If you are looking for the best infrared cameras for a job or recreation, this guide is for you.
We'll go over...
- Our #1 top pick for the best thermal camera
- Tips on choosing the right one
- How infrared thermography works
- Detailed reviews of each infrared camera
- And more...
As a licensed home inspector, I have used thermal cameras numerous times to spot hidden problems during an inspection.
Thermal imaging cameras see the invisible world of infrared waves or 'heat' that is radiated by the environment.
These cameras can see hidden water leaks in a home, an approaching wild animal, electrical hotspots, missing insulation, and even human footsteps.
Below is a quick comparison of all our top products, and keep scrolling to read our buyer's guide!
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
We chose the FLIR E6-XT as the best trigger style thermal camera because it has a high thermal resolution of 240 x 180 (43,200 pixels) for detailed infrared pictures. 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).
7 Best Thermal Imaging Cameras
In a hurry? Check out our top 7 best thermal cameras! Keep reading to discover more about our top picks.
What Is A Thermal Camera?
Thermal imaging cameras detect infrared radiation or heat in the environment and convert it into a visual picture or video.
Unlike normal cameras that detecting visual light in the 450 to 750 nanometer wavelength range, IR cameras use the 1500-nm to 10k+ wavelength range.
When you take a picture of a room using an infrared camera, it will show different colors or shades which represent the different temperatures of the environment.
The higher temperature objects will appear orange, yellow, and white while the lower temperature objects will appear blue or purple.
How Do Infrared Cameras Work?
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.
The basics of the thermal imaging process is that the environment emits a heat signature which is known as infrared energy. It is essential to note that thermal cameras detect only the surface temperature, and not deep in the material.
The surface heat gets focused onto the camera sensor array which has a large number of different pixels. Each of these pixels produces an electrical signal that gets sent to the camera's processing chip.
And of the electrical signals than go through different calculations to come up with a temperature and corresponding color. This huge matrix of colors gets converted into a visual image onto the camera.
Read Also >> How To Interpret Thermal Images
What Are The Pros And Cons of Thermal Imagers?
Here are some of the advantages and drawbacks of thermal imagers:
How To Pick The Best Infrared Camera?
Here are a few important 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 IR cameras are around 9-Hz which is equivalent to 9 frames per second. However, if you are using an IR 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 is the maximum and minimum temperatures that it can measure. Most standard infrared 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 reduce 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 include 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 a mode that 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 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) are 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
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.
How To Use A Thermal Imaging Camera For Home Inspections?
Whether you are a pro or the average homeowner, infrared cameras are incredibly useful tools to find air leaks, water leaks, and missing insulation.
Indoor Home Inspections
The most important thing to remember when using an IR camera is that there needs to be a temperature difference for the camera to detect anything. If the indoor temperature is the same as the outdoor temperature (also known as Delta T) then the camera will just be a blurry mess of the same color.
Ideally, users will want at least a 15-20 degree temperature difference. An easy way to achieve this effect is to max out the air conditioner or heater depending on the season. Once the indoor temp is distinctly different than outdoors, shut off the HVAC system and wait 15-minutes.
Checking For Air Leaks
If the main thing a pro or homeowner wants to do is look for air leaks, it is important to also create an air pressure difference in the home. This can be achieved by turning on all of the bathroom exhaust fans, range hoods, or any type of exterior ventilation system. The best method is to use blower door testing equipment, but most people don't have access to it.
Exterior Water Leaks
If homeowners are inspecting the exterior for water leaks, the best time is to wait for sunset or sunrise. This will allow a temperature gradient between the wet or moist areas of the wall or roof as compared to the surrounding materials. Water has a high thermal capacity and takes a lot of energy or time to change temperature.
What Are The Different Types of IR Cameras?
There are numerous 'form factors' or styles of thermal cameras on the market. Below are the some of the most common types:
Probably the least expensive camera type is the phone attachment thermal camera. These thermal cameras are plugged into your cell phone, and use 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 an infrared imager for a long period of time — such as for professional home energy audits — then a handheld 'trigger-style' camera is preferable.
The handheld style is 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 imagers have their own screen which is usually larger than trigger type cameras. These thermal cameras avoid any issues connecting the camera to your phone and all of those types of problems. And again, these handheld imagers 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 are easier and more ergonomic to use with one hand.
The downside of the trigger style is that the screens are usually smaller than phone-connected and handheld cameras.
If you plan on using thermal scanners extensively for home inspections or other professional uses — then these cameras are likely your best option. The trigger style 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 technology (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 infrared 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.
What Are The Uses of Infrared Cameras?
Thermal cameras can be used in a wide variety of recreational and industrial applications. Here are a few of the most common ways to use them:
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 IR 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 be easily spotted using a thermal imager. Loose wiring, electrical hot spots (or cold spots) and other electrical anomalies can be quickly detected using an 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 inspecting an attic, it 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 they are 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.
Our Reviews Of The Best Thermal Imaging Cameras
If you want the best infrared camera, we think the FLIR E6-XT is a great choice.
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.
And I think everyone in the home industry knows that FLIR is the gold standard of infrared imagers.
The resolution of the E6-XT comes in at 240x180 which is a whopping 43,200 pixels. And with expanded temperature sensitivity from -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 Wi-Fi. 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.
Sometimes a really compact thermal imager 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 in three ways: as a thermal camera, visual camera, and LED floodlight. Another 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.
Our best pick for a thermal enabled drone goes to the Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced by DJI.
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).
The Mavic 2 thermal drone is great for certain applications like rooftop inspections, energy audits, agriculture, and numerous other jobs.
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 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 Mavic 2 send back an HD livestream to yourself while its doing the inspection.
Best Phone Attachment
My top rated pick for the best phone attachment is the FLIR One Pro that includes an Android version and an iOS version.
These thermal attachments are tiny and you can easily fit it in a pocket.
Since most smartphones have advanced and large displays, it makes it easier to navigate settings, store photos, and other features.
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 attachment: 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.
One drawback of the One Pro is that the battery life isn't that great, and it can be clunky since it is attached to the phone.
Best Thermal & Moisture
With this combo unit, you can take a sweeping view of the whole area, and then pinpoint where you should use the moisture meter.
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.
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.
Best Premium Monocular
Even though most of their customers are likely hunters, their thermal cameras are also used heavily by researchers, rescuers, and even tourists.
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.
Best Budget Monocular
The Scout TK is can be used for security, wildlife management, pest control, inspections, and other uses.
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 come with the Scout TK and choosing the right palette can make a big difference to picture quality. The InsAlert color palette feature will inject color into the hot object in the thermal image (such as a raccoon) but it will keep everything else in the environment as a gray color.
Our #1 Top Pick: FLIR E6-XT
Our overall top pick for the best thermal imaging camera goes to the FLIR E6-XT. Here's why:
1. Easy To Use
I love the trigger style of this thermal camera and the E6-XT will take a thermal picture each time you squeeze the trigger. This makes it easier to use when moving around a work environment while still using your other hand for tasks. FLIR has even included an LED spotlight that can be used as a flashlight while taking images.
2. Extreme Detail
Since this camera has a high resolution of 43,200 pixels, the imagery is incredible. FLIR also uses their patented MSX technology that inputs visual details onto the thermal imagery to give unsurpassed clarity when you are trying to diagnose a problem.
3. FLIR Quality
FLIR is the best manufacturer of infrared cameras in the USA and you can be assured of top notch quality.
4. Wi-Fi Enabled
Since the E6-XT can be connected to Wi-Fi, this will allow you to easily share photos and transfer data to a laptop.