When it’s dark, using a night-vision camera is like flipping on the lights. It reveals what’s hidden around your boat, turning a hesitant helmsman into a confident captain. Let’s look at what’s available to boaters.
There are two basic approaches to night-vision systems. One is light amplification: A special camera multiplies low-level light to create viewable images. ComNav’s fixed-mount V1C ($3,265, comnavmarine.com) low-light camera features a 26x optical zoom and comes with a joystick for pan and tilt operation. Night to Day Camera Systems’ SC1717-2 ($2,999, nitetoday.com) is a portable low-light system with a compact Canon ultralow-light camera, a mounting bracket, a cable and a 7-inch color monitor, all in a waterproof case.
The second approach is thermal imaging. Such systems don’t require visible light, but rather read the temperature differences of objects in infrared light and show them in pictures. The fixed-mount FLIR MD-324 ($3,499, flir.com) camera offers 320 x 240 pixel resolution. Other popular FLIR models include the M-Series (price starts at $8,999), which offers 360-degree pan and tilt with a joystick control. You can see out to about 2 nautical miles. FLIR’s InstAlert feature can highlight the “hottest” element in view, such as a man overboard. All models easily mount on a cabin roof, radar arch or T-top.
The IRIS295 NightRunner ($4,500, boat-cameras.com) features full pan, tilt and zoom. Installation is simplified by use of a single inexpensive Cat-5 cable to deliver power and to control data and video. Iris also offers a line of digital video recorders (from $1,100).
Want to see what is going on at your boat at night? The GOST Watch HD ($2,300 basic package, gostglobal.com) with connection to one of FLIR’s M-Series cameras (purchased separately) lets you spy on your boat from anywhere by viewing the thermal images on your computer, tablet or smartphone via the Internet.
Most fixed-mount, night-vision cameras display their images on a separate dedicated monitor or more commonly on the boat’s multifunction display (MFD). Cameras with pan, tilt or zoom ability can be controlled by a joystick or control pad mounted near the display. With the FLIR cameras, you can also control functions via an MFD from a variety of brands, including Furuno, Garmin, Raymarine and Simrad.
While lacking some features of fixed-mount models, a portable night-vision camera offers the ability to be used anywhere, such as on a dinghy while going ashore or returning to the boat. FLIR’s First Mate II series of handhelds ($1,999 to $8,925, shown below) offers features such as 240 x 180 to 320 x 240 resolution, 2x to 4x zoom, and the ability to store a picture or video on an SD card. Optical distances range from 1,000 feet to about 1 nautical mile for a man overboard, and to 2.5 nautical miles for seeing larger objects, like boats.
Light-amplification cameras cannot “see” in total darkness. Some ambient light, even moonlight or starlight, must be present. Fog can impair the effectiveness of these devices. Thermal-imaging cameras might not be able to sense an object’s heat patterns when viewing through a windshield, an enclosure or fog.