Anyone who hunts will inevitably spend time outdoors at night. Whether it be varminting, scouting or tracking a kill, hunters inevitably need to see in the dark. Flashlights work, but they attract attention. Night vision works as well, but animals can stay concealed enough to avoid detection. The one thing they can’t hide: their heat signatures.
Thermal cameras are the high-tech and unbeatable solution for hunters out after dark. Rather than see the light that objects reflect, thermal cameras see the heat they emit. The body heat of animals glow on the screen, through cover and in the middle of the pitch-black night.
9 Great Thermal Cameras for Hunting
1. The Winner
The Reveal by Seek is an entry-level thermal camera. It has a sturdy, rubber-coated case, making it a good choice for hunters who need to find the occasional hot spot at work or in residential settings. It has a detection range of -40 to 626 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can detect targets at a range of 500 feet. Resolution is on the low side at 206x156, but distant objects (like animals) present well on the 2.4-inch color display (with 240x320 resolution).
The Reveal also has an onboard, 300-lumen LED flashlight and can operate for up to 10 hours a fully charged Lithium-ion batteries. The 36-degree field of view is wide enough at distance, but the unit struggles to display images with much clarity up close. Having a fixed, non-zooming focus doesn’t help that issue, but for hunting purposes it is not a problem. The biggest difficulty a hunter might have is with the awkward ergonomics – you look down at the screen and point the top-mounted detector downrange.
- Includes a 300-lumen flashlight
- 500-foot viewing distance is plenty for woodlands
- 10 hours of use per charge
- Broad temperature range for the class
- One of the more affordable thermal cameras
- Micro SD card can be unwieldy
- Awkward to use compared to some
2. FLIR 55903-1022 Model T600-25
Used primarily in industrial applications, the FLIR T600 is a feature-laden thermal imaging camera. It has a 5-megapixel onboard optical digital camera with an LED light for taking comparative pictures in the visible spectrum. The T600 also has 480x360 IR resolution and is capable of thermography at temperatures from -40 to 1202 degrees Fahrenheit and at a plus-or-minus 2 degrees accuracy.
Thermal images and video (30 frames per second) are in full color and stored as either JPEGs or MPEG-4 on a removable SD card. The onboard computer corrects for emissivity (effectiveness at emitting radiation), reflected and atmospheric temperature, relative humidity and object distance. Interfaces include USB-mini, USB-A, Bluetooth, digital video out, and Wi-Fi. Batteries are Lithium-ion, ad the camera can run for 2.5 hours on a single charge (2.5 hours to charge).
Possibly more sensitive than the average hunter needs, the T600 has a spectral range of 7.5 to 14 micrometers. It has an onboard laser for designating targets for measurement. Its 4.3-inch touchscreen has 800x480 resolution, and Multi-Spectral Dynamic Imaging adds visible light to the thermal images. The magnesium body has a rotating (120 degrees) optical block. It’s a lot of camera – for the serious hunter.
- IR resolution among the highest on the market
- Wide, 45-degree field of view
- Full-color images with visible light added
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity for FLIR Tools Mobile suite
- Accurate temperature readings for industrial uses
- Costs more than many other thermal imaging systems
- Only 2.5 hours of operation time
3. Seek Thermal Compact
Seek Compact for iOS-Apple
If you haven’t checked out thermal cameras since they cost the same as a small car, this little guy may surprise you. The Seek Compact line turns your cell phone into a thermal camera, plugging into the Lightning port and using the phone’s screen to display images. It has an IR resolution of 206x156 and 36-degree field of view, giving it a 1,000-foot detection range. The CompactXR variant trades a slimmer (20 degrees) field of view for a longer (1,800 feet) detection range.
Images in either option display in full-color, with nine different color-palette options. Image contrast may not be quite as good as some competitors, but the temperature readings are accurate, the lens focuses and the case is waterproof. The Seek Compact stores images and videos on and gets its power from an iPhone. So if your phone is charged, you’re good to go.
