Thermal cameras have been glorified in Hollywood movies like Mission Impossible and James Bond as ultimate game-changing devices only used by highly trained and highly paid government assassins.
While there are some lethal applications, such as thermal imaging rifle scopes, a vast majority of heat-sensitive cameras are used in much more mundane tasks in common consumer-focused industries like home inspection, electrical inspection, HVAC estimations, automotive diagnosis and home security.
If you are in the market to buy a thermal imaging camera it makes sense to first understand a little bit about how they work and the technology involved so you can make a more informed purchasing decision later on.
How Thermal Imaging Cameras Work
All cameras use light to develop an image. Traditional cameras use visible light, that is light waves ranging in 300-800 nanometers in range. Thermal cameras capture infrared radiation, which is not visible yet omnipresent, to form their images. Thermal cameras have sensors that capture IR wavelengths of up to 14,000 nanometers (compared to 800 max of traditional cameras).
So we have increased sensitivity and the ability to read infrared light. Infrared light is essentially electromagnetic radiation, which forms waves similar to visible light, just much longer, so long in fact the human eye cannot detect them. Thus, special rare metals and electronic technology is used to capture these long radiant waves and converted to digital displays that the human eye can read.
If you have an engineering based background and want to really geek out on the specific science behind thermo imaging tech we recommend this resource.
Depending on the application IR cameras and imaging devices can vary drastically in size, technology and obviously price.
For highly sensitive applications, like scanning living creatures to detect sickness or disease very sensitive, cryogenically cooled devices are used. Cooling the device allows it to capture greater heat wavelengths compared to room-temperature/non-cooled devices.
Below we dig into the most popular cameras available for immediate purchase online. We have broken the cameras down by their intended use to better sort out what camera brand is best for your specific needs.
Best Cameras for Home Inspection/HVAC/Automotive
Qualities most desirable for cameras intended for home repair, construction, inspection as well as automotive diagnosis applications include:
- Brand reputation
- Multiple Modes
If we look at what is widely available on the market it is important to balance all of these factors when choosing the optimal thermal imager.
We have found the best candidates in a variety of price brackets to suit professional needs of all levels. A 4-person automotive garage will have different requirements than a municipal building inspector after all.
The top brands in this space are FLIR, and Fluke. FLIR makes a wide variety of imaging devices with some starting at under $500. They’re cameras can be found in narrow-focused gun form as well as broad-focused tablet form as found in the FLIR C2 System.
- Portability Pocket Portable Thermal Camera with Msx Enhanced Thermal Images providing stunning detail to help you identify problem areas easier
- Precision-molded 1 5mm thick 104/105-key PBT double-shot keycap set resists wear fading and shine through years of gaming
- Accuracy: ±2°C (±3.6°F) or 2 percentage, whichever is greater, at 25°C (77°F) nominal. Operating Temperature Range (–10°C) to +50°C (14 to 122°F)
Having a broader range of view makes the FLIR C2 System the standout winner when it comes to home inspection as viewing larger surfaces like doors and walls is much easier.
After the C2 the DM285, also by FLIR is the second most popular thermal imaging system solution for electricians, inspectors and mechanics. While the C2 System’s strength is its compact simplicity the DM285 stands out for it’s industrial toughness and wide variety of customization options.
These include VFD mode, true RMS, LoZ, NCV, a built-in work light and a laser pointer. Thus, the DM285 is often referred to as the “Swiss army knife” of imaging cameras.
- Thermal imaging allows you to quickly scan for overheating system components, then use the DMM test functions to troubleshoot and diagnose the fault
- Wirelessly connect to the FLIR InSITE professional workflow management tool to streamline inspections and simplify data collection, sharing, and reporting
- Onboard data storage for both electrical parameter data and thermal images
If you are looking for higher sensitivity and true professional grade imaging power then Fluke is the brand more oriented for your needs. Fluke has been supporting inspection professionals for years and does a lot of it’s business directly with larger corporations.
