We've all been there. You are on the job, or doing something for fun, and think if only there was a way to see more of the environment — a real superpower.
Well, now you can. Thermal imaging cameras see the invisible world of infrared waves or 'heat' that is radiated by the environment.
Thermal cameras can see hidden water leaks in a home, an approaching wild animal, electrical hotspots, missing insulation, and even human footsteps.
As a home inspector, I have used thermal cameras to find things like:
- Leaking HVAC air ducts inside of a ceiling
- Defective flashing on a roof that was leading to a water leak
- Missing insulation on an exterior wall of a bathroom
These heat sensing cameras are also very popular in firefighting because it can see through smoke to find missing people and see where the fire is going. And I think everyone knows that law enforcement heavily uses thermal cameras to find suspects hiding at night.
Infrared cameras work by converting the heat (infrared radiation) in the environment into an electrical signal that is displayed visually on the screen — known as a thermogram.
Infrared cameras are much more popular than years ago because prices have dropped considerably. Thermographic cameras that used to exceed $10,000 can now be purchased for several hundred dollars.
When you take a picture of a room using an infrared camera, it will show different colors or shades which represents the different temperatures of the environment. Most commonly, the higher temperature objects will appear orange and yellow, and the lower temperature objects will appear blue or purple. My guide on how to interpret thermal images goes into detail on how to make sense of thermal images, and how to manipulate the environment for the best infrared pictures.
Below is a quick comparison of all our top products. Keep scrolling to learn more about how to choose and use a thermal camera.
1. FLIR E6-XT
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2. FLIR C5
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3. DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced
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4. FLIR One Pro
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5. FLIR MR160
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6. Pulsar Helion 2
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7. FLIR Scout TK
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Our Overall #1 Rated Pick
Updated On May 10, 2022
We chose the FLIR E6-XT because it is a premium thermal camera with a high thermal resolution of 240 x 180 (43,200 pixels). It is WiFi enabled so you can share thermal images and infrared videos with colleagues or clients. The E6-XT has a wide range of thermal modes such as MSX technology, pic-in-pic, thermal blending, and color alarms (isotherms).
8 Things To Know Before Choosing An Infrared Camera
There are a few important things to consider when choosing a thermal camera. Things like resolution, refresh rate, and display size can have a big impact on picture quality. Here is my list of things to consider before buying a thermal camera:
Probably the most important thermal imaging camera spec is the resolution or pixel count. Basically, the higher the resolution, the more thermal details you will see.
If you buy an IR camera with too low of a resolution, it will be difficult or impossible to pinpoint problems, and may be a waste of time. Buying a thermal sensing camera with too high of a resolution may be needlessly expensive. The basic minimum for most work applications, such as building inspections, energy audits, automotive, and electrical inspections — a good resolution is in the 160x120 range and higher.
Read Also: How Do Thermal Cameras Work?
2. Refresh Rate
Refresh rate represents the number of thermal images that are displayed in one second. Basically, thermal imagers with higher refresh rates have better quality imagery. A slow refresh rate will appear choppy but a high refresh rate will be smooth and seamless.
Most standard thermal cameras are around 9-Hz which is equivalent to 9 frames per second. However, if you are using a thermal imaging camera to view moving objects outside, or from a far distance, a higher refresh rate of 30-hz or 50-hz is preferred. There are also a variety of import regulations regarding thermal cameras with refresh rates higher than 9-Hz.
3. Temperature Range
The temperature range of a thermal camera is the maximum and minimum temperatures that it can measure. Most standard thermal cameras have a temperature range in the -15°F to 550°F range.
For average building inspections, a high temperature limit can be counterproductive and actually reduces the image quality.
But for some manufacturing and industrial applications, it is important to have a high temperature range exceeding 1500°F. A few of these areas are automotive, microelectronics, furnace/boiler installations, plastics, and mechanical testing.
