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Two American Soldiers pictured during the 2003 Iraq War seen through an image intensifier

Night vision is the ability to see in a dark environment. Whether by biological or technological means, night vision is made possible by a combination of two approaches: sufficient spectral range, and sufficient intensity range. Humans have poor night vision compared to many animals, in part because the human eye lacks a tapetum lucidum.[1]


Types of ranges

Spectral range

Night-useful spectral range techniques can sense radiation that is invisible to a human observer. Human vision is confined to a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum called visible light. Enhanced spectral range allows the viewer to take advantage of non-visible sources of electromagnetic radiation (such as near-infrared or ultraviolet radiation). Some animals can see using much more of the infrared and/or ultraviolet spectrum than humans.

Intensity range

Sufficient intensity range is simply the ability to see with very small quantities of light. Although the human visual system can, in theory, detect single photons under ideal conditions, the neurological noise filters limit sensitivity to a few tens of photons, even in ideal conditions.[2]

Many animals have better night vision than humans do, the result of one or more differences in the morphology and anatomy of their eyes. These include having a larger eyeball, a larger lens, a larger optical aperture (the pupils may expand to the physical limit of the eyelids), more rods than cones (or rods exclusively) in the retina, a tapetum lucidum, and improved neurological filtering.

Enhanced intensity range is achieved via technological means through the use of an image intensifier, gain multiplication CCD, or other very low-noise and high-sensitivity array of photodetectors.

Biological night vision

In biological night vision, molecules of rhodopsin in the rods of the eye undergo a change in shape as light is absorbed by them. Rhodopsin is the chemical that allows night-vision, and is extremely sensitive to light. Exposed to a spectrum of light, the pigment immediately bleaches, and it takes about 30 minutes to regenerate fully, but most of the adaptation occurs within the first five or ten minutes in the dark. Rhodopsin in the human rods is less sensitive to the longer red wavelengths of light, so many people use red light to help preserve night vision as it only slowly depletes the eye's rhodopsin stores in the rods and instead is viewed by the cones.[citation needed]

Many animals have a tissue layer called the tapetum lucidum in the back of the eye that reflects light back through the retina, increasing the amount of light available for it to capture. This is found in many nocturnal animals and some deep sea animals, and is the cause of eyeshine. Humans lack a tapetum lucidum.

Nocturnal mammals have rods with unique properties that make enhanced night vision possible. The nuclear pattern of their rods changes shortly after birth to become inverted. In contrast to contemporary rods, inverted rods have heterochromatin in the center of their nuclei and euchromatin and other transcription factors along the border. In addition, the outer nuclear layer (ONL) in nocturnal mammals is thick due to the millions of rods present to process the lower light intensities of a few photons. Rather than being scattered, the light is passed to each nucleus individually.[3] In fact, an animal's ability to see in low light levels may be similar to what humans see when using first- or perhaps second-generation image intensifiers.[citation needed]

Large size of the eye, and large size of the pupil relative to the eye, also contribute to night vision.

Night vision technologies

Night vision technologies can be broadly divided into three main categories:

Image intensification technologies work on the principle of magnifying the amount of received photons from various natural sources such as starlight or moonlight. Examples of such technologies include night glasses and low light cameras.

  • Active illumination

Active illumination technologies work on the principle of coupling imaging intensification technology with an active source of illumination in the near infrared (NIR) or shortwave infrared (SWIR) band. Examples of such technologies include low light cameras.

Thermal imaging technology work by detecting the temperature difference between the background and the foreground objects.

Night glasses

Binoculars (night vision goggles on flight helmet) Note: the green color of the objective lenses is the reflection of the Light Interference Filters, not a glow.

Night glasses are telescopes or binoculars with a large diameter objective. Large lenses can gather and concentrate light, thus intensifying light with purely optical means and enabling the user to see better in the dark than with naked eye alone. Often night glasses also have a fairly large exit pupil of 7 mm or more to let all gathered light into the user's eye. However, many people can't take advantage of this because of the limited dilation of the human pupil. To overcome this, soldiers were sometimes issued atropine eye drops to dilate pupils. Before the introduction of image intensifiers, night glasses were the only method of night vision, and thus were widely utilized, especially at sea. Second World War era night glasses usually had a lens diameter of 56 mm or more with magnification of seven or eight. Major drawbacks of night glasses are their large size and weight.

