One of the most popular applications of thermal cameras is hunting, tracking, or observing wildlife.
Thermal imaging cameras are highly capable outdoors. They can detect animals from far off and can see through camouflage, fog, rain, and snow.
In this guide, we explain how wildlife cameras work and how to get the best out of them.
What Is a Wildlife Camera and How Does It Work?
A wildlife camera is a type of thermal imaging device. It’s a device with a sensor that detects infrared radiation (heat) from objects and bodies.
The imager uses infrared energy from objects to determine their temperature. It then displays temperature differences among different surfaces in various colours, what’s called a thermal image.
An animal that is warm blooded will stand out from the cooler background. This makes it easy to spot animals in the bush.
There are different types of wildlife thermal cameras.
- Handheld thermal imaging cameras – these are mostly ideal for close up observations since they have limited detection range.
- Monoculars – a type of thermal camera that you hold up to your eye. It’s like one half of a pair of binoculars. A monocular is handy if you want a lightweight thermal camera you can use with one hand. Monoculars are great for wildlife tracking and hunting as they typically have a long detection range and narrow field of view.
- Binoculars – if you find that using a monocular is uncomfortable because you are using just one eye, a pair of thermal binoculars is a good alternative. But it’ll cost you more.
- Scopes – thermal scopes are monoculars designed to be mounted on a rifle. Riflescopes come with extra features like built-in rangefinder, easy sighting, and recoil activated video recording.
What To Look For In a Wildlife Thermal Camera?
One of the most important features to consider when shopping for a wildlife thermal camera is resolution.
The more resolution a thermal camera has, the more useful it’s going to be outdoors. High resolution provides better contrast, making it easier to spot animals in the bushes.
A high resolution thermal camera can also see further, allowing you to track animals from a safe distance.
Resolution of wildlife thermal cameras starts from around 80 x 80 for budget cameras to 640 x 480 or more for high-end cameras.
Here are some additional features to consider.
- Field of view – If you plan to track or observe animals from a long distance, get a thermal camera with a narrow field of view (under 20°). But for scanning wide areas quickly, a wider field of view thermal camera is best.
- Detection distance – This is the maximum distance at which a thermal wildlife camera can detect an animal. It largely depends on the camera’s thermal resolution and field of view. It ranges from around a couple hundred feet for low resolution cameras to over 2,000 feet for high-resolution thermal cameras.
- Digital zoom – This can be really handy when hunting or observing wildlife. It lets you get a close up view of the target without getting physically closer to it.
- Refresh rate – This refers to how many times a second the camera refreshes the thermal image. A thermal camera with a higher refresh rate (30-60 Hz) produces a smoother image when you are moving or tracking a moving animal. This can be especially important when hunting. It improves shot accuracy.
- Rangefinder – Some thermal wildlife cameras designed for hunting include a built-in rangefinder that calculates distance to a target.
- Image and video recording – Helpful if you want to record thermal images or videos of wildlife. Check whether the camera has built-in storage and recorder or if you need an external DVR.
- Battery life – If you plan to be outdoors for long periods, get a wildlife camera with a long battery life (at least 5 hours).
To get a thermal camera that meets most of your needs, we highly recommend getting a thermal camera designed specifically for wildlife and hunting. This can be a riflescope, binoculars, or a monocular.
A dedicated wildlife thermal camera will have special features you cannot get in an ordinary thermal imaging camera such as zoom, reticles, and rangefinder. It’ll also be built to handle rough outdoor conditions (wildlife cameras typically have high IP ratings for water and dust protection).
How To Use A Wildlife Thermal Camera
Understand the capabilities and limitations of your camera
The first step is understanding the kind of thermal camera you have and what it can and cannot do. This will let you know exactly what you can do with the camera.
One of the most important capabilities to understand is detection distance. Ignore what the user manual says and go out and test for yourself. Check how far you can detect an animal in different conditions (in an open area, in thick bushes, in the rain, at night, etc.)
