Isn’t it amazing how much technology is available to us these days?

Products that were previously only seen in movies, or used by special forces, can now be owned and operated by ordinary members of the public.

And a prime example of this – is the ability to see in the dark.

We used to be told to eat lots of carrots to help us do this, now we have fancy devices that do it for us.

In this article, we take a look at the two main types – night vision vs infrared, and explore the pros and cons of each, and help you find out which one is right for you.

Read on, so you’re no longer in the dark.

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Night Vision or Infrared in a Few Words

To keep things short and sweet for anyone in a hurry, here’s the answer upfront:

There are vast differences between the two types.

Night vision works by enhancing available light sources, whereas infrared can function without additional light, instead of using changes in temperature to highlight objects within the line of sight.

But there’s much more to it than that, and we’ll tell you which is the best choice for you if you keep reading.

Note: for the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the term “night vision” as an all-encompassing phrase. You’ll know when we’re specifically talking about image-enhancing night vision and when we’re talking about infrared.

soldier using night vision

Furthermore, infrared is also referred to as “thermal vision,” or “thermal imaging,” just to avoid any more unnecessary confusion.

Why We Need to See in the Dark

When it comes to comparing us humans to many creatures in the animal kingdom, we really struggle to see at night.

That’s because we lack something called a tapetum lucidum, which is a layer of tissue located in the eyes of many vertebrates. It helps to reflect visible light through the retina and significantly improves night vision.

Not to be outdone, we decided to invent our own version of this, so we can also see in the dark.

And outside of military and law-enforcement needs, there are multiple reasons as to why we might use this night vision equipment in our everyday lives.

Perhaps the most common is for hunting at night or in low-light conditions. Using a special night vision scope is going to make a huge difference when trying to bag coyotes, for example.

Conservationists, scientists, and wildlife observers also use night vision in their study of animals in the dark. We’ve all seen environmental TV shows with segments filmed using enhanced imaging.

Night vision is also actively employed for navigation purposes and can be built into vehicles like boats and cars.

The security sector is also a significant user of night vision technology, with cameras being able to highlight nefarious activities carried out in the dark while offering the ability to identify perpetrators at the same time.

Thermal imaging is often used in construction, such as for identifying areas of heat loss in a building.

And don’t forget about search and rescue – night vision can play a big part in helping locate individuals in distress or difficulty by the emergency services. Firefighters frequently use such equipment, for example.

police force with flashlights in dark

Dedicated airsofters who enjoy playing combat sports at night can use night vision to enhance their gameplay. This is particularly true when it comes to MilSim airsoft – which aims to be as realistic as possible.

Players can mount night vision goggles to one of these awesome tactical helmets, and as you can see from that review, there’s not a lot that separates airsoft products from genuine military equipment.

For more on this, take a look at this article on the differences between airsoft and “real” military gear.

And these examples are not exhaustive – there is any number of reasons why people might need to see in the dark, and both types of night vision can help us do just that.

Let’s explore the differences when it comes to infrared vs night vision.

What is Image Enhancement Night Vision?

We’ve all seen those movies where the special forces team silently moves into position in the dark, with the distinctive green glow of night vision goggles helping to ramp up the tension.

Patriot Games is a good example.

Or perhaps at work in the thriller/horror genre – with the unforgettable Silence of the Lambs finale.

Night vision has been around since the 1930s and was first properly used in active service during WW2, while development for civilian use came after the war.

Commonly known as a night vision device (NVD) or night vision goggles (NVG), equipment that uses this technology is now readily available on the commercial market.

But how does it work?

This type of night vision uses something called “image enhancement” (or image intensification) in order for the user to see objects in the dark. As mentioned, this NVD is identified by the green glow.

It works by collecting tiny particles (photons) of light and enhancing them through a series of ingenious steps and scientific photo trickery that most of us will find difficult to get our heads around.

(I’ve included a video below that explains it far better than I ever could, so keep reading for a visual guide in order to learn how it actually works.)

airsoft sniper wearing night-vision on helmet and holding rifle

Either way, on a cloudless, clear night, a decent image-enhancing NVD can help you see someone as far as 200 yards away.

But it doesn’t make you invisible – so don’t make that schoolboy error (and you’d be surprised at how many folks think it does).

Advantages of Image Enhancement

When it comes to infrared vs night vision, image enhancement has one significant advantage over its thermal counterpart –  it can achieve a higher level of detail in the image.

As such, it can be of great use for clear identification of a target, for example, such as when you’re hunting, or for security purposes.

If you have someone prowling around your property at night, you’ll be able to see their fuzzy heat signature with infrared, but you’ll be able to clearly see their face with image-enhanced night vision.

And by and large, this technology is much cheaper than thermal imaging devices.

What is Infrared?

Staying with the movie analogy, while enhanced night vision might be more at home in action and thriller flicks, infrared is perfectly suited to science fiction.

Anyone who has seen the movie Predator will know exactly what I’m talking about, and Robocop also used such capabilities to devastating effect.

And it seems the former has become the de facto way of explaining what this type of night vision looks like.

Rather than enhancing photons, infrared, or “thermal imaging” as it’s more commonly known, uses temperature sensors to pick up heat readings.

