Digital Decorating 101: Picking a Projector

October 02, 2015 | Posted in How-to

What projector do you recommend?” It’s one of the most common questions we get asked, and for good reason – there’s a lot to consider when shopping for a new projector. Don’t worry, though – we’ve got you covered! In this post, we’ll get you up to speed on projector basics, explain some of the key features all projectors have, and give you some tips that will help you find the perfect projector for your digital decorating needs.

So, let’s begin.

Our pumpkin trio from Jack-O'-Lantern Jamboree being projected onto real pumpkins.

Understanding projectors

Projectors are like any tech gadget: the more features and more power they offer, the more expensive they can be. When you’re shopping around, you might assume that the higher the price, the better the projector will be. That’s not always the case, though – especially in the world of digital decorating! Every year, projectors are becoming more and more affordable, so it’s easier than ever to pick up one up that’s going to be great for digital decorating at a reasonable price.

The trick to finding a great projector is to first think about how (and where) you’ll use it. Will you be projecting decorations from across your lawn onto the side of your house, or are you going to decorate your living room wall for a party? Will you be using your projector in a dark room, or are you going to have it set up in a room with the lights on? Once you have an idea in mind, you’ll be able to more easily figure out what features your projector will need to have to bring your vision to life.

Projecting rats from Creepy Crawlies 2 onto your baseboards will create a startlingly realistic effect for your guests.

Have that idea ready? Great! Let’s run though some of the most important features all projectors have. We’ll explain a bit about what each one means and tell you how it’s going to apply to different decorating situations.


The light output of a projector is measured in units called “ANSI lumens”, which are generally referred to as “lumens”. When you’re looking at the lumen rating of a projector, it’s going to give you an indication of how bright the beam will be – the higher the number, the brighter the light it will emit. It is worth remembering that some companies will play "fast and loose" when it comes to lumen counts. So, it is wise to be skeptical if a really high lumen count comes with a really low price. Often, claims that sound too good to be true often are.

But back to lumens. Why does a higher lumen count matter? It can help ensure the detail of your projection will be seen, especially when projecting images across long distances or when there’s competing ambient light. Essentially, it gives you more versatility; you’ll be able to use your projector in a variety of locations, light or dark, and successfully project onto both large or small areas.

That said, we recommend thinking about where and how you want to decorate – that will be the best indicator of how bright a projector you may need. For example, if you want to make it seem like Phantasm’s ‘Demonic Poltergeist’ is bursting through your garage door, you’ll probably want a projector with a higher lumen count – you’ll need some extra muscle to project on a large space with a lot of ambient light. However, if you want to project a shadow scene from Tricks and Treats in your window, a lower lumen count will be fine. Shadows are less detailed, so fewer lumens are needed.

Tricks and Treats's Frankenstein shambles to life when projected into a window.

Display resolution

When you’re projector shopping, you’ll notice that they come in a bunch of different resolutions, usually represented as abbreviations like VGA, SVGA, XGA, WXGA, SXGA, HD, 4K, and more. So, what do all of these different combos really mean?

These letters and numbers tell you what the graphic display resolution of a projector is. Each is also associated with a specific display resolution. Display resolution measures the number of pixels that your projector can display for any given image or video. Similar to your computer screen, projector resolutions are measured both horizontally and vertically, with the pixel density being the number of pixels that will fit in that space (for example, an SVGA projector with an 800x600 resolution can display 480,000 pixels, while an HD projector with a 1920x1080 resolution can display over 2 million pixels).

Why is this important to pay attention to? Simply put, the higher pixel density a projector can handle, the crisper the image (or video) it will display. Think of the difference between a standard-definition DVD and a Blu-ray – both look great, but, side-by-side, the Blu-ray is much clearer. If you’re planning on projecting digital decorations with lots of detail (for example, one of our full-color portraits from UnLiving Portraits), you’ll want to make sure that your projector is capable of crisply displaying those videos. Other decorations (especially ones that feature silhouette/shadow modes), don’t have the same level of visual detail, so projecting them in full HD may not be as important. As a rule of thumb, any projector that has a display resolution of at least 1920x1080 (1080p) or higher can be considered HD.