- Plugs into iPhone Lightning port
- 1,000-foot detection range great for hunting
- Broader temperature range than many stand-alone units
- Plenty of color-display options
- Affordable and portable thermography
- Nice that it’s waterproof, but the iPhone is not always
- Not compatible with iPhone 8 or later
4. Good Value
Seek Compact Imager for Android
Seek would have been remiss to offer the Compact for the IPhone and not for Android. Just like the other variant, this Compact has 206x156 IR resolution. It produces full-color thermal images, which are customizable in nine different color palettes. Its temperature detection ranges from -40 degrees to 626 degrees Fahrenheit, which is among the best in its class.
These thermal cameras plug directly into the charging ports for Google Nexus, Samsung Galaxy, HTC and Motorola phones. The images are distinct, though they lack the contrast and clarity of some more pricey competitors. With a 1000-foot range (1,800 on the CompactXR) and a 36-degree field of view (20 degrees on CompactXR), the Seek Compact is one of the most affordable entry points into the world of thermal imaging.
- Impressive 1000-foot detection range
- Nine color palettes for customization
- Broad temperature range
- Affordable and portable
- Requires no charging, works on phone’s power
- Not the clearest imaging on the market
- Required app takes some figuring out
5. Monocular Style
FLIR Scout TK
FLIR is a major player in the thermal imaging market, from industrial to individual applications. The Scout TK is a pocket-sized monocular with a 160x120 IR resolution. It is the smallest and lightest option in FLIR’s Scout lineup. The LCD display has a 640x480 resolution, providing good contrast to objects over its 100-yard detection range. There are nine full-color palette options, including InstAlert, which highlights moving objects in the frame.
The Scout TK is waterproof and submersible, with a drop-test rating of two meters. The 20-degree by 16-degree field of view is a bit limited, but the menu buttons are simple and intuitive. A short push of a button captures still images, while a longer push of the same button triggers video recording. Images are stored onboard (no SD card) and transferred to computer via USB. The Lithium-ion battery provides better than five hours of power on a full charge, and the unit takes less than five seconds to power on.
- Compact and portable monocular
- Simple, 4-button operation
- InstAlert notifies user of in-frame motion
- Limited range
- No removable image storage
6. FLIR Systems Thermal Imager
FLIR Scout III 240
The FLIR Scout III offers third-generation thermal optics in a simple-to-use monocular. Its VOx microbolometer has 240x180 IR resolution, and its LCD display has a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels. Submersible and waterproof, the Scout III is drop-test rated at one meter. The 30-hertz video refresh rate is fast and fluid, leading to hassle-free operation.
There are three color palettes to choose from – White Hot, Black Hot and InstAlert. Start-up time is a miniscule 1.5 seconds, and the Lithium-ion battery lasts better than five hours on a full charge. There is no removable image storage. The Scout III has a relatively thin 23-degree field of view, but it will detect a man-sized target out to 383 yards.
- 1000-plus feet detection range
- Excellent definition on LCD display
- InstAlert notifies user of movement in field of view
- Weighs less than one pound
- Next-level thermal imaging – crisp, clear and fluid
- No removable image-storage device (SD card)
- No full-color palettes
7. Extech Instruments FLIR T620 Infrared Thermal Imaging Camera
For the professional electrician or mechanical technician and hunter, FLIR’s T620 is a full-color thermographic camera. Its 640x480 IR resolution is state-of-the-art, and its 4.3-inch LCD display has 800x480 resolution. The 30-hertz refresh rate provides fluid video, which is recorded as MPEG-4 files on a removable mini-SD card. Still images are stored as JPEGs. With all of its onboard features (laser pointer/locator, built-in LED illuminator, voice/text annotation, etc.), it’s no surprise that the Lithium-ion battery lasts only 2.5 hours per charge.
