Buying guide for
Using a standard digital camera or a smartphone is a common way to take photographs. After all, nearly 100 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram alone per day. But there are times when these cameras can’t deliver the information or capture the image you need. For example, when you need to measure temperature differences between objects in an area, only a thermal camera will do.

Thermal cameras can help you see things that aren’t possible to see in the visible light spectrum. They’re great around the house for spotting poorly insulated areas. They work nicely for security purposes. They also help you spot animals that may be on your property at night. But the choices out there can be overwhelming on this oft-misunderstood camera.

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Thermal imaging is a useful tool when trying to view objects during night time, when visible light is limited or not available.
A thermal imaging camera measures the thermal heat of a person or an object in the area. It then displays an image on a screen that shows the difference between the thermal energy all objects in the scene are emitting.

Instead of an image sensor that measures visible light, as is found in a standard camera, the thermal camera uses an infrared image sensor. This allows it to measure temperature differences.

Through these temperature differences, the camera’s software is able to create an image on the screen. If a person is in the scene, the camera will create a picture that resembles a silhouette of the individual. You won’t see clear facial features or the color of their clothing, but the person’s outline will be visible and easily identifiable.

For simple thermal cameras, the image is shown on the screen for immediate consideration. For example, if you’re trying to find a leak around a window, the thermal camera simply shows you the approximate location.

For more complex needs, some high-end cameras will save their data, allowing you to run it through software later. This method provides exact measurements, data tracking, and locations of items in the scene.

In general, thermal cameras work better at colder temperatures, which will provide a better definition because of a greater initial thermal differential with warmer objects.
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Thermal cameras have a few features that are common on every model. But there are some key differences that will help you find the perfect model for your needs.

Thermal cameras don’t really look like visible light cameras, such as a DSLR. Many thermal camera bodies are similar to the handle part of a cordless drill with the camera at the top. You hold the handle and pull a trigger to start recording the image. It’s displayed on a screen at the back of the camera.

Some thermal cameras have a design more like a smartphone. This allows the unit to have a larger and sharper display screen.

Another popular option is a thermal camera that attaches to a smartphone or a tablet’s input port. You then can view the thermal image directly on the mobile device’s screen.

Some thermal cameras are simple units that only measure the current heat signature of objects. They don’t store data. But more advanced models may take continuous measurements of a scene, storing the data. They then can provide you with the high, low, and average temperatures of different objects in the scene over a set period of time. This feature can help you determine if a certain part in a device is overheating regularly. Advanced thermal cameras may even allow you to set an alert when any part of the scene exceeds a certain temperature.

Screen Resolution
The resolution of a thermal camera’s display screen can play an important role in your enjoyment of the system.

Larger screens with high amounts of resolution allow you to receive a clear picture of the scene. This makes it easier to identify shapes you’re seeing on the screen or to pinpoint the source of a problem.

Lower resolution small screens are found on inexpensive units. These cameras give you a general idea about temperature differences that exist in the scene, but the images are not sharp. If you’re just looking for a draft around a door or window, a low resolution camera may be enough.

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Remember that wind, sun and artificial light can alter a reading.
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Prices for thermal cameras vary widely. You can end up spending a lot on a thermal camera, especially if you have specific high-end needs.

Cost factors
The cost differences among thermal cameras often depend on these factors.

Resolution: Cameras that can precisely measure the scene and create the most detailed images cost more.

Screen quality: Larger and sharper display screens drive up the price of the thermal camera quickly.

Temperature range: If you need a thermal camera that can measure high temperatures accurately, you’re going to pay more. You’ll start paying more for temperature measurements of 500º Fahrenheit and higher.

Temperature sensitivity: When you need exact temperature measurements in the camera instead of temperature estimates, expect to pay more.

Ruggedness: Thermal cameras designed to withstand harsh environments will cost more.

Image storage: If you only want to view the thermal image in real time, save some money by picking a model that doesn’t store data. You’ll pay extra to have a storage function.

Control features: Expensive cameras give the user far more control over settings than cheaper thermal cameras. For example, you may be able to change the color scheme of the screen, which allows certain items to become clearer.

Thermal readings can be limited by aluminum foil and other electrically conductive metals.
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The least expensive thermal cameras will cost roughly $200 to $500.

In this range, models run from $500 to $2,000. Someone seeking a thermal camera for home use can expect to pay less than $750, and often quite a bit less than that.

The priciest thermal cameras can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000. Some even run as high as $20,000. Typically, expensive models will have features that only professionals will want or can use.

Thermal imaging cameras are fun to have around, but they also can provide some important functions. Here are some ideas to help you make the most of your thermal camera purchase.

Always set a budget. Before buying the thermal imaging camera, figure out how much you have to spend. These cameras cost between a few hundred dollars and several thousand dollars. Those with basic needs around the home don’t have to spend a fortune, but if you need sharp thermal images for work, a high-end camera may be the way to go.

Professionals use thermal cameras most often. People often use these cameras for work, including members of law enforcement, military, firefighters, electricians, and building inspectors. But you can use these cameras at home too for things like finding poorly insulated areas.

Find the right temperature range. If you are working around high temperature objects, you’ll need a thermal camera that can measure those temperatures accurately. Low-priced thermal cameras may max out at 400º or 500º F. Professional-level cameras can accurately measure items with temperatures of 2,000º F or more.

Think about where you want to use the camera. Thermal cameras have some limitations that you must consider. If you want to measure a scene through glass, a thermal camera is not going to be much help. Glass has its own heat signature, just like any other object. Additionally, thermal cameras do not perform well around water, including in rain or fog.

Live streaming is an option. Select a thermal camera with WiFi connectivity if you’d like to live stream the thermal image. This is a great feature for remote monitoring of an area.
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Thermal cameras can have the same viewing range as a standard digital camera. The longer the distance over which you use these cameras, the less sharpness you’ll have.
Q. What does a thermal profile mean?
A. The thermal profile refers to the temperature of the object in the scene versus surrounding objects. Commonly, the warmest object in the scene will appear white, while other objects will appear as other shades of gray or color. All objects are displayed in relation to the thermal temperature of the other objects in the scene.

Q. What can thermal cameras actually see?
A. Thermal cameras can measure the heat emitted from objects in the area. They cannot measure heat inside of a building or even through glass. Those objects have their own heat signatures, so they negate any heat measurements from objects on the other side of them. This capability allows thermal cameras to measure heat loss from gaps in a structure, for example.

Another use for thermal cameras is detecting paranormal activity. Some people literally want to know if there is some warm presence among them.
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Q. Does a thermal camera have uses beyond law enforcement?
A. Law enforcement certainly can use thermal cameras to track subjects running or hiding. Military personnel use thermal cameras for similar reasons. However, anyone can make use of a thermal camera. You may want the thermal camera for security at night at your business or home. A thermal camera can spot animals on your property at night. Thermal cameras also create some images that almost look like artwork, so they’re fun to use.

Q. How does a thermal camera differ from night vision goggles’ technology?
A. Night vision goggles enhance the amount of visible light in the area. This is a different type of technology than thermal cameras use. Thermal cameras measure the amount of heat an object generates, compared to other objects in the scene. Thermal cameras do not require visible light to work.