Projectors can be tricky to get right, and especially when it comes to brightness and daytime use projectors can really start to show their weaknesses. Bright light can lead to washed-out/dim projector images, but you can get projectors that work well during the day, indoors and out.
For good projector performance in daylight (either fully outdoors or with high levels of ambient light from windows) the projector has to have high lumens, typically at least 3000 and higher for brighter circumstances. A few great options for most people are:
There are lots of projector specs that you could get confused in (check out our full write-up on projector specs in a separate article), but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s turn our attention to lumens, aka brightness, and understand how the lumens value impacts projector use during the daylight.
If you’ve committed to the big-screen life, then you know projectors are an incredible way to get a 100+ inch screen without breaking the bank. This feature of a big screen at a lower cost (compared to Televisions) can really make an impact, but projectors have some drawbacks as well. The brightness, for instance, can get a little complicated when you’re going to daylight (and especially outdoor) projector use.
While a pricey Television like the Samsung 65” Q60 Series (on Amazon) comes in at a much higher price-per-diagonal-inch than projector options, it boasts “QLED” technology and a built-in backlighting system that keeps the picture bright. This isn’t usually something you’d think about, but it helps us understand why projectors suffer in bright light: the projector is projecting an image onto a screen that doesn’t have any backlighting involved. So a TV produces its own light behind the panel, but a projector bounces the image off a screen.
Daylight (or any bright light) complicates projector use because projector screens are designed to reflect the light from the projector very well, but they reflect all the other light in the room too. Whether it’s an indoor screen like the HOIN 120” screen (on Amazon), or an outdoor inflatable screen like this VIVOHOME 14 ft. option (on Amazon), these screens are going to reflect all light including what’s coming from the projector and that washes the image out.
But can this problem be solved? Projectors can work in the daylight, and they can even work well, but because of how projecting and projector screens work you have to make sure you produce the brightness you want at the projector. That means you probably need to get a slightly more souped-up projector with the right amount of brightness, or “lumens”, to push through that ambient light and make sure the picture isn’t muddied.
To make sure you’re selecting a projector with enough brightness for daylight use, you need to focus on a very specific parameter: the projector’s lumens. This is how much light is coming from the projector, and the numbers vary widely, from the low hundreds for portable projectors to higher values as you move up the price scale.
For daylight viewing, you want a projector with a minimum of 3000 lumens. There are great options in the $500-$600 range that will meet this criteria, and you can go brighter if you want to have sharper colors and better contrast. You may need to go even higher for outdoor daylight viewing, targeting between 6000 and 8000 lumens.
This may seem extreme, but when you consider the light intensity of daylight, it starts to make a lot more sense. This number has been measured, and you can see on Wikipedia where the lumens brightness of sunlight at the Earth’s surface is somewhere around 100,000 lux (lumens per square meter).
So, compared to the projector lumens this number is obviously pretty silly, and it will also vary by region, time of the year, etc., but the point is clear: a projector is competing with a lot of ambient brightness when daylight is coming in the windows, or if the projector is outdoors in direct sunlight.
You can easily head to amazon and search “outdoor projector” or “high lumens projector,” but the results are a little tricky. There are options that appear to have high (>7000 lumens) brightness that have suspiciously low prices, and of course, they’ll all say they work in “partial daylight” or something like that. But really, there are some more specific use cases that are worth looking at projectors for.
Let’s handle the big buy first. If you’re going to use a projector outdoors in sunlight, you need high lumens. The ViewSonic PRO8530HDL 5200 Lumens 1080p Projector (on Amazon) slams the brightness up to 5200 lumens, giving you a decent bet that this will allow you to project in even very bright/direct sunlight situations. But this performance comes at a serious price.
The price point means you’re giving up a lot of money to enable this super brightness. The lamp has to be incredibly bright, and that means more expensive and advanced hardware. It will eventually mean a higher lamp replacement cost (but that’s after thousands of hours, so not exactly a huge deal).
About now, you might be wondering why we're recommending a 5200 lumens projector when the discussion above suggests >7000 would be preferred. You're right: for outdoor viewing, brighter is better, but something really strange starts to happen at about the point projectors start getting >5000 lumens: they start to lose other features.
Models like the Optoma X600 6000 Lumen Projector (on Amazon) or the Maxell 3LCD 7000 Lumen Projector (also on Amazon) have incredible brightness, are just as expensive as the 5200 lumen ViewSonic model above, but neither of them have 1080p resolution (only 720p in both cases), and neither of them have a 16:9 aspect ratio (they're both actually 4:3). At this price point and brightness level, manufacturers don't have to cater to "normal" consumers, they're more likely to be talking to people running large events or stadium-style classrooms, applications where that sweet movie aspect ratio of 16:9 and the higher resolution of 1080p aren't needed.
So, while you can technically find brighter projectors, and even some at this price point, this 5200 lumen ViewSonic model strikes a great balance of price, performance, and picture quality for an outdoor application. Bonus points: it will look absolutely stunning indoors as well.
The Optoma HZ39HDR Laser Home Theater Projector (on Amazon) boasts a higher than average lumen count of 4,000 and would be appropriate to use indoors in a well-lit space. It will work in dark spaces too, of course, and that extra brightness will really make the image pop in those situations, but if you have big windows and just know your living room or theater area is bright from ambient light, this option would be perfect to hedge against that and just make sure you have plenty of lumens to throw out.
