How To Learn About and Sell Thermal and Night-Vision Optics

Night-vision and thermal optics are readily available for the general public, but they can still be costly. Your customers deserve the opportunity to make educated buying decisions. You’re in the perfect position to help.

How To Learn About and Sell Thermal and Night-Vision Optics

The author is a big fan of night vision and thermal optics when hunting feral hogs and predators under the cloak  of darkness. (Photo: Kevin Reese)

Looking back at my time in the military, night vision, while not commonplace, was certainly present in my beloved Marine Corps ranks and, depending on the unit, routinely used. Across the U.S. military, traditional, also known as generational, PVS-7 and more recently, PVS-14 night vision devices number in the hundreds of thousands. Even better, what once was cost-prohibitive, thus essentially reserved for military use, has become more affordable for civilian consumers as technological advances and more efficient manufacturing processes continue to lower material costs. 

Of course, digital night vision also plays a critical role in cost, especially those devices employing CMOS sensors. While generational night vision has improved since the technology’s inception and introduction to military use in the late 1930s, cost can still be prohibitive — not so much with respect to entry-level Gen 0 or Gen 1, but Gen 2 devices can cost consumers more than $1,000 and Gen 3 devices, well over $3,000 — some up to $8,000 — and they are easily damaged by exposure to daylight. 

Conversely, Gen 1+, perhaps even Gen 2 comparable digital night vision, costs as little as $500 with Gen 3 quality digital devices complete with nighttime detection ranges up to 400 to 600 yards run $1,000 to $2,000. Even better, digital night vision devices do not rely on intensifier tubes. The CMOS sensors allow digital night vision devices to be used day or night without risk of damaging sensitive components. That said, users are much more apt to use infrared (IR) illumination with a digital night vision device than generational optics. 

While night vision is cool, whether traditional or digital, thermal imaging is on a completely different level altogether; unfortunately, so is the price point. While consumers may get into digital night vision at that $500 mark, entry level thermal imagers offering any level of respectable performance generally start at roughly $1,500 for monoculars and $1,800 for riflescopes. Even then, the type of thermal imaging and detection range adventure seekers are looking for can cost quite a bit more, depending on the performance and features they’re after. 

Either way, in this day in age, offering optics once effectively exclusive to military troops and now readily available (and affordable) for consumers is sure to make good dollars and sense. That said, if you plan to offer night vision and thermal products, the value of basic knowledge about these types of optics and the types of features most appealing to your customers can’t be overstated. 

Night Vision 101

Night vision came to light, no pun intended, shortly before WWII. Initial devices were considered Gen 0 and soon after Gen 1, and were considered active systems, meaning they required infrared illumination to achieve lowlight imaging. A few gimmicky Gen 0 night vision optics are still available yet negligible, in fact, not really applicable for an industry retailer discussion. 

Today’s most common (and useful) night vision devices are considered passive, meaning they are exceptionally efficient at gathering light without the help of infrared illumination; however, the addition of infrared illumination can be useful in dramatically increasing a device’s detection range. Passive night vision devices range from Gen 1 to Gen 3—a few tout Gen 4 but to date, the U.S. Army Night Vision and Electronic Sensors directorate has yet to approve any device as a Gen 4. That said, here’s the skinny on night vision generation levels. 

Gen 1 is considered the entry level of respectable-grade night vision. While there may be a few active night vision devices collecting dust out there, virtually all devices nowadays are passive. Gen 1 passive night vision systems are considered the entry level of respectable-grade night vision, complete with a green-screen display and a detection range between 75 to 100 yards, although imaging is grainy with blurred edges; blooming also is a significant issue. Unless plenty of natural light is present, infrared illumination also may be required.  

Gen 2 offers dramatic improvements in terms of size, image quality and detection range. Using more advanced, compact image intensifier tubes (IIT) and increased gain, Gen 2 devices are smaller yet deliver significantly clearer imaging, virtually eliminate blooming and pack quite a bit more detection-range punch, upwards of 200 to 250 yards.

Gen 3 night vision is the premier choice for demanding consumers. Although Gen 3 has been around for decades, the rich, high-resolution imaging blows Gen 2 away. Gen 3’s autogating technology not only effectively eliminates blooming, it improves night vision performance in a wide array of lighting conditions. To that end, passive use is also dramatically improved. Gen 3 light gathering is efficient enough to run exceptionally well without IR illumination, but it’s there if the user needs it. Gen 3’s detection range is also quite a step up at 400+ yards and can also be increased upward of 500 to 600 yards or more with a high-performance IR illuminator.  

The ability to outfit a customer with night vision doesn’t stop at understanding generation levels. The best way to build trust with customers using night vision is to understand, at least fundamentally, how such technology works. Doing so builds on your credibility as an influencer and trusted retail establishment—and we know how easily trust bolsters the ranks of repeat customers. 

A feral hog is clearly visible thanks to the quality of Gen2 night vision optics. (Photo: Kevin Reese)
A feral hog is clearly visible thanks to the quality of Gen2 night vision optics. (Photo: Kevin Reese)

How Does Traditional Night Vision Work?

Light particles, also known as photons, enter the device through the objective lens and pass into the image intensifier tube. As photons move through the tube, they pass through the photocathode where they are converted to electrons. The electrons then move through the microchannel plate via microchannel tubes.

As electrons move through the plate’s microchannel tubes, they are multiplied into countless more electrons. Those electrons move on to the phosphor screen where they are transformed once again to photons; once this final transformation is complete the image appears on the device’s green display. 