The T620 offers picture-in-picture display and draw-on thermal and digital photos. Users can switch to the visible light spectrum and shoot photos with a 5 megapixel resolution. This thermal camera also offers video streaming via Wi-Fi and has Bluetooth connectivity. Other outputs include digital video out, HDMI and USB 2.0. The field of view is only 15 degrees, but the T620 also has 1x to 4x continuous digital zoom. Operation temperatures range from 5 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Multiple functions not found on other thermal cameras
- Offers visible-light digital photography
- 4x digital zoom
- Full-color, high-definition imagery
- Fluid, uninterrupted video
- Costs more than most other options
- Short battery life (2.5 hours)
8. Thermal Imaging Camera-Handheld Infrared Camera
Hti-Xintai Handheld Infrared Camera
Chinese maker Hti-Xintai may not be a household name in the U.S., but this thermal camera may change that. With a detection range of -4 to 572 degrees Fahrenheit and an IR resolution of 220 x 160, thermal camera hunting with this unit will be simple and effective. It has five color palettes, including the popular White Heat and Black Heat, as well as full-color options.
The 2.4-inch display screen is also full-color, and there is a removable SD card for image transfer. The 35-degree field of view is wider than most, and the comfortable pistol grip and heads-up display offer convenient and ergonomic use. Battery life is good on the five AA batteries, though Lithium or rechargeable batteries will improve the cost of operation. A handy tripod is also included.
- Good detection range for the cost
- Full color display
- Ergonomic pistol-grip style
- Reads temperature of targets
- Offers visible-light imagery
- From a lesser-known brand
- Relatively low IR resolution
9. Infrared Camera, 70 mK, Fixed
Seek Reveal Pro
Seek’s Reveal Pro is the company’s premier thermal camera. It has 320x240 IR resolution and is adjustable for thermal level, thermal span and emissivity. The rubberized case includes a 300-lumen LED flashlight. There are nine color palettes and a 2.4-inch color display, which is coated in Corning’s Gorilla Glass. Temperatures can be displayed in Fahrenheit, Celsius or Kelvin.
With its variable 4X digital zoom, the Reveal Pro can detect infrared radiation at ranges from 12 inches to 1,800 feet. Its 32-degree field of view is as wide for the category as its temperature range is broad (-40 to 626 degrees Fahrenheit). Like the base-model Reveal, the Pro version has awkward ergonomics. Its operation is a bit like looking down at the remote control as you change TV channels. There is also only 4GB of internal storage available, but it is rechargeable and lasts about four hours per charge – plenty to find a deer in the brush after the sun sets.
- High IR resolution for the category
- Displays in three temperature scales
- Detection range from 12 inches to 1,800 feet
- Tough, non-slip rubber case
- Adjustable thermal-image controls bring out details
- Only 4GB internal storage
- Awkward to operate, especially pointing down
Thermal Camera for Hunting Comparison Chart
|Thermal Camera||Display Screen||Resolution||Weight||Rating|
|FLIR 55903-1022||4.3"||480x360||14.55 pounds||N/A|
|Seek Thermal Reveal||2.4"||240×320||0.16 ounces||8|
|Seek Thermal Compact||N/A||206×156||3.68 ounces||7|
|Seek Compact Imager||N/A||206×156 IR||3.68 ounces||7|
|FLIR Scout TK||N/A||160×120 IR||6.1 ounces||8|
|FLIR Systems||N/A||240×180 IR||1.6 pounds||8|
|Extech Instruments FLIR||4.3"||800×480||N/A||8|
|Hti-Xintai||N/A||220 x 160||14.6 ounces||8|
|Seek Thermal 70 mK||2.4"||320 x 256||12.8 ounces||9|
Thermal Camera Buying Guide
It’s no wonder that hunters would use thermal cameras, but are they really necessary? What is thermal imaging anyway?
Trail cameras use infrared light, which onboard LEDs produce, to illuminate the camera’s field of view. The light the LEDs emit is typically at the low end of the near-infrared spectrum (850 nanometers – 1.4 micrometers). Visible red light is just below the bottom of that threshold, which is why a glowing red light can sometimes be seen around the emitters.
