Explained: Night Vision vs Thermal Imaging

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What is Thermal Imaging

Thermal imaging cameras are actually sensors that detect heat rather than cameras (also called thermal energy or infrared). These devices detect radiation in a technical sense. The amount of radiation increases as the temperature rises.

FLIR and Fluke cameras make pictures from heat, not visible light. Although heat (also known as infrared or thermal energy) and light are both parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, a camera that can detect visible light will not detect thermal energy and vice versa.

A thermal imager can detect minute differences in heat and display them as an image (or thermogram) on a screen with enough precision. Temperature differences as small as 0.01°C can be detected by some of the world’s most sophisticated devices. Temperatures are represented by different colors, so in a black and white thermal image, the lighter the color, the hotter the object (newer thermal imagers can invert this or use a wide variety of colors). Humans, animals, and automobiles all produce heat and are typically warmer than their surroundings, allowing a thermal imager user to get a good look at them. Because their body temperature adjusts to their surroundings, coldblooded animals like snakes and alligators are more difficult to see.

Related: What is a Thermal Camera and How Does it Work?

What is Night Vision

The same technology as standard cameras is used in night vision devices, but at a higher magnification. These systems scan for visible light in nighttime settings and absorb it. This light is then magnified and depicted in images with a greenish tint. “Image intensifier” devices are also known as night vision devices. This is a better, more specific descriptor for them, because “night vision devices” encompasses both image intensifiers and thermal imaging or infrared cameras, as they all aid in night vision.

Night vision image intensifiers are a basic technology that works in the same way as a regular camera but amplifies any light available. Any ambient light, such as light from the moon, stars, or distant light sources, is magnified and visible as greenish images. The public is familiar with this technology from movies, video games, and television shows, but it is also used in real-life scenarios by the military, law enforcement, and hunters to detect wildlife such as deer in the woods at night.

The main disadvantage of night vision image intensifiers is that their efficacy decreases as the amount of nearby light decreases. This means that if the night is cloudy and overcast, blocking the light from the moon and stars, the clarity of the night vision image suffers dramatically. It’s the same if there’s fog, and heavy rain can reflect light off a variety of surfaces, making it difficult to see clearly.

Even though night vision image intensifiers are considered high-tech, they are no more advanced than a standard camera, and some people find it difficult to see clearly through the green-filtered image. They only work if there is enough light and clear weather, but they are generally less expensive than a thermal camera.

Is Thermal Imaging or Night Vision Right For Me?

This is a difficult question to answer. Night vision and thermal imagers have similar applications. You’ll probably find uses for both, but here are a few things to think about:

  1. Price will be a major consideration. A good night vision unit, even weapon-mountable models, can be had for a few hundred dollars, but thermal imagers will set you back at least $2,000, and often much more for a model that can be mounted to a rifle and withstand recoil. If you’re on a budget, you’ll probably opt for an image intensification night vision device over a thermal vision device.
  2. Environment – Knowing what conditions your thermal imager or night vision unit will be used in can make a huge difference. Is there a significant amount of fog? Is it extremely cold? Is there a lot of foliage? Thermal imaging is required when there is a lot of fog or foliage. In extreme cold, night vision is the better option. To improve the effectiveness of their technology, the military is beginning to create favorable environmental conditions. Helicopter pilots in desert operations can create mini-sandstorms that thermal imagers can see through but the naked eye cannot.
  3. Consider the lighting situation where you’ll be using image intensification night vision, as it requires light to operate. You won’t need much light, so even a small amount should suffice; however, keep this in mind before investing in night vision when thermal vision may be preferable.
  4. As previously stated, thermal imaging is excellent for detection but not for recognition. The problem with night vision is that once an object is detected, it is easy to figure out who the person is or what kind of animal it is, but if the person is wearing camouflage or the animal is standing still at a distance, it can be difficult to locate. Using a thermal imager to scan the field and a night vision rifle scope to take the shot is a great way to get around these issues. Hunters will be familiar with this, as it is common practice to use a spotting scope or binocular during the day to locate animals before switching to a rifle scope. Hunting at night follows the same principle. In these situations, a handheld thermal imager is the best option.

Difference Between Night Vision and Thermal Imaging

  • To work properly, night vision requires nearby visible light. Thermal imaging doesn’t require any light to work.
  • Night vision works by amplifying visible light in the immediate vicinity. Thermal imaging uses infrared sensors to detect temperature differences between objects in its line of sight.
  • Night vision enlarges the light in a scene and converts it to green-tinted images. Heat signatures are translated into clear viewable images by thermal imaging, and objects with higher heat signatures are shown in bright yellow, orange, or red.
  • Conditions such as dust, smoke, overcast nights, rain, and fog impair night vision. These conditions have no effect on thermal imaging, which can see in complete darkness.
  • While night vision has its uses, it is an outdated technology that is less expensive but of lower quality than other options. Thermal imaging is a highly sought-after technology that, while more expensive than other options, improves nighttime safety more than its competitors while remaining affordable.

Night Vision vs Thermal Imaging FAQ

Most frequent questions and answers about Night vision vs thermal imaging

Thermal is best used to detect the desired game object. Night vision is best used to recognize, identify and harvest the game only if facial recognition is required or for deer depredation. If you have your choice of options, thermal imaging is the best twenty-four hour imaging option.

merican armed forces are using updated night-vision goggles with augmented reality features. The Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular, or ENVG-B, combines low light and thermal images with an augmented reality overlay.

Thermal gives you much better detection, while night vision gives you much better identification. Several people, including myself, choose to run an ATN OTS Thermal monocular for detection and an ATN X-Sight 4K for ID and shooting purposes.

Infrared is a new technology employed with night vision goggles. Rather than employing visible light and amplifying them, infrared goggles rely on infrared waves that are emitted by anything that emits heat. Since infrared goggles do not rely on ambient light, they do not suffer from the same problem.

The ir laser will not be visible through a thermal scope. The exception being the FLIR thermal night vision scope. It laser is visible with any nods but recommend at least using a gen 2+ unit.

Here in the United States, citizens may own and use Night Vision and Thermal Optics. However, it is against the law to take these devices out of the country for any reason. Night Vision and Thermal devices fall under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR for short.

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