4. Thermal Modes
There are a wide variety of heat sensitive camera modes that can make a big difference in a thermal inspection or application. Here are a few common modes:
- Thermal Blending is when the camera combines features of a visual image with the thermal image to show a "best of both worlds" picture
- Picture in picture is when a thermal camera shows a thermal image and a visual image at the same time for comparison.
- MSX Technology is a proprietary thermal vision setting in FLIR cameras. This feature takes some of the border details of the visual image and overlays it onto the thermal image for enhanced imagery.
- Regular visual mode is standard with most thermal cameras and it allows you to take normal visual pictures along with thermal pictures.
- Pure thermal is just the raw thermal image without anything else.
- Color alarms (isotherms) is when you set a temperature limit inside the camera, and it injects color into the 'hot' objects and keeps everything else on a grayscale.
- White hot mode is when the camera makes and 'hot' objects a white color and everything else is a dull gray.
The actual display or screen that shows the thermal imagery can also make a big difference when choosing a thermal camera. If the display is too small or too poor quality, it doesn't matter how good the thermal camera is.
If the IR camera is attached to your phone, then the display will be your phone screen, but most thermal cameras have a separate display.
As with the thermal camera resolution, the higher the pixel count of the display, the better. Some displays also come with HD color quality while others are standard liquid crystal display (LCD) color screens.
6. WiFi Enabled
Some thermal cameras are able to connect to a phone or tablet. You may even be able to control the camera remotely such as with the Pulsar Helion 2.
Having a WiFi connected thermal camera can be very useful to quickly share photos, videos with colleagues or customers. Through a WiFi connection, you may even be able to livestream the thermal feed to your phone or even to YouTube for a live audience.
7. Reporting And Editing Software
If you plan on using IR images or video in a professional setting, having a quality reporting and editing software is a must.
Most high end thermal sensing cameras will already come with a reporting software, but the quality of the application can vary.
Most FLIR cameras are able to use the FLIR Tools reporting software and they also have a cloud account known as FLIR Ignite that is used for uploading and storing thermal images.
8. Battery Life
The battery life can make a big difference when using a thermal camera. In my field of home inspections, if I am using a thermal camera for an energy audit and I run out of battery power, that is a big problem.
Most thermal imagers will have a wide range of battery life ranging from 1-2 hours on the low end and as long as 8+ hours.
Almost all thermal imagers have rechargeable batteries, so you just plug it in when you go home to recharge it. But if you can get a thermal camera with swappable batteries and an independent battery charger, then you can double or triple the battery life of the thermal camera.
Different IR Camera Styles
There are numerous 'form factors' or styles of thermal cameras on the market. The most common are the phone attached, handheld, and trigger style. Some less common camera styles are monoculars and thermal drones.
Probably the least expensive camera type is the phone attachment thermal camera. These thermal cameras are plugged into your cell phone, and it uses the battery power of your phone. They are great for hobbyists, homeowners, and professionals who won't be using them for long periods of time. The portability and decent resolution is great for short term applications.
However, if you plan on using a thermal imaging camera for a long period of time — such as for professional home energy audits — then a handheld 'trigger-style' camera is preferable. I invite you to also read my review on the best best Android thermal cameras and the best iPhone thermal cameras here.
The handheld style thermal camera is also highly portable and easy to use. However, these 'rectangular shaped' thermal cameras have their own battery supply so it won't drain your phone's battery life during use.
Also, these thermal cameras have their own screen which is usually larger than trigger type cameras. These thermal cameras avoid any issues of connecting the thermal camera to your phone and all of those types of problems. And again, these thermal cameras are also very nice for short periods of time, but for long and exhaustive applications, a trigger-style is still preferable.
Trigger style infrared cameras are handheld devices that you hold with one hand as if your finger is on a trigger. When you actually press on the trigger with one finger it will take a thermal picture — without having to use your other hand. These devices are designed to be used for longer periods of time, and it is easier and more ergonomic to use with one hand.
The downside of these types of thermal cameras is that the screens are usually smaller than the phone-connected and handheld cameras.
If you plan on using thermal scanners extensively for a home inspection or other professional uses — then these cameras are likely your best option. The trigger style thermal camera is usually the most expensive.
