Night vision vs Thermal – What is the difference?

Last updated on July 19, 2020

thermal vs night vision scopes

If you ever tried hunting at night, you probably experienced the challenges that come with it. Unlike many animals, our eyes are not adopted for extremely low light conditions so the darkness works against us. Many animals prefer feeding at night because they are able to use nighttime to hide from predators (including us - humans). So what can you do to prepare for a successful hunt?

You probably have heard of night vision and seen it in the movies (those green images) where it is used for military purposes. The same technology has been adopted by hunters and now is a must have tool if you ever plan on hunting at night. 

Night vision is the ability to see in low or no light conditions. There are two different technologies that are currently used to enable night vision: night vision and thermal imaging. There are major differences between the two technologies as well as strength and weaknesses. Know the differences and types of environments/conditions where each is best suited will help you make the best choice between night vision vs thermal.

Night Vision:

Night vision devices (also called NVDs) amplify visible light and some near-infrared light allowing you to see in dark environments. While night vision has been around since the time of World War 2 there have been several improvements as newer, cheaper, and better technology has lead to continued image improvement. 

Inside every NVD (GEN2, most popular currently on the market) there is an image-intensifier tube that collects and intensifies visible and infrared light. The process involves a photocathode (negatively charged electrode) that converts the photons of light energy into electrons. When electrons pass through the tube, they are enhanced using a microchannel plate with similar electrons that are released from atoms inside the tube. The end of the tube has a screen that is coated with phosphors. When electrons hit the screen, the phosphors  release photons creating the green image we are familiar with.

GEN3 has further improvements to this process providing sharper images, lower noise levels and longer life expectancy. 

GENERATION 1 is the least expensive, its usable range is about 75 yards and are typically limited to 1500 operational hours. Prices can be as low $120.

Digital Night Vision is a newer development that has overtaken GEN1 and is getting close to GEN2 and GEN2+ quality. Digital night vision uses a CCD (much like a digital camera) to amplify the light instead of a photo-tube. This leads to many advantages such as being able to use it day or night with no fear of damaging the photo-tube, lower cost, the ability to record video and images easily and probably most important for hunting; animals cannot detect the IR iluminators that digital night vision uses and recoil from larger caliber guns won't damage a digital night vision scope. While digital night vision does have some drawbacks those mainly being increased power use and lower quality than GEN3 night vision the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

GENERATION 2 is big step up from GEN1 and provides a nice balance between cost and performance. The images are much brighter and a lot less distorted. Its usable range is about 200 yards and the device can last up to 5000 operational hours. Prices start at around $550.

GENERATION 3 is where you can find some of the best night vision devices. Used by military, they provide excellent image quality, outstanding low light performance, further reduction of blooming effect and effective range of around 300 yards. Life expectancy has been increased to over 10,000 hours. If you are looking for GEN 3 night vision binoculars or monoculars, be prepared to pay $2,500+.

GENERATION 4 is the latest technology utilizing filmless tube. GEN4 devices provide excellent low ambient light as well as bright light performance. There are quite a few GEN4 night vision products on the market with price point starting at about $4,500.

Thermal Vision:

A thermal imaging device detects thermal-IR light that objects radiate and shows the difference in temperature variations in different colors. The thermal IR wavelength ranges between 3 and 30 microns. Technically, anything above absolute zero emits infrared radiation. The greater the temperature of an object the more radiation it creates, therefore thermal imagers display only variations in temperature. Modern thermal cameras can detect objects between -20°C and 2,000°C range within 0.2°C margin error.

Thermal sensor is the crucial part of any thermal device. The higher the resolution, the clearer the displayed image. Choosing a thermal scope or monocular with higher resolution will cost more money, but will result in a better picture.

Refresh rate varies from 9 Hz and can go up to 60 Hz. A high refresh rate is going to be much better for hunting so that you wont have to deal with slow frame rates trying to detect a fast moving animal.

Thermal scopes can be used during the day and they work in complete darkness.

Night Vision vs Thermal - What’s better at detecting game?

Night vision devices amplify the ambient light whereas thermal optics detect radiation or thermal heat and show the differences in temperature as an image. If you will be hunting in little to no light then a thermal imaging scope will be your best choice. If you will be hunting in a variety of light situations from daylight to night a thermal imaging scope will also be your best choice as a night vision scope can be damaged by bright light.