Passive Infrared Sensors
Trail cameras use passive infrared (PIR) sensors as part of their triggering circuitry. They detect the differences in the temperature of the surrounding area and the body heat of an animal passing through the detection zone. The sensor’s face is covered in a pyroelectric material that generates electricity when it is exposed to heat. But their cameras operate just like any other DSLR. Trail cameras see the near-infrared light the emitters cast, and they translate that light into the visible spectrum. Infrared thermography works differently.
Thermal imaging devices and PIR sensors work the same way. They detect long-wave infrared radiation, which has wavelengths between 9 and 14 micrometers – far above that of near-infrared radiation. This area of the spectrum corresponds to the temperatures we experience in everyday life. People, animals, plant life, buildings, etc., all emit long-wave radiation. It is not incorrect to say thermal cameras see heat, but they only see heat that occurs in the long-wave infrared bandwidth.
Unlike night-vision cameras, thermal cameras do not detect light reflected off objects. Night-vision cameras amplify whatever small amounts of light are available, even if it is just starlight, but thermal cameras can work in absolute darkness or broad daylight. Their images are actually displays of the temperature differences in their field of view.
How it Works
Thermal cameras detect the infrared radiation that objects emit, but they also detectthe radiation that they reflect or transfer to objects. The camera’s display is not of the actual temperature of the objects in view. Rather, the camera uses algorithms to approximate all three values (reflected, transmitted and emitted radiation). The image it displays is built from those values. The infrared sensor on a thermal camera works similarly to the PIR sensors on trail cameras and motion detectors.
A bolometer is a sensor that detects electromagnetic radiation. It was invented by the astronomer Samuel Langley in 1878. In its simplest form, a bolometer consists of a thin absorptive element that is attached to a reservoir, which has a constant temperature. When the (typically) metal absorptive layer experiences a rise in temperature, the temperature of the reservoir rises in turn, which is detected with an electric current. The first bolometer could detect the heat of a cow from a distance of a quarter mile.
A microbolometer is a special type of bolometer that thermal cameras use to detect infrared radiation. Microbolometers consist of an array of pixels, each composed of several layers. The outer layer is an infrared absorbing material. A space for cooling is followed by a substrate layer and a readout integrated circuit. An electrode connects the layers for transmitting detected radiation via electric signals. The whole array of pixels is then normally encased in a vacuum.
There are a wealth of materials that manufacturers of microbolometers use for the layers. Some are more sensitive than others, and of course some are more costly than others. Another factor affecting image quality is responsivity, which is a measure of the ability of the detector to convert radiation into an electrical signal. But nothing effects image quality like resolution.
The array of pixels is added up to calculate resolution. Anyone familiar with this concept will naturally assume that higher resolutions equal better images. Consumer-market thermal cameras can have as low as a 160x120 resolution or as high as a 320x240 resolution, and even higher resolutions are available if money is no object.
Having higher resolution does not necessarily equate to producing a better image, though. As microbolometer pixel arrays get more complex, their individual pixels are getting smaller and smaller. Smaller pixels are necessarily less sensitive, though, meaning the images they produce can have more visual noise.
Depending on the sensitivity of the materials in the microbolometer, some thermal cameras can see farther than others. Lower cost is a good indicator of shorter detection ranges, but it is not a guarantee. Ranges can extend from tens of yards for some thermal cameras to more than a thousand yards for others. Hunters should consider their terrain before investing in the ability to thermally image game from half-mile distances. You simply never have line of sight that far in the woods.
Like trail cameras, thermal cameras use many different solutions for their power needs. Some have enclosed Lithium-ion batteries and recharge like your cordless drill. Others use replaceable or disposable batteries. The choice of battery will obviously affect battery life, but no one should expect to get the months-long use from thermal cameras that trail cameras offer. The life spans of thermal cameras are estimated in hours, and are based on constant use.
Thermal cameras may not be the least expensive hunting tools, but there are times when they are indispensable. They make spotting game simple at any time of day or night. They can peer through brush and canopies to see what’s hiding, and they help track and locate animals that might otherwise have been lost. They also have many uses around the house (insulating, leak locating, etc.) that help them pay for themselves over time. Once you spend a little time with a thermal camera, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.