Drone inspections are becoming frequently common across multiple industries including real estate, agriculture, wildlife management, rescue, and fire service. And now there are Drones with thermal cameras (in addition to visual cameras) so the user can detect heat signatures of buildings, people, animals, and even crops.
Thermal sensing drones are great for rooftop home/building inspections and for areas that are inaccessible or dangerous. The drone can even be programmed with 'waypoints' so that it can perform an automated thermal inspection without user input.
Thermal scopes or monoculars are designed for outdoor and long distance use. These heat sensing monoculars can detect heat signatures up to an astounding 2,000 yards or more. Even though the most popular use is in hunting and wildlife management, IR monoculars are also used heavily by researchers, inspectors, and analysts.
Thermal imaging monoculars usually have very high refresh rates such as 30-Hz or more in order to see thermal objects on the move and from far distances. Traditional IR cameras are commonly less than 10-Hz.
Moisture Meter Combo
The moisture meter and thermal camera combo is a great device if your main purpose is moisture detection and water leaks. The infrared camera can quickly look over a large area of interest such as a basement.
And then using the thermal imagery, the user can quickly pinpoint areas of potentially high moisture and verify it with the moisture meter. Without a thermal camera, an inspector or homeowner would have to use the moisture meter blindly in numerous areas if there isn't any infrared heat detection.
Common Uses of Thermal Cameras
Thermal cameras can be used in a wide variety of recreational and industrial applications. Firefighters use thermal imagers to 'see' through smoke and to locate people. Law enforcement use thermal imagers to find criminals. I invite you to read my detailed guide on the uses of thermal cameras for homes. Here are just a few ways to use thermal imaging cameras:
I have used thermal imaging cameras on many of my home inspections. If I have a suspicion about water in a certain area, I can pull out my thermal camera to get a quick overview of temperatures in the area to aid moisture detection.
I can also take a picture of the infrared environment and include it in my home inspection report. Even though I always use a moisture meter to confirm the presence of water or moisture—using a thermographic camera can also help greatly.
Abnormal electrical connections can quickly be spotted using a thermal camera. Loose wiring, electrical hot spots (or cold spots) and other electrical anomalies can quickly be detected using a IR camera. Especially with exposed electrical equipment, a homeowner or contractor may not want to get close to it. With a thermal camera, you can get a bird's eye view of equipment to do safe electrical inspections.
Checking House Insulation
Thermal cameras are great at finding missing or inadequate house insulation and air leaks. When I inspect an attic, a thermal camera can be a nice way to get pictures of missing or inadequate insulation.
Attic insulation ideally should be several inches above the ceiling joists, but I frequently find that older homes have areas of only a few inches of insulation. But you can also check insulation on exterior walls too see if it is missing or sorely lacking.
Needless to say, thermal cameras are priceless during fires. Infrared cameras allow firefighters to see through thick smoke, keep track of how the fire is moving, get vital intelligence on how to fight the fire, and also find missing people.
Thermal scanners for firefighters need to be very rugged, and can be easily used without extensive training.
Law enforcement has been using thermal cameras for many years, and it is invaluable when trying to find a fleeing suspect in the dark.
And unlike night vision monoculars, thermal cameras don't need ambient light and can see humans in total darkness. These cameras can also help law enforcement to recover hidden evidence and to aid in search and rescue.
During 2020 and 2021, multiple countries have used thermal imaging cameras to measure surface skin temperature in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Thermal imaging systems allows local officials to quickly take the temperature of an individual quickly (and at a safe distance) to see if they have a fever.
Unfortunately, thermal cameras have not been found to be effective if it's used on multiple people at the same time.
Reviews Of The Best Thermal Video Cameras
Here are my full reviews of top rated thermal cameras that won't break the bank. Check them out below:
I guess it isn't surprising that my top thermal camera pick goes to FLIR. I think everyone in the home industry knows that FLIR is the gold standard of infrared imagers and they are used extensively by home inspectors, contractors, law enforcement, and firefighters.