This professional-grade tools are not strictly B2B however as you can get your hand son their most popular camera, the Fluke TIS10 9Hz thermal infrared camera with a fixed focus and 80×60 resolution for just over $1,000 USD.
- Fixed focus for point and shoot simplicity
- Affordable quality images : 80 x 60 resolution (4,800 pixels)
- Capture quality images at a distance with a D:S of 128:1
That price may seem a bit steep, but this is a professionals dream tool. The Fluke TiS10 has over 2.5x the resolution found in non-professional cameras.
It also has built in memory (4gb internal + 4gb micro SD), and image quality at a distance with a D:S of 128:1 and “smart” features like the ability to send email reports directly form the camera or to sync with your smartphone via a dedicated app.
All of the above imagers are time-tested “top sellers” that have a solid reputation in the field which is reflected in very high average user reviews on sites like Amazon, Trusted Reviews and Home Depot.
Best Cameras for Personal Use/Mobile Phones
If you don’t have the budget or the need for a big dedicated thermal imager then you can consider getting an add-on for your smartphone that will give you basic thermal imaging capabilities for the fraction of the cost and in a much smaller form factor.
Perfect for inspectors or professionals who travel and work on-site and who are unable to lug around a big heavy camera mobile phone attachments from trusted brands like FLIR and SEEK mean you can capture thermal images and video whenever and wherever you need to.
The most popular and best selling thermal imaging solution for mobile devices is the Seek Thermal XR. The device is about the size of a AA battery and plugs directly into the USB-C or Lightning port of your phone.
- Transform your smartphone or tablet into an outdoor thermal camera with a 206 x 156 thermal sensor to help you find people and animals at night or in low visibility
- Find people and animals at dawn, dusk, and over long distances where visible light is limited. Extra range detection also increases your visual perception and awareness to improve personal safety
- Perfect tool for the outdoorsman, hunter, or anyone searching for people and animals
Inside the tiny device there is a 206×156 thermal sensor capable of a 1,800ft viewable distance and 20 degree field of view, detecting temperature variances of -40 to 626. This broad range makes it great for electrical and automotive applications. The Seek XR is available for both Android and Apple phones.
Another great alternative to the Seek XR is the FLIR One Pro LT. While the Seek XR is designed for a more broad target demographic the FLIR One Pro LT is designed specifically for professionals, as the model name would imply.
FLIR has made a reputation for itself for producing quality professional grade thermal imaging solutions and they brought that same level of excellence to their mobile attachment as well.
Available for iOS as well as android via Micro USB or USB-C the FLIR One Pro LT is a complete imaging solution. Slightly larger than the Seek the camera features VividIR image enhancement for very sharp detailing, and impact resistant shell (passing a 1.8 meter drop test) and a temperature range of -20 to 120.
- FLIR VividIR Image processing, enhances resolution and accuracy
- FLIR One displays live thermal infrared imagery using the FLIR one Android app so you can see the world From a thermal perspective
- Multiple spot meters, level/span controls, and reporting through the FLIR Tools Mobile App support more professional problem solving and functionality
This narrower temperature range means that when it comes to the Seek XR vs FLIR One Pro LT the Seek will win for electrical and automotive applications where temperatures regularly exceed 120.
For lower temperature monitoring though the FLIR stands out in it’s sharp contrast and nifty MSX technology that allows overlays of visual image details onto the thermal image for better description and post-shooting editing.
The FLIR is also available with a matching FLIR moisture pen or a FLIR voltage pen for a complete diagnostic solution.
Best Thermal Imagers for Hunting Applications
When it comes to hunting the priorities change in terms of what features are most valuable on IR imaging cameras. There is no need to be emailing reports directly from your device like you can with construction-focused options mentioned above.
Instead a rugged case that will protect the electronics in inclement weather and ease of use are two of the biggest features when it comes to choosing a hunting-specific camera.
You don’t want to be messing around with tiny buttons and an infinite variety of settings when you are out in the bush, you want something that is dependable, has a solid warranty and has a large view screen.
