Digital Night Vision: Worth Spending Your Money On?

Sightmark Photon XT
Sightmark Photon XT

Note: I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

Night vision optics – goggles, binoculars, monoculars, scopes, and more – have been available for quite some time. You’re probably already familiar with one or more of those night vision gadgets, but you might still be wondering about the new kid on the block – digital night vision.

If you examine the rest of this article, you’ll find a description of what digital night vision really is, how it compares to other forms of night vision, the advantages and disadvantages of digital night vision, and whether or not it’s worth spending your money on gear that uses it.

  • a description of what digital night vision really is,
  • how it compares to other forms of night vision,
  • the advantages and disadvantages of digital night vision, and
  • whether or not it’s worth spending your money on gear that uses it.

You’ll also find my brief reviews of a few specific digital night vision optics to give you some idea of what is currently available, in case you’re in the market to make a purchase. I won’t cover all the top makers or models, but we’ll look at offerings from Sightmark, ATN, Firefield, and Bushnell.

If you just want to go directly to Amazon to check out these scopes, click the appropriate link just below.

If you’re in a hurry, you can click one of the items in the table below to jump to that section, or you can just keep on reading below it.

What Is Digital Night Vision?

To explain what the digital version of night vision optics is, let’s compare it to the types of night vision you may already know about. We’ll start with a comparison of digital night vision vs standard night vision.

You’ll sometimes see standard night vision referred to as analog night vision, probably because it’s older than digital. However, it’s not truly analog because a chemical process is involved. Analog does not mean the opposite of digital.

A standard night vision device collects existing light from its surroundings (that is, ambient light). Under normal circumstances, this might be starlight, moonlight, or infrared light. Those photons of light pass through a special intensifier tube that changes them to electrons.

The electrons go through an electrical and a chemical process that increases their number. All these resulting electrons are sent to a phosphorus screen that changes them back into photons of light that you can see using an eyepiece. This image will normally be green because of the particular elements involved in the process.

The digital version of this process starts the same way – an objective lens collects ambient light. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Instead of converting photons into electrons, most digital devices change the optical image into an electrical signal using a charge-coupled device (CCD) image sensor. The signal is pushed onto an LCD display which is usually the eyepiece of your digital night vision device.

That is a very basic description of each method. There are obviously far more details, but it doesn’t pay to mention them here. These are enough for you to understand that there is a definite difference between the standard and digital processes.

Where Does Thermal Imaging Fit In?

There is one more comparison worth noting, even though the two systems are quite different. Let’s take a look at digital night vision vs thermal imaging. This comparison will also help to answer the question: How good is digital night vision?

Each system has its uses. Night vision systems – both standard and digital – rely on visible light to perform properly. Thermal vision, as the name implies, relies on heat.

Everything gives off heat. Some objects, both living and inanimate, give off more heat than others. It’s these differences (even small ones) in amounts of heat that a thermal sensor system detects and displays to you so you can recognize the objects. Typically, instead of the shades of green in a night vision system, you’ll see shades of gray – like in early TV – produced by a thermal imager.

This means you can use thermal in places and under conditions that night vision – digital or otherwise – won’t work. For example, in a smoky room or on a foggy night, night vision optics won’t be able to collect much, if any, visible light.

Thermal optic devices aren’t affected by smoke or fog. They can still detect heat differences and produce a picture for you. It’s as if they can “see” through the obstructing matter.

You can see then that there are advantages to (digital) night vision as well as disadvantages to (digital) night vision. It depends on your needs. You may even want to own both night vision and thermal optics. There’s not really much overlap between the two.

What Are the Advantages of Digital vs Standard Night Vision?

Most users of digital devices will tell you that they compare in quality to early (Gen 1) standard night vision devices. One of the main reasons you would opt for such a digital device is cost. They can be significantly less expensive than more modern (Gen 3 or better) devices.

Digital gives you much less distortion than that produced by the standard intensifier tube. If a clearer picture is something you’ll really appreciate, you’ll consider digital over standard.

If you want to record what you see through a digital device, you can often store the information on a memory card and view or play it back later on an appropriate device.

With digital night vision, you don’t have to worry about vacuum tubes inside your gear which can be fragile and break if mishandled. Neither do you need to be concerned about bright light accidentally damaging your device. In fact, many digital optics can do double duty and be used in daylight as well as at night.

A handy feature you’ll find in some digital gadgets is a set of infrared lights with filters in various colors. In addition to the usual green, you might be able to switch to red or gray. While green will provide the best image contrast, using a red filter will let your eyes maintain their own night vision with little to no readjustment needed when you look away from your device. A gray filter will send even less light to your eyes.

Will I Need Any Accessories for My Digital NV Device?

You may find that you want to add an infrared (IR) illuminator to get a better picture from your digital night vision (NV) device. In some situations, you may not be able or want to use it, but when you can, you’ll see dramatically higher quality output. A higher powered IR unit will generally give better results than one with lower power.

For virtually hands-free use, you can get a head mount kit. Most kits consist of straps for the top of your head with a place to attach the device, plus a chin strap to help hold the entire assembly in place.

Each of the above accessories may work just as well with non-digital devices too.

Which Types of Digital Night Vision Devices Can I Get?