I chose the E6-XT because it has a high quality thermal imager that isn't crazy expensive and still less than $2k (some cameras are $10k or more). This trigger style camera takes pictures whenever you pull on the trigger, and it has easy to use menu buttons on the front so you can use it one-handed.
The resolution of the E6-XT comes in at 240x180 which is a whopping 43,200 pixels. And with the expanded temperature sensitivity of -4°F to 1022°F — there isn't much that you can't see without this camera. A nice feature of this high end thermal camera is that it can be connected to WiFi. So if you want to easily and quickly share pictures or reports with someone (or a device), you can do that with the E6-XT.
This thermal camera also has a lot of cool functionality that you won't get with other cameras. There is the auto cold/hot mode which will automatically find the hottest or coldest spot in an area. It even comes with color alarms which are known as isotherms. The color alarm setting will shade everything in the image that is below or above your set temperature a different color so you can easily see it (look at picture below).
This FLIR thermal imager has five camera modes to use such as:
- MSX Technology: And like other FLIR cameras, it includes the patented MSX technology. MSX is a mode in the camera that will give you more details in the thermal images by included information from the regular visual imagery. MSX makes the thermal images more detailed and 'crisper'.
- Picture-In-Picture: This setting allows you to have a regular visual image overlaid onto the thermal image which is great for comparisons.
- Thermal Blending: This camera mode blends some of the details of a regular image with the thermal image.
- Fully Thermal: This is the regular thermal vision mode that gives you full details of the infrared image.
- Regular Picture: You can also use the E6-XT as a regular camera.
The only downside I can see with the E6-XT is that it costs a chunk of change so it probably isn't for the hobbyist. Also, the camera comes with a battery and charging cable, but if you want to have more power when out in the field, you will have to buy a second battery and an independent battery charger (so you can take out battery and charge it).
Sometimes a really compact thermal camera is preferred over the standard 'trigger style' and the FLIR C5 is my top pick for this category.
The C5 is ultra rugged with a rubber case that has been drop tested from around 6-feet. And since it is a handheld style, it has a very large display (3.5 inches) and it feels kind of like a smartphone. You can quickly snap thermal photos and put it back in your pocket. The C5 comes with a handy holder so you can keep it on your belt for quick retrieval.
The thermal imager is pretty decent and it comes with a 160 x 120 resolution or 19,200 pixels. The temperature range of this camera is from -4ºF to 752ºF. The visual camera is also decent and is 5-megapixels.
You can use this camera three ways:
- Thermal Camera
- Visual Camera
- And an LED Floodlight (flashlight)
One cool feature of the C5 is that you can live stream infrared video. This means you can do a thermal inspection with a remote client. It also has the very useful 'auto seek spot' which allows the C5 to automatically find the hottest or coldest area in the image. This can save a lot of time from just guessing as to the hottest/coolest spot. Another great feature of the C5 is the auto level and span. This enables you to auto level the thermal image and fix the span with just one click.
One drawback of the C5 is that since it isn't a trigger style camera, you need to have a pretty steady hand when taking a picture. With a trigger style, you can hold it still and just hit the trigger to take a picture. It may also be a bit more awkward walking around with the C5 than the E6-XT for example.
And even though the C5 is able to connect to the FLIR cloud for image storage and has WiFi sharing, the complexity of image sharing may be more difficult than you think.
When doing a thermal camera inspection, it isn't always possible to be physically present — it may be too dangerous, too far away, or you just don't have access — and that's where drones can be used. Thermal drones are very similar to high end drones except that they have two cameras: a thermal camera and a regular visual camera.
The DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced is the latest creation from world-renowned DJI that includes a very high thermal resolution of 640 x 512 (327,680 pixels). This crisper resolution is a vast improvement over the earlier DJI thermal drone (Enterprise Dual).