On top of that, this projector has a 120Hz refresh rate, and an 8.4ms response time. These things aren’t too important if you’re just streaming video from online services and doing day-to-day viewing, but those who plan to do some gaming or really build an impressive home theater with HDR content piped to it will really appreciate how this projector handles those use cases.
One thing to watch out for on this model is that the marketing describes the resolution as “4k input” but then says the image is 1080p. This is a nice way to say that the resolution is 1080p, even if you pipe a 4k image to it from the video source. To be clear, this isn’t a feature...it’s just marketing speak for “not 4k,” so if you want that, you’ll need to consider a slightly more expensive option. But for addressing light indoors, this unit will work great.
The Optoma HD146X 3600 Lumens projector (on Amazon), which describes itself as a gaming projector first and foremost, packs a lot of lumens into its relatively lower price. This is a fantastic option if you’d like more lumens to keep your options open, but don’t necessarily need to project in full outdoor daylight. Even in a well-lit area, like a living room where you can’t block big picture windows, this projector should fare very well, even if it is slightly washed out on very bright days.
As always, the compromise with budget is functionality, and this model strikes a fantastic balance here. Other models in the 3400-3600 lumens range can get up to more than double the price of the Optoma (like this ViewSonic 4k Projector with 3500 lumens (on Amazon)), so you may ask what else you’re giving up? In this case, it’s the resolution. The Optoma only has 1080p resolution, while the more expensive options at this brightness are typically going to be more expensive because they’re 4k resolution.
But here’s the thing about daylight and outdoor use: the 4k is not going to be as important of an upgrade for you as the brightness, which is why, if you’re looking for a budget option, it’s just much better to choose to optimize brightness and forgo some resolution if you know you need higher brightness.
And one added word to the wise here, you can actually find tons of projectors that are lower than this price point (<$500) that claim to have very high brightness. These claims might be true. But when it comes to projectors and other home theater equipment, you typically get what you pay for. You can roll the dice on a model like this <$100 5500 Lumens projector from HOMPOW (on Amazon) but if the price and capabilities seem too good to be true, they probably are. If you want more lower budget options, be sure to check out our article on the best projectors at lower prices.
Luckily, all those conversations around ambient light brightness aren’t super relevant at night! It seems silly to say, but since we’re making a point to address daylight projector use, it’s good to just briefly check in on the alternative.
When you use a projector at night, even when outdoors, you don’t need near as many lumens because there’s just not much brightness to overcome. Portable projectors that have <1000 lumens will probably get the job done, but staying in the 2000-3000 lumens range will give you a great picture at night.
If there’s a really bright full moon, sure there may be a little more ambient light to compete with, but in general this 2000-3000 range is great for indoor use or outdoor use at night (and for that matter probably indoor use with only mild ambient light leaking in the windows as well).
Although using a projector during the day and competing with daylight is already using the projector on “hard mode,” there are some ways besides the lumens you can help to address this problem. Lumens is the first, best thing you can use to combat daylight, but if you already have a projector and aren’t buying a new one for the occasion then what else can you do?
This isn’t rocket science-the sun is likely going to be brightest where you’re at during the middle of the day. Planning to use your projector during the brightest part of the day will mean playing this whole brightness/projector game on hard mode, so if possible you can optimize the time you’re planning to use your projector.
For most people with an indoor projector, this work may be mostly done for you already if you’re working during the day and parking it in front of the screen in the evening. Weekends, days where you want to watch something in the middle of the day, that can be handled by some clever light management (see below) or getting a high brightness projector like described above.
The screen is what reflects the projector's light back to your eyes. If you spend a lot on a nice projector with high brightness, it’s not going to perform well (or as well as you’d like) without a proper projector screen to go with it. If you’re projecting onto a white wall, or a bedsheet, something like that is going to make it harder to manage brightness.
What you want to do is get a screen that is designed for projector use at the very least. And if you have the extra cash for it, splurge for a slightly better screen with better reflective properties. Once you have the screen ready and in place, you may need to clean it every so often to keep dust from collecting and forming a film that will further scatter light and reduce brightness. This isn’t going to be a big deal, buf if you’re trying to manage the brightness problem, it’s worth thinking about.
Finally, you can just do some intentional management of the light that’s coming into your space and causing the projected image to fade. If you’re inside, you can consider closing window shades or otherwise blocking large light sources. If you have big picture windows you may not be able to block them, but if it’s important to you you can definitely find automated options that can raise and lower larger screens across the windows at the push of a button (like these Yoolax motorized blinds (on Amazon)).
If you’re outdoors, the light is coming from above, and the best way to block it out is to seek some shade! If you can set up your screen and projector under a tree, or around the side of a building where there’s some shade, that’s going to be the best way to quickly manage and boost projector performance. Obviously this is going to be a little tough if you just have no shade options, but do what you can with what you’ve got.
You can even consider adding an awning to your setup to add at least some shade from the sunlight. Look for tents like the MasterCanopy Pop-Up Canopy Tent (also on Amazon) that you can set up your screen under. This can make a huge difference, especially if there’s no other options for some light shading. And don’t forget the most obvious: aim the screen so that it’s not facing the sun!