A haunted window, featuring 'Beckoning Beauty' from Ghostly Apparitions 

In the case of our digital decorations, all of our DVDs are authored in standard-definition, which means that an SD projector will work great for displaying them as-intended. However, we also offer high-definition digital downloads. If you’re looking to project these effects you can still use a SD projector and they’ll look great. But you may want to consider an HD projector if it’s important to you to display these HD decorations in their full high resolution glory.

When deciding which type of projector to choose, one thing to keep in mind is that while an HD projector is capable of projecting both HD and SD videos, an SD projector can only project videos at standard-definition resolutions. So, if you’re planning on eventually making the jump to high-definition decorating, consider purchasing an HD projector.

Throw distance

Another term that you may run into when projector shopping is “throw distance” (or, in the case of specific models, “short throw” versus “long throw”). Throw distance is a calculation of the image size that’s being projected based on the distance between the projector and the surface that it’s being projected onto. Simply put, this measurement will give you an idea of how close the projector needs to be to its screen to achieve your desired ideal size.

Most projector manufacturers provide throw distance calculators on their website, which are really useful when you’re planning out your decorations. For example, if you know that a window you’d like to project onto is 4’ x 6’, using one of these calculators to figure out the throw distance will give you an idea of how far back the projector you’re thinking about buying will need to be to fill that space. Once you know this, you’ll know if the projector you’re looking at will work for your needs or whether you need to consider a different model.

While most projectors fall in between being “officially” short or long throw, some models are specifically labeled as one or the other. A long throw projector will perform better farther away from its screen, so if you want to project zombies on the exterior of your house from 30 feet away with good resolution, this might be a good projector choice for you. Conversely, a short throw projector will do better closer to its screen because it has a special lens that allows it to create a larger image in a shorter distance. So, if you’re looking to decorate an inside wall and you only have three to four feet to work with, one of these projectors might work best for your needs.

One final thing to note is that some projectors come equipped with a manual or digital zoom feature, which can allow you to have some wiggle room with your throw distance and may provide you with more flexibility with projector placement. The only downside is that since you’re zooming in on your image, your effect may look a little less sharp, but we’ve found that the result is usually not terribly noticeable.

The throw distance you’ll need will vary depending on how you plan to decorate, so we recommend researching a projector’s capabilities before making a purchase. 

Projector connectivity

While lumen count, resolution, and throw distance are the three biggest things to consider when purchasing a projector for digital decorating, don’t forget to pay attention to the types of connections it supports – especially when it comes to video and audio.  If high-definition is important to you, make sure your projector has an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) port. This will ensure you can project both audio and video in high-definition. If you plan to hook up external speakers to crank up your digital decoration’s sound effects, make sure the model you’re considering has some way to output audio.

If you do happen to buy (or already own) a projector that doesn’t have the connections that you need to hook up a specific device, keep in mind that there are many adapters that may allow you to connect to a DVD player or other device using the inputs you already have. A quick online search for something like “VGA to HDMI adapter” may save you both time and money later.

Using a projector to display tarantulas from Creepy Crawlies 2 on your floor will send your guests screaming.      

So, what should you buy?

By now, you should be well on your way to buying your new projector! Every decorating situation is different, so it’s time to take the information we’ve given you and use it as a guide to picking your perfect projector. Remember that different projectors are great for different things, so (and we can’t stress this enough), think about how you’ll be using yours, and base your final decision on your personal needs. Sometimes a simple projector with fewer bells and whistles is precisely what you need.

Still have questions? Don’t be afraid to ask advice from your fellow AtmosFX community members! Many people have been creating amazing digital environments for years, and have plenty of suggestions about what projectors have worked well for them.

If you happen to be one of our veteran projectionists, we’d love to get your thoughts on what makes a great projector! Drop a comment and let us know what you think. You may end up helping someone along the way.                       


Come back here often – we’ll be posting more articles on how to best use your digital decorations throughout the Halloween season. And don't forget to check our support pages – there are numerous projector-related questions (and answers!) there, too.


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