The Mavic 2 thermal drone is great for certain applications like:
- Residential rooftop inspections
- Residential energy audits
- Commercial building inspections
- Solar field inspections
- Search and rescue
- And law enforcement
The Enterprise Advanced can display only thermal or visual images on your controller, or it can go into 'dual mode' where it displays half of the image in thermal and the other in visual. And you can be confident in the quality of the thermal imagery with this drone because the two cameras are stationed on a mechanical 3-axis gimble and it has a very high refresh rate of 30-Hz. The visual camera has been greatly improved with a 48-megapixel sensor and 32x digital zoom capability. Unfortunately, when using the visual camera in 4k, you can't use the digital zoom.
The really cool thing about this thermal drone is that it can do automated inspections. You can set custom waypoints and have the drone automatically take thermal and visual images. You can even have the this Mavic 2 send back an HD livestream to yourself while its doing the inspection. Since this DJI thermal drone has Obstacle Sensing and AirSense technology by DJI, it will avoid obstacles and fly safely even in complex environments. It also has the capacity of centimeter-level flying precision with the addition of DJI's RFK module (sold separate). There is also a loudspeaker, spotlight, and beacon add-ons.
The Enterprise Advanced comes with a 1-year care package which means that DJI will do the first replacement for a $520 fee, and a second replacement for a $580 fee. Probably the biggest downside of this thermal drone is the price tag, and it is really only suitable for commercial inspection applications.
A nice innovation with the advance of our mobile phones is that there are now thermal cameras that can directly attach to them.
The main upsides of phone attached thermal cameras:
- Mobile And Small: These thermal attachments are tiny and you can easily fit it in a pocket.
- Uses Phone Display: Since most smartphones have advanced and large displays, it makes it easier to navigate settings, stored thermal photos, and other features.
My top rated pick in this category is the FLIR One Pro that includes an Android version and iOS version.
The One Pro has a 19,200 pixel resolution (160x120) which is improved over the earlier One Pro LT model. There are three main modes of this camera attachement: thermal mode, visual mode, and timelapse mode.
And as with most or all of FLIR's line of thermal cameras, the One Pro has MSX technology which adds visual details overlaid onto the thermal imagery — making the thermal imagery much easier to understand.
Also, since we all have different sized phone cases, FLIR designed a customizable USB-C and Lighting Port so that it will still be able to connect without removing your phone case.
One drawback of the One Pro is that they really aren't that great for prolong use. The battery life isn't that great, and it can be clunky since it is attached to the phone. And it still drains your phone's power to an extent, and it may even make your phone hot during use.
You may also notice the thermal imagery freezing once in a while during use, and this is the auto calibration feature of FLIR — you may find it annoying. It also calibrates once when you first turn it on. And for some reason, FLIR has their watermark on all images which may be impossible or difficult to remove.
If you are looking for a thermal camera and moisture meter as one unit, then the FLIR MR160 is the way to go. This thermal camera by FLIR is perfect if you are doing a lot of moisture inspections or mold inspections.
The infrared camera is used to guide your moisture readings in a large area. One problem with stand alone moisture meters is that you have to put it up everywhere to see if there is moisture. But since it is a thermal camera also, you can stand back, take a sweeping view of the whole area, and then pinpoint where you should use the moisture meter.
The MR160 can store up to 9,999 images onto the device, and then you can upload the images to your PC so you can edit and use the FLIR Tools reporting software. It has 4 color modes to adjust the thermal view, and it also comes with a 'color alarm' that will inject color only into the hot/cold areas (everything else is in gray). There is also a handy laser pointer and crosshairs so you can pinpoint exactly where you want to take a temperature or moisture measurement. You can even overlay moisture/thermal data onto the thermal images and save it onto the device.
The MR160 is a tough thermal camera and moisture meter, designed to be used for long periods on the job, and the battery life can last up to 18-hours of continuous use.
A big downside of the MR160 is that is only has a 80 x 60 resolution thermal sensor (4800 pixels) which is a low pixel count. So if you really need detailed thermal images, then you should go for a thermal camera only. And even though the MR160 comes with a pinless (pad) and pinned moisture sensors, I don't like that the pins are a separate accessory and it isn't built into the unit.