Cameras (as apposed to scopes) are usually used for spotting as hunting the the dark is obviously a doozy. Night spotting however helps hunters determine whether desired game is present and can give and edge similar to how fish finders can provide an edge in fishing tournaments.
The best selling and most highly reviewed traditional thermal camera for wildlife spotting is the Leupold Night Vision Optics 173096 LTO-Quest handheld thermal imager with a 15Hz camera.
- Leupold Model #173096 Quest
- Backed by Leopold's gold ring 2-year electronics
- 300-Yard detection range & 8 Color palette options
This isn’t the most sensitive of all imagers, with a 206×156 sensor and a fixed focus but it is one of the simplest to use with a hand-held shape, rugged exterior and three button interface.
Leuopold’s solid reputation as a quality maker of rifle scopes transfers to their electronics, evidenced by their assembled-in-America claim and solid “5-Year Leuopold’s Electronics Warranty”.
A slightly bulkier alternative to the Leupold handheld device is the retro-looking but time-tested Solomark monocular. This beast is one of the best selling spotting monoculars despite it’s massive size.
Running off 4 AA batteries this unit was probably engineered a decade ago but has since been updated to include a high res LCD screen for viewing and USB-connectivity for transferring images and video to your computer.
- A great gadget which enable you to observe target in complete darkness. Ideal for a wide variety of uses such as surveillance, nighttime hunting wildlife observation and exploring caves.
- With multi-coated glass objectives, high sensitivity sensor, integrated color LCD-Screen and 3level IR LED illuminator. You can view in the dark up to 328ft/100m, get the brightness you want.
- Take photos and videos at any time, record more true-to-life details. Also it’s easy to display images and videos on the television and transfer files to a computer, which enables you to share fun with your family and friends.
If you aren’t hunting in dense coverage or a well-hidden blind then you might need a thermal camera that has better magnification. This would put you in the market of thermal imaging monocles.
The monocle form is not quite as shareable as the above mentioned LTO-Quest but it allows for viewing at much greater distances.
For hunting applications the Leupold LEU-172830 LTO Tracker is your best bang-for-buck option. Usually found at just over $500 in retail stores this monocular brings magnification, thermal imaging and outdoor-durability to hunters in a small, tactical package.
- Durable and waterproof
- Optics night vision. Display resolution: 240 x 204 px, frame rate: 30Hz, thermal sensor: 206 x 156
- Superior optical quality
The LEU-172830 is waterproof, has a resolution of 240x204px, a frame rate of 30Hz and a large thermal sensor to create crisply defined imaging. The focus is fixed but this monocular has a 6X digital zoom for quickly zooming in on game.
Top Monoculars for Law Enforcement & Reconnaissance
Everything reviewed thus far has been engineered and marketed to pedestrians for pedestrian uses like wildlife spotting, or for use one the job inspecting homes.
When it comes to professional grade equipment for law enforcement, border security, private security or private reconnaissance the level of precision and quality is taken to a whole new level.
The entry level model in terms of professional grade thermal imaging is FLIR’s top-of-the-line 431-008-31-00 Scout III-240. Yeah, it’s a mouthful and we’ll just refer to it as the Scout III from now on.
- FLIR Thermal Imaging Camera
This is the most up-to-date and evolved version of FLIR’s Scout monocular, which has earned FLIR a reputation as a dependable solution that is not overly complicated.
When it comes to practical use in the field simplicity is king and the Scout III has it in spades with a compact and tactical design, massive eye piece, and simple four button interface, meaning the device can be operated with ease blindfolded or in high-pressure situations.
The combination of quality, brand reputation, compact form, and class-leading ease-of-use make the Scout III the gold standard in tactical infrared monoculars.
If the near $1,500 price tag scares you, there are a few more affordable options you may consider including the Firefield 5×50 Nightfall 2 and the Bestguarder 6x50mm TFT Night Vision monocular.
