Finding animals using thermal imaging

I often carry a Pulsar Axion XQ38 thermal camera with me when I am looking for wildlife. It can’t replace knowing when and where to look for animals, but it helps in spotting them. Most of the time animals stay quite stationary when eating, resting or when they notice humans. Very often I would have missed animals that are small or just partially visible.

Thermal cameras won’t see though bushes or other vegetation, but if even a small part of a warm blooded animal is visible it will be immediately obvious in the camera. Oh, btw, even mosquitos emit enough heat to be visible if camera is focused at close distance! I have no experience with zombies, but I am pretty sure they would have the same temperature environment has, so they would be practically invisible in thermal image (sorry…).

Here are some examples:

All I need to see is the slightly whiter spot pointed by the arrow. In the live camera image it’s obvious in a second that there is an animal.

Can you spot it in the next image? Yep, it’s that obvious. This image uses color mode that shows yellow and red tones for warm spots.

What else you see will depend on temperature difference. Sometimes the whole world looks like the next image. This happens when there is no temperature difference. Sun will warm some objects more than others and often moisture in the ground creates temperature gradients, but not always. Live video will still have more details than is visible below, but not much.

Here’s an interesting shot of a bunny, person and a car. I think it was already too dark for photography. The bunny felt safe to have an evening snack on the field and sure enough the person in the picture didn’t notice it.

The next video was shot in complete darkness. The deer were maybe 10-15 meters (or yards) away, but only barely noticed something was sneaking past them. They were more curious than scared and I managed to continue my journey without disturbing them too much.

Here’s a typical situation for me. I move the view quickly sideways to scan what’s around me. I spot something, but at this point I don’t know if it’s a squirrel, bird, or maybe part of a deer peeking through bushes. I freeze and then carefully move sideways to judge how close it is. Moving can also reveal different parts of the animal. I have no idea of the time of day as day and night look almost the same. Sun warming up surfaces has some effect, but many surfaces keep emitting heat after sunset.

I don’t typically have much time on my photo trips, so I try to be efficient. I visit locations that have previously yielded good pictures and I try to be there when animals are around (either resting, eating or moving between locations). I wish I could stay stationary for hours just waiting animals to appear, but no, I need to move around to maximize the likelihood that I stumble on something to shoot with my camera. The tricky thing is to spot the animals before I am too close and they only offer me a picture of their quickly escaping arse.

This is the time for thermal camera to shine! With a thermal camera I can often move quicker (but still quietly), spot the animals before it’s too late, and then make a plan how to approach them (which then fails when I step on a branch…). Many animals tolerate humans as long as they feel safe. They might assume based on their experience (I can read their minds…) that it’s too dark for me to spot them, so they opt to stay still until I have passed them. This is a perfect opportunity for me to keep approaching their location, but not directly towards them. I can start shooting photos as soon as their head is visible and then keep going until they become obviously nervous (often intently staring at me). There’s no need to go further as the next step would just be them running away.

I don’t think the next thermal image is the same hare shown below, but it’s what might happen if I am lucky.


The deer are maybe 100m (or yards) away here. There was no way to approach them without them noticing, but I observed their route and returned the next evening before they arrived.


All in all I am pretty happy how thermal view of the world allows me to spot things I would otherwise miss.

Long exposures using video

One trick I sometimes use when I need long exposure times but I don’t have a tripod with me is shooting video.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Shoot handheld video using “quite short” shutter time
  2. Stabilize the video in DaVinci Resolve or some other video editor
  3. Export images from the video editor
  4. Edit the images together


Use shutter speed that is short enough to hide trembling of your hands, but otherwise as long as possible. With wide angle lenses it’s possible to use longer shutter time. Same is true when the closest thing to the camera is further away.


Many video editor and compositing apps have features to stabilize footage. DaVinci Resolve for example allows locking the camera to make it feel like it was shot using a tripod. This will work quite nicely if there’s not too much movement in the video AND you have used short shutter time. Long shutter times can show up as movement streaks within individual frames if your hands tremble.

Export & Edit

Some editors have also features to combine many frames into one. This is normally used as a special effect to e.g. give footage drunken feeling. For stabilized (virtually locked) shot it will do all the work to combine the frames together and you can export just a single frame to be perfected in any image editor.

If you can’t combine the frames in the video editor you need to export multiple frames and then combine them.


Here are two images of Sir Henri’s waterfall in Norway (Google Maps link). One uses video and the other is just a single image. We were just quickly visiting the waterfall, so I didn’t have a tripod with me.

Sir Henri's waterfall, Norway Sir henri's waterfall, Norway