Pulsar is one of the top companies in the world for thermal cameras, night vision scopes, and other thermal accessories. Even though most of their customers are likely hunters, their thermal cameras are also used heavily by researchers, rescuers, and even tourists.
This Helio 2 XP50 Pro thermal monocular by Pulsar has an amazing thermal resolution with a 640 x 480 sensor (or 307,200 pixels). With Pulsar's bleeding edge technology, this camera scope has an 1800-yd distance limit for objects about the size of an adult human. It also has an 8x digital zoom and up to a 20x magnification (the aperture lens is quite large). And with it's advanced Stadiametric rangefinder and integrated accelerometer, you can determine the exact distance of your object in thermal view with ease.
The Helio 2 is mobile friendly and WiFi enabled. This means you can download their free app Stream Vision and control the monocular remotely with your phone. You can even stream live thermal video to yourself or a client.
The display was also taken up a notch with the Helio 2 XP50 Pro version since it has a color HD AMOLED screen that is frost resistant. You can take this monocular in environments that are as low as -13°F and be okay.
One cool feature of the Helio 2 XP50 Pro is that it has picture-in-picture tech which means you can zoom in on an object of interest but keep 90% of the display at the original distance. It also features 16GB of internal storage for pictures or video, an 8-hour battery life, and 8 different color palettes (White Hot palette is popular).
There are a few different versions of the Helio 2 with prices ranging between $3k to ~$4k so the price isn't for the faint of heart. Also, it is debatable how usable the thermal imagery will be at maximum magnification depending on your purpose for using a monocular.
Monocular thermal cameras are great for outdoor environments and long distance thermal imagery. Since it has a narrow and long design, it can held with one hand while taking pictures, video, or switching modes. The FLIR Scout TK is an excellent choice for as a budget friendly thermal monocular, and it has a thermal range of over 100-yards.
The Scout TK is good for the price and can be used for:
- Long distance thermography outside
- Detecting heat leaks on exterior of houses and buildings
- Home security
- Wildlife management and pest control
This FLIR monocular comes with a thermal sensor that has a 160 x 120 resolution or 19,200 pixels. It can store 1000 thermal images and up to 4-hours of thermal video. The battery life is about 5 hours and it includes a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The control buttons are really simple (4 buttons) and you do a short press for photo capture and a longer button press if you want to get video — just using one hand.
There are 9 color palettes that comes with the Scout TK and choosing the right palette can make a big difference to picture quality. One picture mode is called InsAlert. The InsAlert color palette will inject color into the hot object in the thermal image (such as a racoon) but it will keep everything else in the environment as a gray color.
One thing that I don't like about the Scout TK is that the battery cannot be user replaced at the end of it's life. And if you use the monocular a lot, the rechargeable battery will eventually need replacing. Also, the Scout TK has no zoom capability, so if that is important to you, you may want to find a different monocular. And even though you can see objects at far distances such as 80-100 yards or more — it will probably be very difficult to identify it (not enough detail).
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is A Thermal Camera?
Thermal or infrared cameras see the invisible part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we call heat. All objects radiate some degree of heat and thermal cameras translate the heat signature into a visual picture called a thermogram.
How Much Are Thermal Cameras?
Thermal cameras range from a few hundred dollars on the low range and up to $5,000 or more on the higher end.
What Are Thermal Cameras Used For?
Thermal cameras have a wide range of applications but are commonly used in building inspections, HVAC diagnosis, automotive repair, hunting, law enforcement, search and rescue, and wildlife research (also hunting).
What Do The Colors On A Thermal Camera Mean?
The colors represent different temperatures of the environment or object. Bluer colors usually represent colder temperatures while red and yellow colors represent physically hotter temperatures.
How Do Thermal Cameras Work?
Thermal cameras work by converting heat information into an electrical signal that gets transformed into a visual picture. The different colors of the image represents different temperatures in the environment.
You can read my full guide on how thermal cameras work here.