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How much does ambient light affect my front projection viewing?

Following is a list of examples of what effect lights in the room have on front projection.  The room consists of 13 ceiling recessed 'can' lights that are broken into 3 separate dimmable zones.  Different video material is used to show effects on different shows.

There are notes under every photo that highlight key points to look for within the photos.

Typical Prime Time Viewing Experience

Put on your favorite show and see what effect you might expect as you add/remote lights from the environment.

Here we present a baseline example of an optimized family room home theater environment.  After dark, curtains on windows, all the lights out.  I randomly picked a HD prime time show to throw up on screen and paused the show.  Notice the huge black space around the screen - this is the room that you can't see because it's just to darn dark!  No reflections, no issues, and a pristine image on screen.



Now we turn on the lights above the couch, the perimeter lights.  These 5 recessed lights are directing about 40 watts (dimmed lighting) down onto the couch per light putting about 200 watts (estimated) into the room.  You can see immediately how the image loses a bit of 'pop' and that the details in the dark hair on the left are washed away by the light.  Yet, it is also quite clear that this is still are highly viewable image that people won't complain about.  It is also clear that the lighting on the couch is adequate for reading, eating, or just talking to friends and moving about.



Now the lights above the fireplace have been turned on adding about 40 watts per light into the room.  You can see that the left side of the room has some added light and both left and right sides of the screen are getting some light falling on it.  This evens up the on screen and in room illumination a bit, but brings the overall image quality down a tiny bit as well.  Yet, for my 3 year old son, he can now see his toys and play on the floor in the room while I can still enjoy the big screen and some prime-time HDTV or the game.



Now let's turn on those main lights in the room.  Six more recessed ceiling cans of the same type that are over the couch.  About 30 or 40 watts coming off the lamps and you can see how drastically this cuts into the image quality on screen.  Yet, even at this level which now provides a very bright room, we still have an adequate on screen image.  No, this isn't ideal for watching a movie with dark scenes, and after a while may appear annoyingly washed out, but it still is okay for some of the least critical viewing times.  Yet, with lighting zoned as it is, there would rarely be a need to turn these central lights on when using front projection.



Let's crank the lights up...  All of them.  A total of 13 recessed lights in the room, all cranking a full 60 watts of halogen power out of them.  This is a lighting level that approaches normal daylight levels in the room.  Very, very bright.  Perfect for cleaning the room, seeing all the details in the corners, working on the equipment rack, etc.  It is to much light for 'general' room usage, but is the correct amount for times when working in the room is necessary.  The on-screen image is visible, but not much else that I can say about it.



Let's move the camera a bit and see what's going on over the couch when these light levels change.

This is the same HD video scene but with a view of what is going on over the seating area as lighting is increased.  To no surprise, with the lights out, you don't see that there is a couch in the room at all.  Ideal movie viewing, tough reading.



This is back to the 'couch only' lighting setup with a full 60 watts of lighting over the couch from each of five recessed lights.  300 watts total.  Quite clearly it is going to be easy to read, eat, and move about with this much light in the room.  More importantly that on screen image retains almost all of the pop it had when the lights were entirely off.  This is more lighting than is really necessary over the couch, but the key concept is how little the on screen image is adversely affected by putting so much light into the room.  As long as it doesn't directly fall on screen, the image should remain good.



Finally, this is with all the lights in the room on at a medium level.  You can immediately see how the on screen image is affected.  Yes, it's still viewable, but it is possible, as shown in the prior photo, to put more light over where people are seated and reading/eating/talking while still having a better image on screen.  This highlights the importance of zoning lighting into at least two zones.  One zone for lights close to the screen, another for the lights furthest from the screen or directly over seating.



Let's see what's going on near the fireplace...

Just one shot here to show off the fireplace lighting in a typical medium lighting environment.  About 40 watts or so from the two fireplace lights and plenty of light over the kid's toys and games.  It creates a welcome 'family' environment that can be carried into a basement rec. room area where a pool table may be in place and everyone can still see perfectly to play pool or ping-pong while others are seated in the same space and watching a movie.  Important to note is how the directional lighting truly allows an area of the room to be bright while not seriously illuminating an area where we don't want light to fall.


A Closer View Of Some More Critical Material

As great as prime time is, movies tend to have lots of darker scenes similar to what is shown in this concert footage broadcast by INHD.