A thermal imaging scope or monocular will allow you to spot the game much easier and faster due to the nature of the technology. The downside of thermal imagers can be lack of sharpness. Unless you buy a high resolution scope (640x480 or similar), images might look grainy. If your budget is limited, you should get a thermal monocular for spotting and night vision scope (GEN2 or better) for taking a shot.

What Kind Of Environment Will You Be Hunting In?

Depending upon the environment that you will be in a thermal imaging scope may make more sense than a night vision scope and vice versa. Extreme cold or a rainy environment can make a thermal imaging scope not function properly; additionally if you are in a shelter to stay out of the cold, you will not be able to use your thermal imagers through the glass you will need to go outside of your shelter. A night vision scope makes the most sense if you will be hunting in an extremely cold or rainy environment

Do You Need To Be Able To Identify Your Game?

This ties into the above point about thermal scopes not producing the clearest images; if you are simply hunting nuisance animals such as feral hogs or prairie dogs then you may not need to explicitly identify your intended target. You must be able to identify your target though if you are hunting a deer or other animals that have strict parameters. If you need to be able to clearly identify your target before shooting then a night vision scope (GEN2+) will be your best bet.

Night Vision vs Theraml - Let's talk about budget

While we would all like to be able to buy both a thermal imaging scope and night vision scope along with the rifle for each however most of us do not have the budget to enable us to do that. Thermal scopes are usually more costly than night vision scopes; excluding some of the latest generation 3 military grade night scopes.

The newer 12 µm pixel pitch sensors found in the latest thermal scopes reduced price tags by having smaller optics. Expect to pay around $2,000 for a quality thermal scope. 

You should note that some people especially, those on a budget, will sometimes purchase a night vision scope, as they are usually cheaper, and a thermal imaging monocular for spotting. This is mainly due to the increased effectiveness of the thermal monocular being able to see animals behind the tree lines as well as not needing any illumination whatsoever unlike the night vision scopes. 

Night vision and thermal imaging each have their own strengths/weaknesses and with this setup you have the best of both worlds. A night vision scope for taking your shots and a thermal monocular for spotting your targets.

Product Name

Product Preview

Type

Category

Price

ATN PS28-3 Night Vision Rifle Scope

ATN PS28-3 Night Vision Rifle Scope

Night Vision Scope Gen 3

Premium

ATN NVM14

ATN PVS14-3 Generation 3 Night Vision Monocular

Night Vision monocular Gen 3

Premium

ATN X-Sight 4k Pro

ATN X-Sight 4K Pro

Digital Night Vision scope

Affordable

Bushnell Equinox Z

Bushnell Equinox Z

Digital Night Vision monocular

Affordable

Trijicon IR Hunter MKIII 35mm

Trijicon IR Hunter MK3 35mm_7

Thermal Scope

Premium

Pulsar Axion XM38

Axion XM38

Thermal Monocular

Premium

ATN ThOR-LT 4-8x

ATN Thor LT thermal riflescope

Thermal Scope

Affordable

Pulsar Axion Key XM30

Axion XM30

Thermal Monocular

Affordable

Premium Night Vision Optics

ATN PS28-3 Night Vision Rifle Scope


We’ve awarded the ATN PS28-3 Night Vision Rifle Scope the premium night vision scope spot for a reason. In fact, for many reasons. If you have a little wiggle room in your budget the ATN PS28-3 will be well worth it. The ATN PS28-3 is a rugged device that is waterproof, resistant to severe conditions and lightweight. To use it, simply mount it in front of your daytime scope to take your operation from day to night.

It uses Gen3 technology and its stellar design includes features such as a quick release mount, detachable infrared illuminator, 64lp/mm resolution, 1x magnification & more. You can expect the ATN PS28-3 to be your constant companion as it has a mean time before failure of 10,000 hours.

It’s powered by a single 3V (CR123A) battery that lasts for 60 hours a pop. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a low battery indicator so you will need to check how much battery life you have left by means of a stopwatch or similar time-keeping device. The device is covered by a 2-year warranty.