There’s also the recognition distance at which you are positive which animal you’ve spotted. This is shorter than the detection distance.
Other capabilities to test include field of view, image contrast, refresh rate, and digital zoom.
Sight your riflescope
If you are going hunting with a thermal riflescope, it’s crucial to sight it first. Sighting ensures that the reticle of the scope matches the point of impact of your shot.
Sight the scope at home before you go out hunting. Make sure you sight it on the rifle you’ll be using.
Spot your target
Once you are in the wild, the first step is to pick your target whether it’s birds, deer, bears, or whichever animal you are after.
Move the camera slowly, especially if it has a low refresh rate. Watch the display for anything that stands out.
If you find something that might be what you are looking for but you are not sure, carefully get closer or use the zoom feature if your thermal camera has one.
Note that zoom deteriorates image quality so you do not want to zoom too far in.
Choose the right colour palette
Most wildlife thermal cameras offer several colour palettes. These are collections of colours the camera uses to display thermal images.
The best colour palette depends on the kind of environment you are in and how much contrast you need.
One of the most popular palettes for outdoors is white hot where warm objects will appear white while cooler ones are dark. You can quickly spot an animal hiding in the bushes.
Black hot is also popular particularly among hunters. It produces a more lifelike image.
During the day when surfaces are warmer a rainbow palette provides sharper contrast, making it easier to pick out an animal.
We recommend cycling through all the available palettes to see which one works best for a particular situation.
Track and observe your target
Once you spot a likely target, carefully track it without alerting it to your presence. This is where a camera with a long detection range and narrow field of view is handy.
You can easily observe a bird high up in the tree or a deer moving about in the distance.
Decide when to use zoom and when to get closer to get a better view.
Set up and take a shot
If you are hunting, get ready to take a shot. Assuming you’ve already sighted the scope, all you need to do is centre your reticle on the target and take a shot.
Advanced hunters also use distance to calculate shot trajectory and improve accuracy. Some high-end thermal scopes have a built-in rangefinder that will estimate distance to the target.
You can also use a separate rangefinder.
Can I Take Photos and Videos With a Wildlife Thermal Camera?
Yes, you can record thermal images and videos as long as the camera has recording capability.
There’s a button you press to take a picture and another to record a video. Some thermal scopes can automatically record video when you take a shot, ensuring you capture the most interesting moments of your hunt.
You’ll likely need to insert an SD card to record images and video. You can then transfer the media by removing the SD card or downloading it via a USB cable.
Some wildlife cameras can record thermal video, but only when connected to an external digital video recorder.
Can I Use a Wildlife Thermal Camera During The Day?
Thermal cameras can be used at any time of the day and night. That’s because they are not affected by the amount of visible light available.
All they need is a heat signature from objects. So you can use a wildlife thermal camera for hunting, tracking, filming, or observations during the day as well as at night.
During the day, however, don’t just rely on the thermal camera. Having a pair of ordinary binoculars or a scope will improve your animal tracking and spotting. You may also want to carry an ordinary camera to take some non-thermal images and videos in addition to the thermal ones.
At night, a thermal camera will be your most powerful, and probably your only tool for tracking and spotting wild animals. The cooler night temperatures make a thermal camera especially excellent at picking out warm blooded animals since they stand out more.
Can I Use a Wildlife Thermal Camera in The Rain or Snow?
Wildlife thermal cameras can see through inclement weather like rain, fog and snow. However the detection range of the camera will be significantly lower.
That’s because water droplets and snow act like a shield, deflecting some of the infrared energy radiating from animals.
If an animal is too far away, it’s heat signal will dissipate before it reaches the camera’s sensor and you’ll not be able to spot it.
You can still track and observe animals in bad weather with a thermal camera. Just know that you’ll not be able to see as far. You’ll need to get a lot closer to your targets.
Another thing to keep in mind is whether the camera itself can withstand bad weather. Make sure it is waterproof or at least highly water resistant.