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Difference Between Thermal Imagers and Night Vision Devices


Thermal imagers and night vision devices are pretty different. Thermal imagers pick up the heat given off by stuff, depending on how hot it is, while night vision gadgets take the available light around you and make it brighter so you can see stuff.

Thermal imagers provide the ability to see the world in a different way, while night vision devices (NVDs) allow us to see like cats in the dark.

That’s it. Here we can end our article 🙂

If it’s not enough for you, let’s dive a bit deeper in next sections.

How does the world look through them

Okay, so let us just say that we're talking about the civil version of these devices from the perspective of the war in Ukraine.

Here, you can see images from each. Thermal imagers typically offer at least five different picture styles, such as color (shown below) and white-hot (also shown below). The operator can choose the most convenient style depending on personal preferences, the environment, and the mission.

Thermal Image in Color Mode
Thermal Image in White Hot Mode

Analog Night Vision Devices (NVDs) come in two colors: Green Phosphor and White Phosphor. At first glance, people may mistake white phosphor for a thermal image in white-hot. However, the information provided by both images is dramatically different.

View from Night Vision Goggles Green Phosphor
View form Night Vision Goggles White Phosphor

Key differences

But before we go any further, let's check out their features side by side in this handy table. This table applies only to civil-grade versions that are available in Europe.

Feature Thermal Imagers Night Vision Devices
Operating Principle Detects thermal radiation from objects Amplifies available light sources
Lighting Requirements None (works in total darkness) Requires minimal ambient light or IR-illuminator
Can see through fog, smoke ✅ (major advantage) 🚫
Can see through glass 🚫
Daylight use 🚫
Invisible for enemy ✅/🚫 (if IR-Illuminator is on)
Effective distance Up to 2,500m (for civil devices) Up to 500m (for Gen 2+/Gen 3)
Price Range 800 EUR – 5,000 EUR 2,200 EUR – 10,000 EUR

So, like, are thermal imagers just better? Not gonna lie, it's kinda hard to say for sure. Every technology has its own pros and cons, so it really depends on the situation and what you're trying to do.

Use Cases

Let’s take a look at actual application of both types in modern warfare. Inspired by military experience in Russian-Ukrainian war.

There are some next-gen devices that combine thermal and night vision in one device, in one picture, but we won't cover them today because they haven't been widely used yet.

Thermal Imagers

The “fun” thing is that thermal scopes and monoculars were originally designed for hunting, but these models have become a powerful advantage in warfare due to their incredible performance, especially considering their price.

InfiRay Tube TH50 v2 mounted on sniper rifle SVD
  1. Surveillance and reconnaissance, target detection: The task involves detecting and identifying enemy personnel, vehicles, and equipment, even if they are camouflaged or concealed. This is frequently done by soldiers from entrenched positions for timely enemy detection;
  2. Weapon sights: Mounting devices are available for rifles and other firearms to improve accuracy when aiming and firing at targets in low light conditions. Affordable models can be mounted on assault rifles for use in night firefights, which has become a common practice.
  3. UAVs: Long-range surveillance using drones or other platforms can provide real-time intelligence on enemy movements and positions;
  4. Sniper operations: This attachment is designed for sniper rifles, providing accurate identification and engagement of targets in darkness, daylight, or challenging environmental conditions. Additionally, these attachments have become popular for long-range target shooting;
  5. Search and rescue: Locating injured soldiers, prisoners, or civilians during and after battles or ongoing operations;
  6. Perimeter security: One potential security measure is the installation of thermal imaging cameras around military bases or sensitive locations. These cameras can detect intruders and monitor unauthorized activity, improving overall security in the area.

Here is a video from a drone equipped with a thermal camera in white-hot mode, filmed on a battlefield in Ukraine.

A video how thermal imager see through a fog.

Night Vision Devices

When using an IR-illuminator or IR-laser beam for targeting, keep in mind that you may be visible to the enemy if they are using NVDs as well.

  1. Navigation: Soldiers can use night vision goggles or monoculars to navigate and move stealthily in darkness, minimizing the risk of detection. The ability to mount them on a helmet is a huge advantage and makes them convenient to use.;
  2. Close-quarters combat: Engaging effectively in close-quarters combat during nighttime operations by special operations forces. The use of an IR-laser on a gun is recommended for fast and accurate shooting.
  3. Surveillance and reconnaissance: Gathering intelligence on enemy positions and activities in low-light conditions.
  4. Driving and piloting: integration of night vision goggles with vehicle and aircraft systems for driving or piloting in low-light conditions without visible light sources. Night vision goggles have an advantage over thermal imagers in that they can see through glass (thermals cannot). Drivers can use NVGs to drive in darkness without headlights on.
  5. Weapon sights: Mounting on rifles and other firearms for accurate aiming and firing at targets in darkness.

Here is a great video on US Army Training in Afghanistan. The video was filmed using NVD, which represents everything in Green Phosphor.


Previously, these technologies were only available to a narrow list of special operations forces. However, due to their affordable prices, they are now widely used in modern warfare, such as the war in Ukraine. This allows military personnel to gain a strategic advantage over their enemies, leading to significant changes in battle tactics. For example, there are far more night fights than in previous wars and conflicts.

In the following articles, we will cover each device type to learn their unique features, how to choose one, and how to use it for your mission.

We hope, you’ve learned some new things about those devices, their key differences and use cases so you can help Ukrainian army wiser.

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Dmytro Kravchenko
September 8, 2023
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