ATN NVM14


ATN PVS14-3 Generation 3 Night Vision Monocular

BEST NIGHT VISION MONOCULAR

The ATN NVM14 is out pick for best premium night vision monocular. This military grade model features Gen 3 night vision technology, and has multiple lens options. The NVM14 is also multi-functional as it can be used not only as a monocular but can also be head mounted, used for night time photography (with the optional camera adapter) and mounted on a weapon to be used as a night vision scope.

The NVM14 also includes a built in IR illuminator although a separate more powerful one can be purchased if desired. The built in automatic protective system also ensures that the unit won't be damaged by bright lights as the system will shut itself down if exposed to bright light for more than 10 seconds.

The water resistant body of the NVM14 is built to withstand daily use without fear of damage. Battery life is also great at 60 hours. Resolution is on par with Gen3 at 64 lp/mm. Operational temperatures range from -40 to 122F. The NVM14 comes with ATN's standard 2 year warranty.

Affordable Night Vision Optics

ATN X-Sight 4k Pro


The ATN X-Sight 4k Pro is their newest digital night vision (discussed above) scope that can be used day or night with its ATN 4K M265 Sensor. With all the ATN features you have come to expect including ballistic calculator, 18 hour battery life, laser range finder, RAV (recoil activated video) and their newest feature Dual Stream Video Recording which allows you to not only stream video to your tablet or smart phone but also simultaneously record video this got out pick for best affordable night vision scope.

The ATN X-SIGHT 4K PRO 3-14X also has impressive range powered by 3-14X optics, with an options of getting even more powerful 5-20x model. 

One of the best features of this scope is that it can be used day and night unlike a true night vision only scope.

Bushnell Equinox Z


Bushnell Equinox Z

DIGITAL NIGHT VISION MONOCULAR

The Bushnell Equinox Z digital night vision monocular is our pick for best affordable night vision monocular. The Equinox Z can be used day or night and comes with many features such as 1 to 3x digital zoom, image capture on 4.5x and 6x models, as well as long viewing distance. The 3x 30mm model offers viewing distances out to 500 feet while the 4.5x 40 offers 750 feet and the 6x 50mm extends out to 1000 feet.

The Bushnell is  durably built and because it uses digital night vision, you don't have to worry about the photo-tube getting damaged or wearing out as you do with traditional night vision.

Premium Thermal Optics

Trijicon IR HUNTER MK3 35mm


Trijicon IR Hunter MK3 35mm_7

PREMIUM THERMAL SCOPE

The Trijicon IR Hunter MkIII is one of the best thermal scopes currently available. One of the reasons for the MKIII's cost as well as quality is because it is a military grade thermal scope. The 12 micron (most current thermal scopes use 17 or 21 micron sensors) thermal sensor and 640x480 thermal resolution guarantee some of the clearest thermal images you will see. For longer distance shooters there is also a 60mm version. The scope is also waterproof to 1 meter so there is not need to worry if it gets wet. The stadiametric rangefinder also makes longer distance shots easier.

Couple the cutting edge thermal resolution and optics with a 60Hz refresh rate and tracking moving targets becomes effortless unlike with lower refresh rates. The scope also offers a power saving mode which operates at 30Hz.

This brings us to the only drawback which is the limited battery life of 3.5 hours at 60Hz and 5 hours at 30Hz but this is a minor issue.

There is not a lot else that can be said about this scope as it truly has to be seen to be believed. 

Pulsar Axion XM38


Axion XM38

PREMIUM THERMAL IMAGING MONOCULAR

The newest Pulsar Axion XM38 is out pick for best premium thermal imaging monocular.  The XM38 is loaded with features including 320x240 thermal resolution 50Hz refresh rate, built in video recording and streaming, and detection range out to 1700 meters. The new Axion line also includes variable magnification.

The XM38 is IPX7 fully waterproof so you don't have to worry about it during hunting trips. Battery life is also good at 4+ hours and you can buy an external battery pack for longer trips if needed. The XM38 can operate in almost any climate with an operating temperature range of -13 to 122F.

The Axion line is also available in a variety of optics options so that you know you can always get the model you need.

Affordable Thermal Optics

ATN ThOR-LT 4-8x


Next up we have the ATN ThOR-LT 4-8x. This thermal scope allows you to level up—be it in the hunting, surveillance or home security game—without breaking the bank. The ATN ThOR-LT 4-8x is packed with features such as One Shot Zero, a 3D Accelerometer and different color modes. It is also weather resistant, recoil resistant and water resistant.

