LIGHT UP YOUR NIGHT
Being able to see clearly in the dark is a powerful asset, whether you are in the military, law enforcement, security, out hunting or on pest control. Devices allowing you to do so are improving steadily and reducing in price at an equal pace. Which is why, year after year the night vision business keeps growing, and growing, and growing. Next to professional users, more and more consumers are sold on the idea of night vision and have come to see it as a piece of gear as essential, or even more, as their daytime optics.
WHICH ONE IS WHICH?
When considering the different technical aspects of night vision, it’s interesting to know both analogue, based on image intensifier technology and digital night vision need light to function in the dark. This can be ambient light still present in the surroundings like the moon, stars, streetlights… but also infrared radiation emitted by an infrared illuminator invisible to the unaided human eye. Thermal vision on the other hand, another night vision technology altogether, uses a different kind of infrared wavelength (far-infrared) to spot heat differences in the surroundings and create an image based on these differing temperatures to make ‘hot’ objects such as wildlife, vehicles, people... stand out.
Whereas tube-based image intensifiers and digital night vision, function by gathering ambient light, whether or not supported by an infrared illuminator, thermal imagers detect thermal radiation, better known as heat, which is of a completely different infrared wavelength than the one used for tube-based and digital devices. Using camera technology, a special lens in the thermal night vision device focuses the radiation on a detector sensitive to heat, called a microbolometer. With incredible precision, thermal imagers spot temperature differences and translate these differences into an image on a digital display. With a fierce competition between established brands and new ones, image quality and features keep improving all the time. Where once there were only black-hot or white-hot images, wide arrays of color schemes are now available from most brands. Meanwhile the emergence of hybrid devices combining digital and thermal night vision in one device looks promising. As a final note on thermal imagers, be aware that these can also be put to good use during the day. Hunters far and wide have quickly adopted thermal imagers to spot game during the day as well as the nighttime. For culling purposes, being able to spot game far quicker than with regular daytime optics is a real blessing. The scope of products using thermal imaging technology has broadened as well. Next to handheld devices, thermal riflescopes and multi-purpose devices are very well developed What’s more, due to the ever-growing popularity of thermal devices, prices have come down over the years. Technology and image quality that would have cost several thousands a couple of years ago is now available for half or even one third of the price the same level of quality would have cost some years back. Meanwhile top notch quality remains at premium price levels but sells well nonetheless.
TUBE-BASED IMAGE INTENSIFIERS
Originally image-intensifier technology is what most associate with night vision. These devices rely on an image-intensifier tube, hence the name tube-based, to collect and amplify visible ambient light as well as infrared light. Essentially, light gathered through a conventional objective lens is sent to a battery-powered image-intensifier tube, which outputs a certain voltage to the light fragments. The tube has a photocathode, which converts the photons of light energy into electrons. As they pass through, the original number of electrons is multiplied thousands of times. At the end of the image-intensifier tube, the electrons hit a screen coated with phosphorus. These electrons produce a perfect image because they stay in the same alignment as the original photons. Their energy causes the phosphorus to reach an excited state and release photons, creating the classic green night vision image everyone is so familiar with. It is the number of electrons in the intensifier tube, which makes or brakes the performance of an image intensifying device. The amount of light gain produced in an analogue device determines the brightness and clarity of the viewed image. The higher the quality of the set up, the higher the number of the electrons hitting the phosphor screen, the brighter the image gets. Although the very best equipment remains at the highest end of the market and out of reach of most for normal consumer activity, constant development, new materials and technological advances are continually able to provide increasing levels of tube-based ability at lower price points. For people on a budget, it’s good to know that lower-specification equipment used in conjunction with powerful infrared illumination is both very affordable as well as efficient for certain purposes.
One of the biggest game changers in recent times, next to thermal imaging, is the rapid advance of digital night vision. As complicated the ins and outs of analogue night vision are, the easy it is to explain digital night vision. It all boils down to the fact that digital night vision borrows its technology from digital cameras. The same digital CCD chips and CMOS chips are used, yet these are most sensitive in the near-infrared part of the light spectrum. Which is why digital night vision devices will always require an infrared illuminator to function properly. Some of the leading brands in image-intensified night vision quickly recognized that digital technology has the power to bring night vision equipment to a far larger market due to the performance available at even more affordable price points. Fitted with an powerful aftermarket infrared illuminator, performance of these devices is just plain awesome while still being very affordable. Also in favor of digital technology is that it can be used during daylight as well as in the pitch dark. Although digital riflescopes are not on par with the best of regular daytime riflescopes, yet, some models are already delivering a lot more than just an black/white image with crosshairs. Some digital riflescopes offer a full-color image during the day, while during the night you switch on the incorporated IR-illuminator to get black and white night vision. These are smart scopes blurring the boundaries of traditional day- and nighttime optics. They are nothing less than spearheading a new era in hunting optics.
Night vision equipment can generally be split into three broad categories. Hand-held observation devices, riflescopes and multi-purpose/front-attachment products. For the hunting market, monocular handheld observation devices are popular. Growing in popularity fast however are riflescope attachments and multi-purpose devices. Thanks to these attachments, you can turn a daylight scope into a night vision device in no time. Multi-purpose devices have the added benefit of a detachable eyepiece. These devices can be used both for hand-held observation with the ocular as well as doubling as riflescope attachments without the ocular. Increasing technological improvements fuelled by greater demand has turned this into a strong sector for the key brands.
Few things are more different the world over than local laws concerning night vision devices. In some countries they are banned altogether while in others you can own and use handheld devices for observation but multi-purpose devices or riflescopes are banned. In others still everything is allowed, including front attachments, but not riflescopes. Or every type is allowed but you can not use night vision for hunting unless you have a special permit… Germany for example recently changed its laws. Germans can now legally buy and own a night vision front attachment, yet depending on the hunting legislation in specific regions they may or may not use the device on a rifle. As a distributor or retailer, please take into account your local laws regarding night vision as these can vary widely from one country to the other.
As consumers are getting more and more accustomed with night vision, time is ripe for them to start buying dedicated gear for their specific purposes instead of just ‘some’ night vision device. A hunter who will use his device from a high seat or tree stand and has a limited range of maximum 100 yards, does not really need a device that has a maximum range of over a mile. As a retailer, find out what your customers want to do with their gear and advise them accordingly. As retailers in the gun trade, ignoring night vision puts you at the peril of being overtaken by someone else. Customer demand is clearly present. Without doubt this is a thriving new industry offering lots of opportunities for those willing to dig in.