It captures the upper end of the infrared light spectrum, as heat radiation from people, animals, vehicles, and buildings highlight the differences between warm and cool areas in your field of view.

This image is called a thermogram, which is translated into electrical impulses, before being changed into the data which your eyes can decipher in the display.

The hotter the object, the brighter it will appear on the NVD or NVG, while the colder surroundings are usually a blue-ish color.

I promised you a video to explain both types in more detail (with more sciency stuff), and so here it is:

Advantages of Thermal Imaging/Infrared

The main, huge advantage that thermal imaging has over enhanced image night vision is the fact that it doesn’t need any kind of light source to operate.

This means that if you were to enter a pitch-black room, or out in the middle of nowhere in the dead of a cloudy night, it would still pick up the heat signatures of anyone (or anything) around you.

This can be very advantageous for night hunters, for example, as thermal imaging will leave animals no place to hide – and you don’t really need to see the creature in razor-sharp detail to take the shot.

Although it does help.

They can also be used just as well during daylight hours as they can at night, due to the fact that they are picking up infrared heat signals rather than particles of light.

As such, thermal imaging is more versatile than enhanced images, with a wider range of uses around the clock.

The Cost of Seeing in the Dark

While all this sounds amazing, I’m afraid it’s time to bring you back to earth with a bump.

While most NVDs are pricey, some are still accessible to most people. Night vision binoculars and scopes are prime examples.

However, NVGs are notoriously expensive, especially if you’re looking at the type used by the military, and/or generation 3+ and above.

Since its invention, night vision has gone through a series of “generations” of development, each taking a step forward with the technology more than the last.

And for modern, top-of-the-line NVDs, you’re not going to get much change out of thousands of dollars for this kind of advanced quality and tech.

Of course, you could always find an app on a smartphone that does something similar, or check out the alternatives, below.


With the price of NVDs the way they are, you might want to look for alternatives, and/or decide if you genuinely have real use for them.

tactical gear and guns

Some of these tactical binoculars might be more accessible when it comes to price, with many offering a night-vision setting as standard.

If you need to see in the dark, the old ways are often the best, and you can take a look at this selection of tactical, self-defense flashlights.

And a tactical headlamp might be a better choice if you need to keep your hands free, so follow that link for some great examples.

Finally, for an interesting educational article, head over to this link for a discussion on handheld or weapon-mounted flashlights, and find out which is better for you.

The Verdict

In the battle of thermal vs night vision optics, which one comes out on top in the end?

It’s a close call.

The type of night vision device or goggles you choose is going to depend on what you actually need it for.

It might also come down to budget, with thermal imaging being much more expensive than image enhancement.

You should also take into account the type and size of the device, be it a night vision scope for hunting, an enhanced image camera for security, or some thermal goggles for playing pranks on your family in the dark.

While thermal imaging works to find targets in all kinds of conditions – day or night, image enhancement is much clearer for actually negotiating terrain in the dark and proper target identification.

With thermal, at night, everything can look the same, apart from areas of heat.

Either way, there’s a popular school of thought that you should have both – if you can afford it.

But if you do have to choose between one or the other, I would say – for your first NVD, I would go for image enhancement over thermal.

Don’t forget – that’s the green one. Which is how I remember it, anyway.


Is night vision legal?

In the US, there are currently no restrictions on the civilian use of night vision devices and goggles.

It is, however, an offense for them to be shipped overseas, so you cannot export or import them without a proper license.

Also be aware of your state’s night hunting laws, as it’s illegal to hunt certain species at night, with or without the aid of an NVD.

Always check with the local ordinances in your region to find out if you’re allowed to use this tech – before pulling the trigger on a purchase.

What type of night vision does the military use?

The military – and special forces in particular – use top-of-the-line night vision tech in their missions.

One such device is the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular (ENVG-B), which uses augmented reality to improve an operator’s night vision.

Other options include the PSV-14 and AN/PVS-21 as more NVDs that are possibly used by the professionals.

Needless to say, these pieces of equipment are extortionately expensive for civilian use, and you’re unlikely to find them at your local airsoft field. (More on this, below.)

For more info, check out this page at Steiner Optics, which also happens to be one of the best tactical gear brands in the world.

Why is night vision green?

Great question! Night vision is this particular hue because our eyes can distinguish between shades of green more than any other color. What little night vision we possess is enhanced within this wavelength.

Why is night vision so expensive?

There are several reasons why legitimate and pro-quality NVDs and NVGs continue to cost eye-watering amounts of money. These include:

  • High manufacturing costs.
  • Expensive materials.
  • Restricted or illegal use in many countries.
  • Demand is relatively low/niche market.

This list is certainly not exhaustive, but expect high-end night vision to remain high-priced for a considerable time to come.


Technology is a wonderful thing, and it’s improving all the time. Our ability to use devices to see in the dark is only going to get better and better.

And who knows, maybe one day we’ll have some kind of bionic eye implant that does it for us?

For now, though, I hope this article has helped you choose the winner when it comes to night vision vs infrared optics.

Let me know which you’ve gone for a why in the comments.

Stay safe out there!