This is it, theater black conditions with so-so concert footage.  The contrast of the projector is a bit more than the camera can really capture accurately, but it is important to note the details of the crowd and what is going on in the shadows.  This correlates to people moving in the shadows during a horror scene or two people having a discussion in a 'night' scene during a movie.  The details are what you want to see.



50% couch lights on...  This is it, the perfect example of how good that on screen image remains despite about 150 watts or so of directional lighting over the couch being added to the room.  Compare the first two photos from this set carefully and you can see that there is definitely a slight falloff in quality between the two.  The colors are just a bit washed out and the shadows lose the tiniest bit of detail.



100% couch lights on.  We crank those couch lights up to full power and start to see a fairly significant amount of falloff in image quality on screen.  still viewable, but the colors are a bit more washed out.  Look in particular at the lower left portion of the image and see how those shadow details are almost completely lost.



100% couch and fireplace lights on.  This is getting further and further from ideal.  While in the prior video scene of primetime viewing we could have this much light on and still really enjoy the image, this one is getting downright poor.  The shadow details are really starting to fade to nothing and the colors are being more and more washed out.



Add some room lights...   This is back to couch/perimeter at 50% with 50% main lights as well.  It's just unviewable!  The shadows are being filled in more with light from above than by the projector.  This is creating hot-spots on the screen where it is plain to see where those lights are specifically located.  Trying to watch a movie under these conditions will only frustrate everyone in the room and highlights the importance of properly zoning lighting control if lights are ever going to be necessary in the space.



All lights 100%...  It doesn't get worse than this.  Don't you remember that first photo, just a few seconds ago...  I think there was a crowd there wasn't there?  This represents all the details in the background, in the faces at night, everything being invisible.  While the prior photo showed how important zoning can be, this one goes a step further to emphasize how dimming can be an important part of a setup.  Even under horrible lighting conditions, a dimmer can at least remove a bit of the light falling on screen.  So, if you can't change your lights, and you can't turn them off, then make them as dim as possible!


Time To Play!

One of the main reasons people often buy front projection is to watch sporting events in high definition.  These are typically bright events so let's see how lighting affects what you may want to spend most of the time enjoying on your projector.

No lights.  Sure, it's great to sit in a perfectly dark room with no lights on with all of your buddies watching the game.  Here catch this beer...  ooopps!  Sorry man.  As great as this image looks, it's a good bet that at least for part of the game you will want to turn some lights on to pass around the snacks and drinks.  But, it's hard to beat the color, detail, and pop that a theater dark room delivers.



50% couch lighting.  Back to the standard for quality lighting in the room, the couch lights are delivering their 150 watts, everyone can see and move around the room and enjoy their feed and drink.  Yet, that on screen image remains nearly perfect.  Just a bit less 'pop' than the theater black room.  This is the way to set the room up to watch every game from your mid-week NHL snoozer to the Super Bowl or World Cup final match up.



50% couch and fireplace lights.  Lighting the room evenly across the entire perimeter does little more to affect the lighting.  Perhaps the key here is that if it is possible you will achieve better results, with far more control, by creating more zones of lighting - even with lighting that is close.  If there are three lights over the couch, breaking them into two zones can still put enough light in the room to move about, while reducing the overall impact to the room a bit.


100% couch and fireplace lights.  Adding more light to the room will always affect the image, but unlike the dark 'movie/concert' scene from before, the added light isn't going to create as serious of an effect.  Since sports are typically brightly lit events, the details will still pop out even under less ideal viewing conditions.  Yet, those dimmers really do help to add some pop to your viewing.



All lights 50%.  As soon as the main room lights turn on, the image on screen immediately degrades.  Clearly viewable are hot spots in the crowd area (darker) from the above ceiling lights.  Sure, watch the game this way...  if you must.  It's still very watchable, a note to how important dimmers are to maintaining the proper viewing environment.



Center lights 50%, couch lights 100%.  Can you even tell a difference between the prior two photos?  It's critical to see how the lights closest to the screen have far greater impact on adversely affecting details vs. the directional lights that are further away.  Get those lights OFF when they are near the screen!



All lights 100%.  Yeah, it was going to be a good game, until someone turned on the lights.  Go back up, look at the first two images from this basketball game.  Now think about the fact that most people set up their lights so this is what they are stuck viewing when lights are on.  If you are stuck in this setup, you can simply unscrew the lights closest to the screen and then add a dimmer to really help control the experience.  It's supposed to be fun, and if you aren't able to see what's on the screen, than how fun is it really going to be?