- 5x Magnification And Large Objective Lens
- High power built-in infrared illumination
- Ergonomic Design And Quick Power-Up
The Firefield Nightfall is a very simple device, featuring a plastic body as opposed to FLIR’s composite and has a simple aperture of 1:1.4. Still, the plastic body construction makes it lightweight and at just over $100 it is a pretty good bargain in terms of value for dollar.
Similarly the Bestgaurder 6x60mm monocular balances practicality for price. At just over $200 though you get a few more features with the Bestgaurder vs. the Firefield.
The Bestgaurder features full HD digital resolution via a 1.5″ TFT screen, making it usable in both the daytime and nighttime. You can also record HD images and video with the Bestgaurder whereas the Firefield is just for observation with no recording options available.
- 1). outstanding optical clarity: 5Mega CMOS sensor; high performance digital night vision monocular with 6x magnification and a 50mm objective lens; taking HD photos (2592*1944 Pixel/1600*1200pixel/640*480pixel) and 1280*720pixel/...
- 2). long viewing distance: built in 850Nm infrared illuminator for up to 1150 ft./350M viewing
- 3). user friendly interface: built-in 1. 5” TFT screen with setting menu in seven languages, easy to use; 4 adjustable IR level, make you to see clearly in the tiny ambient light or in the complete darkness; 1-5x digital zoom,...
Finally, in terms of tactical applications the Bestgaurder wins hands down for it’s lightweight design, compact form and complete enclosure in a very grippy rubber shell. This matte black shell makes the device itself ultra discreet, but also means the unit is IPX4 rated water-resistant.
If budget is of no concern then a whole new world of thermal monocular gear becomes available. By far the most reputable and professional-grade device currently on-sale to non-military persons is the Pulsar Helion XP Thermal Monocular.
- The National Tactical Officers Association which improves performance, professional status, public safety, domestic security and the tactical excellence of LE personnel have field-tested and recommend the Pulsar Helion.
- 2.5-20 variable magnification with detailed 640x480px resolution and 8-Hr rechargeable Battery Supply
- Lightning fast 50Hz refresh RATE, Integrated accelerometer and Stadia metric rangefinder
Used by police, SWAT, and rescue teams across America the Pulsar Helion takes field-tested tech and incorporates all the features you could want including 8gb of internal memory, IPX7 waterproofing, frost-resistant AMOLED display and safe operating temperature range of -13 up to 122 degrees fahrenheit.
You will be hard pressed to find a device that can tolerate submersion in up to 3ft of water for up to 30 minutes like you get with the Helion XP.
The wide view angle makes scanning broad terrain a breeze and the 8-color palate options (Hot Black, Hot Red, Red Monochrome, Rainbow, Ultramarine, Violet, Sepia) make spotting any living creature a breeze.
With a total range of over 2,000 yards and built-in wifi and streaming options this is the top dog when it comes to professional-grade thermal imaging tech.
License To Shoot Words of Wisdom
When it comes to electronics and technology you very often get what you pay for. When making the final decision regarding which IR camera suits your needs most always consider the warranty and the features before you worry about price.
While some cameras push very close or even exceed the $1,000 mark, which may seem a bit steep, if you factor in how much your average iPhone product cost these days that figure seems very reasonable.
Furthermore, if the application is inspection related, or used for security, then the potential cost of device failure could be catastrophic, making investing in top of the line equipment a no-brainer.
The best process for making an informed purchase would be the following:
- Determine the primary application of the device
- Factor in requirements specific to said application (water proof for outdoor use, image recording for mechanical/HVAC use)
- Identify 3 models that fulfill the above requirements
- Narrow the choice down to 2 models based on average user review scores
- Choose the winning product based of whichever has the best warranty program
We sincerely hope this helps with your decision making process and that you find the right camera for your specific needs. If you discovered a model that out-performs the one’s researched in this buyers guide then please let us know in the comments below or contact us via our Contact Page and we will look into adding said model to our review list!
Last update on 2020-05-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API