What is ISF Calibration?

I’ve begun building this blog with the intent of educating the public about some of what I do.  Currently, my bread and butter comes from DirecTV installs, done on an independent contracting basis, and I hope to focus on home theater in the future.  From March 26, to late March 28, I took the seminar to become Level I and II ISF certified.  This means that I have the information and the equipment available to calibrate HDTV’s and projectors according to ISF standards.  Level II is a very recent addition to the curricula, and I consider myself privileged to have been present for what is only the second time the level II information was taught.

Much of what the ISF does is based upon color science that was originally developed in the early ’30’s when TV/moving pictures was first becoming popular.  The ISF also takes into accounts standards like NTSC, ATSC, PAL, the Adobe 1998 Colorspace and much, much more that has to do with how a picture is displayed, accurately, on a television screen.  Other factors taken into account are whether scaling (also known as up/down-converting of picture resolution) is destroying your picture, causing phenomena known as artifacting to be introduced into your picture.  Artifacting has various ways that it can manifest, but if you ever notice an area of the picture on your TV that looks weird, static-y, or like something is crawling across the screen in that particular area, this is probably due to artifacting.

Joel Silver, a man whom most of us in the class would agree has achieved god-hood sometime between the creation of the ISF in 1994 and the present was originally inspired by a gentleman named William Edward Deming.  Deming was born early in the 20th century, and revolutionized Quality Control techniques in the manufacturing industry.   I will not get into too much detail about Mr. Deming here, instead writing about him in a separate article, but one of the most memorable moments of class for me was when Mr. Silver paid homage to Mr. Deming for the manner in which he held companies and management accountable for the quality of their products, as opposed to focusing simply on costs.  As a side note, Mr. Deming was largely ignored in America between the early ’50’s and the ’80’s.  Japan, however, owes much of their success in industry to Mr. Deming, his methods, and the time he spent over there during the aforementioned period of time, as does the Ford Company, which was the only large American car company that did not request recent bailout funds.  Ford brought Mr. Deming on in the early ’80’s to help turn the company around, as it was failing at the time, and in 1986 Ford produced it’s first profitable car line which some of you may be familiar with.  Anyone ever heard of the Taurus-Sable line?

Mr. Silver, I believe, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Deming by providing standards of quality and accountability to the moving picture and home theater industries.  He’s currently working with organizations like CEDIA (Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association) to provide a basic outline of how home theaters should be set up, with details like what range ft-L (foot-lamberts, a measure of brightness) is considered acceptable for projectors on various types of screens, what colorspace manufacturers should provide in their TV’s, etc…

I intend to attempt to bring forward fact, and dispel myth concerning whether or not ISF calibration is necessary, or simply a scam, as both schools of thought exist.  When I first learned about TV calibration in December of 2009, I began researching it on the internet, and walked into Best Buy one day.  I asked questions and pretended ignorance, letting him attempt to sell it to me.  I have a relatively decent technical background, and like to think I can sort through the wheat from the chaff when talking to those who sell electronics.  The guy at Best Buy did a decent job, but what REALLY stood out was at the end when he mentioned that the calibrator was ISF certified.

I wrote it down, went home, researched it and three months later (almost to the day) I was sitting in Orlando, FL, having driven 700 miles, dealing with a shutdown of I-77, a dead battery, and having to purchase new clothing due to having left mine at home (I would be lost, without my wife), so that I could listen to the man that started it all speak to me and 25-30 others about what it means to calibrate a video display source, whether it be CRT, Plasma, LCD (and no, you do NOT have an LED TV) or a projector of some type.  3 days later, I prepared to leave Orlando, having met the man, listened to him speak, and come away feeling as if I’d had information flogged into my merely mortal brain.  ISF calibration IS for real, folks.  There is science behind it that is extremely complex in nature, but what it boils down to is this:

  • You spent x amount of money on your TV, and think it should work great out of the box?  Would you purchase a server at the company you work with and put it on the rack without having your IT guy set it up?  Would you purchase an air-conditioning unit, and leave the thermostat set on whatever the installer left it at?  No, I don’t think you would, and neither should you do that with a TV.
  • Artifacting is a phenomena that is extremely annoying, can cause your picture to look like crap, and a large portion of the time is easily detected and corrected through various techniques and test patterns available to calibrators.
  • If a man comes into your house with a DVD and some blue film filters to “calibrate” your TV, kick him out.  I mean it.  Portable calibration equipment costs THOUSANDS of dollars, and the bench units can cost hundreds of thousands.
  • Lastly, rather than attempting to adjust the various settings while watching normal TV or a movie, where the picture is constantly changing and you have to look at color, black, and white all at once, an ISF calibrator has access to software and hardware that will allow him to break down the various aspects, and test/set them one at a time.  Black levels, white levels, gamma, grey scale (which is where your color should be adjusted first) and then CMS (Color Management Systems) which is where the colorspace of the TV is determined and set.

ISF Calibration is real.  It has specific, quantifiable objectives to achieve that I’ve listed here, and if anyone tells you otherwise they do not understand the technology.

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