A Beginner’s Guide to Night Vision Devices

Appearing in the military since World War II, night vision technology can now enhance your hunt or outdoor adventure.

From hunt to home, night vision gear is a surprisingly useful utility for your daily life.

But before you pick up a pair of night vision binos for home security or a scope that lets you eye wildlife after nightfall, you’ve got to understand the mechanisms behind these truly impressive pieces of technology.

Technology Breakdown

Night vision technology works in one of two ways: through thermal imaging or image enhancement.

  • Thermal Imaging uses a special lens to focus on the infrared light emitted by an object, which is then transformed into a detailed temperature pattern called a thermograph by the detector elements in the night vision goggles or scopes.
  • Image Enhancement devices (often referred to as NVDs) are more popular, and focus on the light reflected off objects rather than the light they emit. These devices use an image-intensifier tube to collect infrared and visible light through an objective lens, and then enhance it so that it can easily been seen by the naked eye.

Night Vision Device Generations

A key fact: Levels of night vision technology are known as “Generations.”  The higher the Generation number, the more advanced the device.

Though modern Gen 1 night vision devices are the most popular, Generations 2, 3 and 4 have advantages that come along with their higher price tag.  With a longer viewing distance and the ability to perform under the lowest of light conditions, these high-end devices definitely have their place.

  • Gen 2 NVDs are primarily used by professionals or law enforcement agents as they include the addition of a micro-channel plate (MCP), which is able to amplify light many more times than Gen 1 models, giving you a brighter and sharper image.
  • Gen 3 is the latest in night vision technology, featuring a photocathode with gallium arsenide added to it, producing an even brighter and sharper image.
  • Finally, Gen 4 NVDs feature gated filmless technology. Gen 4 devices have had their ion barrier film removed and their systems gated, resulting in an increase in target detection range and resolution (especially in low light conditions).

Things To Consider Before Buying

When shopping for an NVD, three major things to consider are image quality, range and gain.

The best way to shop for night vision gear is to look for a device for your specific activity. Image quality, range and gain can all come with their own tradeoffs — and one-size-fits-all device rarely work out well for everyone. Image quality might be your No. 1 priority for watching wildlife, but these “gen 2” or “gen 3” devices come with new intensifier tube technology, which makes them more expensive. If you’re using your device for hunting, you may need a longer lens to promote an extended viewing range.

Generally speaking, a modern, generation 1 night vision device will be able to handle the most recreational activities  ranging from hunting and wildlife watching, to boating, navigation and home security.