It features a 1280x720 pixel display resolution, a 60Hz refresh rate, 4 – 8 x magnification, 90mm eye relief and multiple reticle patterns. It’s also incredibly compact and lightweight which means it can be used on all kinds of weapons from crossbows to air rifles—and all kinds of weight-sensitive platforms in between.

The ATN ThOR-LT 4-8x runs of a Li-ion battery that provides over 10 hours of usage on a single charge, which is fantastic. Sealing the deal on this budget-friendly beauty is the fact that it’s covered by a 3-year warranty.

Pulsar Axion Key XM30


Axion XM30

AFFORDABLE THERMAL MONOCULAR

With the Pulsar Axion Key XM30’s help you’ll be able to instantly and easily spot heat signatures while you’re hunting in the bush or working your security shift—it’s a device worthy of usage in any environment. The IPX7 waterproof rated thermal imaging monocular features a rugged magnesium alloy housing, so it is durable yet lightweight, and fits right in your pocket.

It’s also highly customizable. Take your pick from 8-color palette options to match your current needs, surrounding environment and personal preference. With features like a 50Hz refresh rate, picture in picture digital zoom, 320x240 resolution and variable magnification, it’s hard not to like the idea of the Pulsar Axion Key.

The Pulsar Axion Key runs off a APS 3 Li-ion Battery Pack that provides the user with 4 hours of usage – so you won’t need to worry about your device dying mid-mission but it’s a good idea to have a way to recharge it on longer missions. It’s covered by a 3-year warranty so you can purchase it with confidence. 

Night Vision vs Thermal FAQ's

Q. Is there a difference between night vision devices and infrared?

A. Yes, night vision devices amplify available lambient ight as it bounces off objects to allow you to see in the dark. For night vision scopes or monoculars to work there must be at least "some" visible light even if very little. Infrared on the other hand detects the infrared light (thermal radiation or heat) that objects emit meaning that it will allow you to see in total darkness.

Q. How long does a night vision scope last?

A. Night vision scopes and moncoluars use a special coating on the tubes that amplify the light as the coating wears off the scope or monocular will become less effective Gen 2 devices will last 5,000 hours (208 days of continuous use) and Gen 3 devices will last at least 10,000 hours (500 days of continuous use) this translates into may years for most users.

Q. Can I use a night vision scope during the day?

A. No, because night vision amplifies what available light there is 1,000’s of times using a night vision scope during the day will result in not image being seen and will damage the light sensing tubes as daylight will overload them. Thermal optics however can be used during the day because they detect the differences in temperature between objects and do not amplify the light. Note that a digital night vision scope/monocular can be used during the day.

Q. Is a night vision scope legal?

A. State regulations will vary so it is important to check your state laws. There may also be additional laws governing the hunting of certain animals with a night vision scope that you will want to make sure you check out before using or buying a night vision scope.

Q. Can you see through fog/smoke with night vision?

A. No, night vision amplifies visible light so if there is fog you will not be able to see through it. Thermal imaging scopes can see through light fog, snow, and rain as thermal optics detect temperature differences.

Still Not Sure Which Scope Is Right For You?

If you are still not sure which rifle scope is right for you and your unique situation we have put together the below quick reference  guide to help you decide between night vision vs thermal.

  • You Will Be Hunting In Low Ambient Light - Night Vision Scope
  • You Will Be Hunting In No or Very Little Light - Thermal Imaging Scope
  • You Will Be Hunting In No/Low Light and Daylight - Thermal Imaging Scope
  • You Will Be Hunting In Extremely Cold or Rainy Environments - Night Vision Scope
  • You Are Looking For The Lowest Price - Night Vision Scope

Final Thoughts on Night Vision vs Thermal:

Whether you are looking for night vision or thermal optics we have put together this comprehensive guide to help ensure you are able to find the best one for you and your budget. If you have already purchased one of these or a different one please let us know what your experience has been.

As you can see there are several options to chose from; hopefully our guide has helped you make the best decision for your unique needs.

About the author 

Randy Angwin

Randy Angwin is an avid outdoor enthusiast and has been with TICR since the beginning. He helps create new articles and reviews latest infrared and night vision devices for the site as well as staying on top of the latest trends in the thermal industry. When not working, Randy likes to hunt and spend time with his two German shepherds.

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