Digital Night Vision Exposed

Digital night vision has taken the lowlight optic world by storm. On the low end, digital night vision devices provide Gen 1+ performance. Mid-grade digital night vision generally performs at a Gen 2 level. On the higher end of digital night vision, some devices definitely deliver the Gen 3 goods. However, digital night vision performs at those higher levels without the high-end pricing. Not only is digital night vision quite a bit less expensive, it can be used day or night, as mentioned earlier, and the grayscale display provides more richly contrasted imaging.

With respect to digital night vision, the process of lowlight illumination is a bit easier to understand. Light particles pass through the objective lens and are converted to an electric signal that is then sent to the device’s display. Digital night vision devices also include IR illuminators designed to stretch detection ranges out to 100 yards or more in Gen 1+ devices and out to 600 yards or more in Gen 3.

It’s worth noting here that some users are experiencing much longer detection ranges with third-party IR illuminators. Not long ago, I watched a video from a Gen 1+ digital night vision optic employing a third party IR. The device included onboard video recording so the operator captured footage of a fox from more than 400 yards way. 

Heating Things Up With Thermal Imaging

When it comes to night vision, thermal imaging sits at the top of the food chain with one glaring exception — thermal imaging is NOT night vision at all. While night vision relies on the ability to gather light particles, sometimes with the help of infrared illumination, thermal imaging relies on a sensor array to detect heat signatures, also known as infrared (IR) radiation. 

Put simply, infrared energy is radiated heat, as in sent out or transmitted, not conducted. IR strength varies according to temperature—the more heat, the more radiant the heat signature. To that end, the field of view represented on a thermal imaging display is comprised of nothing more than information collected from varying temperatures in the scene. So, how is that information collected? 

IR energy is focused by a Germanium objective lens and scanned by an infrared detector, sometimes called a phased array. The phased array uses thousands of detection points in the field of view to construct a temperature map known as a thermogram. The thermogram then passes through a signal processer where the thermogram is converted into the data used to populate the display. 

The good news here is that thermal doesn’t care about time of day. Day or night, thermal imaging only cares about those varying temperatures. What does that mean for retailers? It means you can outfit your customers for 24-hour pursuits. 

As a final note on quality thermal imaging optics, most detection ranges are greater than those of traditional or digital night vision—some thermal devices can detect adult-size heat signatures up to 2,000 yards away, perhaps even a tad further. A huge selling point and motivator for those in the market to heat things up. 

Add Features, Add Sales

In our get-what-you-pay-for world, price points for night vision and thermal devices are largely attributed to performance levels and features. With performance levels hashed out earlier, let’s look at features. More good news here for retailers as it pertains to educating customers and selling these advanced electronic optics—while night vision and thermal are NOT the same technology, a number of the features customers look for are essentially the same for both. 

The most important features generally are image resolution and detection range. For night vision, including digital, customers should consider detection ranges commensurate with traditional generation levels to determine what type of performance to expect. Traditional or digital night vision with robust detection ranges are likely to deliver Gen 3 performance but also cost more. Along with detection range, display resolution and type also are important. 640x480 clearly is higher resolution than, say, 384x388 and so on. In that same vein, customers are sure to be happier with AMOLED displays (or better) than LCOS types. 

Battery life also is important. Many of today’s night vision and thermal devices are powered for up to 3 to 4 hours on four AA or similar alkaline batteries, and longer using lithium alternatives. A handful of quality thermal and night vision devices use rechargeable batteries. Some lithium battery packs provide upwards of 8 or even 12 to 16 hours of power. 

Additional features to consider are robust adjustability. Your customers are sure to prefer manual image-enhancing adjustability of settings such as focus, brightness and contrast. Some night vision and thermal devices even feature a picture-in-picture option—a magnified reticle area can be displayed without losing much of your field of view. This is a valuable feature for precise shooting in low- to no-light environments. 

Other useful bells and whistles customers look for are weather-resistant construction, display color palettes, onboard video and Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity so they can collect or stream photo or video content—such content is great for reliving memories in the field, or for law enforcement officers to use as evidence. Let’s be honest, night vision and thermal technologies are not only great for hunting but also for surveillance, search and rescue, fugitive recovery, personal defense, troubleshooting and more. 

A quick note on color palettes: Night vision is generally going to be black and white (digital) or classic green (traditional). Digital night vision often boasts color reticles and display icons that make critical display and device information stand out. Thermal color palettes have most often been black and white for firearm mounted systems and colored for monoculars and binoculars. Recently, some rifle-mountable thermal scopes have added color palettes such as red hot, rainbow, aquamarine, sepia, etc. as well as colored reticles for better contrast against targets; of course, these optics also may cost more. 

In the end, features related to night vision and thermal, especially when it comes to converting browsing into sales, are going to mirror price point. Lower cost devices have fewer features and higher cost devices have more. Night vision costs less and provide both lesser image quality (a muted color palette) and shorter detection range. Thermal costs quite a bit more but heat signatures GLOW and detection ranges are significantly improved. 

Night vision-specific features include IR illumination — your customer may choose a laser or LED IR illuminator, stealth (no glow) with a shorter detection range or illumination with the familiar red glow at the source and a longer detection range. The most distinct thermal-specific feature is microbolometer resolution. A 640x380 microbolometer resolution sensor delivers richer, more detailed imaging than a 384x288 or 320x240 sensor. The differences are even more significant at higher magnification. 

The old adage, “You get what you pay for” is definitely true and you should help your customers understand that from a position of integrity, without pushing them into the deep end of their budgets. Sure, night vision and thermal optics are readily available for the general public, but they can still be costly. Your customers deserve the opportunity to make educated buying decisions and you’re in the perfect position to help. 


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