Most digital NV devices to date come in one of three forms – scopes, monoculars, or binoculars – with the first two being the most abundant. You may be able to find digital night vision goggles and glasses, but currently these tend to be expensive. That obviously may change in the future as the technology improves.

Digital scopes attach to your rifle for night hunting (where legal) and for tactical and military purposes. Monoculars and binoculars are the handheld versions for sighting targets in the dark.

There are many companies that make these devices. We’ll take a brief look at two scopes (Sightmark and ATN) and two monoculars (Firefield and Bushnell) below.

Sightmark Photon XT 4.6x42S Digital Night Vision Riflescope

Sightmark claims that this digital night vision rifle scope has a longer battery life and is lighter in weight than other similar scopes currently on the market. That may be true at the moment but will almost certainly change in the future.

The battery needed to power night vision equipment is sometimes an overlooked component. If you plan to use your optics for an extended period of time, battery life is an important feature though. An instrument like this Sightmark Photon XT that does have quite a long battery life could be just the tube you’re looking for.

You get several reticle options with the Photon XT. Several are specifically intended for crossbow hunters. Two basic Duplex reticles are for hog and varmint hunting. There is a Mil-Dot reticle to help with finding the range, and there is a German-style reticle. (I’m not sure whether the German reticle is German #1 or German #4, but it’s probably German #4.)

Without additional infrared help, you can easily see up to 120 yards through this scope. You can turn off the built-in IR. You can also cycle it through 3 brightness settings to adjust for the amount of available light.

You can record everything you see – day or night – using its video output feature. You can reexamine objects later that need definite identification that perhaps you couldn’t make out at the time you discovered them.

The Photon XT has a weaver rail for attaching additional accessories, but it doesn’t come with mounts for attaching to your rifle. Those you’ll need to purchase separately.

The Photon XT is considered a Gen 2 device.

Get the Sightmark Photon XT at Amazon.

If you want more detail on this scope, check out this Photon XT review.

Note that the Photon XT 3.5x42S is no longer produced by Sightmark. You may still be able to find a used one online though.

ATN X-Sight 5-18 Smart Riflescope

NOTE: This scope has been discontinued by ATN. You may still be able to find them in the market though. To see ATN’s next generation riflescope, read this article.

The X-Sight 5-18 Smart Riflescope from ATN is, according to owners, basically a fancy digital camera in scope form. There are so many features in this digital night vision rifle scope (and its little brother, the 3-12x) that I can’t really do justice to them all here in this mini review.

As the model name (the 5-18 part) suggests, you can zoom this tube from 5x to 18x. In many cases, the 18x may be more power than you really need. For that matter, once in a great while even the 5x at the lower end can be too much.

Overall though, you should find the magnification to be just what you need to spot those distant targets either at night or in the daytime. (Note that the 3-12 is not recommended on the ATN site as a daytime use scope.)

There is a gyroscope that aids in image stabilization. So if you’re using this scope to record your outings, you’ll get a much clearer picture not only when you play it back but also in real time.

The electronic compass will help you keep from getting lost in less familiar territory.

Use the built-in wi-fi with any external device for playing back your recordings, which can be done up to 1080p quality.

You get a Picatinny mount in the package so no extra mount purchase is needed. The entire scope is a little heavy at 2.85 pounds, so keep that in mind if you plan on carrying this and any other gear around for long periods of time.

Check pricing and availability of your ATN X-Sight at Amazon.

Firefield N-vader 3-9x Digital Night Vision Monocular

Users of the N-vader 3-9x Digital Night Vision Monocular give it lukewarm reviews at best.

It might be a good device to try if you don’t have much money to spend and just want to see what these gadgets are like. The same is probably true of the Firefield N-vader 1-3x Digital Night Vision Monocular.

This is a case of “you get what you pay for”. These monoculars are relatively inexpensive.

If you need one that will truly perform well, you’ll need to spend a little more to get it.

Check the availability of the Firefield Nvader at Amazon.

Bushnell Equinox Z Digital Night Vision Monocular

One of the three Bushnell Equinox Z Digital Night Vision monoculars may be more in line with what you need. The main differences among these three are the magnification and objective lens size.

You can choose from the Equinox Z 6x50mm, the Equinox Z 4.5x40mm, or the Equinox Z 3x30mm models. All three offer up to a 3x zoom feature for those times you really want to get in close to your subject.

All can also be attached to a tripod and have daytime color. One additional difference (related to lens size) is the field of view (FOV). For the 6×50, the FOV is 20 feet. The 4.5×40 gives you 28 feet, and the 3×30 is a full 30 feet.

Get your Bushnell Equinox Z Monocular at Amazon today!

Choose One of These or Look Further?

As mentioned above, these are just a handful of the digital night vision devices available in the marketplace. If one of them seems to suit your needs, you may need to look no further.

That said, these quick reviews admittedly only give you a taste of what they have to offer. You might want to find more information about them before making a final decision.

If none of them comes close to what you were looking for, additional research and reviews will certainly guide you to the model that is just right.

More and more digital optics products are being produced by the major manufacturers yearly, and the quality normally gets better with each new product making your search easier and more productive all the time.

Check out other digital night vision products at Amazon.


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