range televisions (Image for reference only. Actual HDR on an HDR television will be physically brighter).

Dolby / Geoff Morrison

Why your TV could hurt your eyes

Someone who shines a flashlight in your eyes at night, that’s boring, isn’t it? But staying in a room with the lights on isn’t. Your eye adjusts to the average amount of light hitting your retina. A dark room with a bright TV is still, on average, dark. So your iris is wide open. But the parts of your retina affected by the light from the TV are submerged. They get tired, causing a feeling of fatigue and itching.

Usually, the way to avoid this is to reduce the average amount of light reaching your retina. You can do this by decreasing the overall light output of the TV or, counterintuitively, increasing light in the room.

How to watch TV without painful eye strain

1. Buy a bigger TV or sit closer.

Want an excuse to buy a bigger TV? Here is a good one.

A small bright object in a dark room confuses your eye. The “average” amount of light is low, your irises open and the luminous “bright spot” of the light uses part of your retinas. A television that is larger or closer to your current television will fill a greater percentage of your field of view. With more of your eye filled with light, your irises will contract, so less light hits your retinas. In general, this means less eye strain.

Personally, I am a fan of spotlights, which create even larger images and are not as bright as televisions. Much easier on the eyes.

2. Lower the light output of the television.

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Adjusting the backlight can help, but not always.

Geoffrey Morrison / CNET

While the obvious solution, it’s not necessarily the most ideal. Many TVs automatically set their backlight to maximum to display HDR content. Turning down the backlight (or turning down the OLED light on an OLED TV) can impact how the TV displays HDR content. The image may look strange. It’s hard to say how much that will depend on the TV.

This is not the same as the contrast or brightness controls. These controls usually have nothing to do with the brightness of a television.

Read more: Want better television? Change These 9 TV Picture Settings Today (You’ll Thank Us Later)

Most HDR compatible TVs will have multiple HDR presets. These may be evident in the image settings menu, and they may not be. These can be labeled, for example, Dolby Vision Bright and Dolby Vision Reference, or HDR Bright and HDR Normal. In these cases, Bright would be designed for brighter rooms, while Reference / Normal is best for dark rooms.

Your TV may not have these modes, or the lower setting may still be too bright. If so, there are other fixes.

3. Add a strategically placed lamp.

Turning on a light is another option, but of course it can create some glare (or worse, be a distraction in the area around your eyes). Again, you might not care about these two drawbacks, but I hope to help you find the most perfect solution for your setup.

The ideal placement of the lamp is not in the line of the eyes of the TV, nor in a place where it causes reflection. It could be somewhere out of the ordinary, like behind a sofa.

Dimmable recessed ceiling lights can also work, but of course that depends on whether they cause glare on the TV. A TV stand that you can move or rotate can also help with reflections.

The point is, adding more light to the room increases the “average” amount of light in the room, causing your irises to close a bit, let in less light, and potentially cause less eye strain.

4. Add polarization light.

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A polarization light, like this laptop pictured above, is a neutral white light that brightens the room a bit.

Taylor Martin / CNET

One step more than a lamp is polarizing light. These neutral white lights add some light to the room, they don’t negatively impact the picture on the TV, and they reduce eye strain.

Color is important because whatever the color of the lights, that color is “subtracted” by your brain from the color you see on the screen. So if you have a blue light behind the TV, the TV will look red. The correct color for bias lights is neutral white; as close as possible to the D6500 color temperature standard.

At the end of the line

This is not a new problem. Televisions have long been much brighter than necessary for an average room. HDR potentially compounds the problem, as they are, overall, much brighter than older “SDR” TVs. If you experience eye strain with HDR or other hardware, we hope our fixes can help.

Note (9/2021): This article was first published in 2017, but has been updated with new links and information.


In addition to covering television and other display technology, Geoff organizes photo tours of museums and cool places around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, cemeteries. planes, etc.

You can follow his exploits on Instagram and his travel video series on YouTube. He’s also written a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, as well as a sequel.


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