The question is asked all the time, which is better, night vision or thermal? We will discuss the pros and cons to each, true capabilities of each, and determining how best you will utilize these devices. As to the true answer to this question, the answer is both.
The price, capabilities, and limitations of each can vary depending on what you need the optics to do. Before you choose between thermal imaging and night vision, you need to understand the differences in these technologies.
Thermal Imaging & Night Vision
Thermal imaging is the ability to detect heat (both in day or night)
this can be an absolute game-changer in viewing, observation, tracking, hunting
and security applications. However, to be fair, thermal does have its
limitations. Thermal imaging utilizes a digital image of what you are looking
at (much like a camera) the quality of this image is measured in pixels. The
higher the number of pixels the clearer the image. However, when zooming in or
increasing the magnification of thermal devices, you essentially reduce the
pixel count in half with each doubling of magnification. Same as your cell
phone, as you zoom in a greater distance the quality of the image deteriorates.
Night vision on the other hand is an optical system, as you pull light in and amplify your current situation by utilizing an image intensifier tube. This means that night vision does not serve a purpose in daytime use. It also means that Night Vision provides a true optical view of the image you are looking at, same as a daytime scope would. Night Vision does require some sort of light (moonlight, ambient light, infrared light) to provide a clear and bright image.
In many cases, the stars and moon will provide enough light to produce an image, but shadows can make it hard to see. Most night vision does come equipped with an IR Illuminator, to be utilized for times when you do not have ambient light or need a beam of infrared light to illuminate an object.
To truly determine which is better application to use in your environment, let’s look at the below breakdown on features and specifications:
Thermal imaging detects minute differences in heat when detecting game. Thermal scopes detect radiation and do not require any visible light to produce an image. Thermal imaging devices can be used equally well day and night. Animals generate heat and are warmer than their surroundings making it possible to detect them at great distances using thermal imaging.
Night vision relies on at least some ambient light for detection making detection at great distances more difficult. If shooting at night the moon and stars should provide sufficient light for a night vision scope. In the absence of natural light, IR illuminators are used to generate light. Night Vision at times requires the object to be moving to detect it. In scanning a field, it is possible to skip over an animal that is bedded down with night vision, whereas thermal will identify through brush, tall grass or is not required of movement to recognize the heat source.
Recognition and Identification
Once a live animal has been detected a hunter needs to recognize it and identify it prior to making any shots. When using thermal, images are displayed as black and white or various shades of color, and various colors are used to represent temperature. Even though a live object can easily be detected using thermal, recognizing it and identifying it as the desired game at a great distance is more difficult. There is a significant jump in detection range and recognition range when using thermal devices, such as, is that a dog or coyote, is that a calf or pig bedded down.
Night vision on the other hand amplifies light and does not have much variance between detection and recognition, as it is a true optical visualization of the object you are looking at. Night vision is only problematic if the game is camouflaged or is standing still. For these reasons, Night Vision will always be superior in recognition and identification, whereas thermal is superior in detection. Depending on range and distance in which you are hunting, you might receive all the recognition needed out of your thermal device. Therefore, it is best to utilize both of these technologies to their strengths.