Active infrared

Imaging results with and without active-infrared.

Active infrared night vision combines infrared illumination of spectral range 700nm–1000nm – just below the visible spectrum of the human eye – with CCD cameras sensitive to this light. The resulting scene, which is apparently dark to a human observer, appears as a monochrome image on a normal display device.[4]

Because active infrared night vision systems can incorporate illuminators that produce high levels of infrared light, the resulting images are typically higher resolution than other night vision technologies.[5][6] Active infrared night vision is now commonly found in commercial, residential and government security applications, where it enables effective night time imaging under low light conditions. However, since active infrared light can be detected by night vision goggles, it is generally not used in tactical military operations.

Laser range gated imaging

Laser range gated imaging is another form of active night vision which utilizes the use of a high powered pulsed light source for illumination and imaging. Range gating is a technique which controls the laser pulses in conjunction with the shutter speed of the camera's detectors[7]. Gated imaging technology can be divided into single shot, where the detector captures the image from a single light pulse to multi-shot, where the detector integrates the light pulses from multiple shots to form an image.

One of the key advantages of this technique is the ability to perform target recognition as opposed to detection with thermal imaging.

Thermal vision

Thermal imaging cameras are excellent tools for night vision. They perceive thermal radiation and do not need a source of illumination. They produce an image in the darkest of nights and can see through light fog, rain and smoke. Thermal imaging cameras make small temperature differences visible. Thermal imaging cameras are widely used to complement new or existing security networks. See Thermographic camera.

Image intensifier

The image intensifier is a vacuum-tube based device that converts visible light from an image so that a dimly lit scene can be viewed by a camera or the naked eye. While many believe the light is "amplified," it is not. When IR light strikes a charged photocathode plate, electrons are emitted through a vacuum tube that strike the microchannel plate that cause the image screen to illuminate with a picture in the same pattern as the IR light that strikes the photocathode, and is on a frequency that the human eye can see. This is much like a CRT television, but instead of color guns the photocathode does the emitting.

The image is said to become "intensified" because the output visible light is brighter than the incoming IR light, and this effect directly relates to the difference in passive and active night vision goggles. Currently, the most popular image intensifier is the drop-in ANVIS module, though many other models and sizes are available at the market.

Night vision devices

A night vision device (NVD) is a device comprising an IR image intensifier tube in a rigid casing, commonly used by military forces. Lately night vision technology has become more widely available for civilian use, for example night vision filming and photography, night life observation, marine navigation and security. Some car manufacturers install portable night vision cameras on their vehicles.

A specific type of NVD, the night vision goggle (or NVG) is a night vision device with dual eyepieces; the device can utilize either one intensifier tube with the same image sent to both eyes, or a separate image intensifier tube for each eye. Night vision goggle combined with magnification lenses constitutes night vision binoculars. Other types include monocular night vision devices with only one eyepiece which may be mounted to firearms as night sights.

Automotive night vision

See also


External links


Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiversity

Night vision is the ability to see in (relative) darkness. All natural vision involves reception of some light by the eye. This is true even in the dark; vision is possible only when light is present. Often, what appears to be total darkness is not the absence of light but rather the poor reception of available light. To see well in the dark, humans either enhance reception of limited available light, or provide more light.


Light in the dark

Many techniques and technologies for improving night vision involve reception of certain frequency bands (colors) of light. These frequency bands include:

  • infrared light (heat)
  • red light
  • soft ultraviolet (UV) light (also known as blacklight)

Infrared light

A deer's pelt is insulating, keeping the animal warm and limiting the amount of IR light emitted; the eyes and mouth, uninsulated, glow with IR light

Because the human eye does not detect IR light, our visual detection of this light requires some kind of electronic imaging device. Many military and civilian SAR helicopters are equipped with forward looking infra red (FLIR)[1] devices.

Infrared (IR) imaging is used to search for clues that are expected to have a temperature far above ambient. Thus IR imaging is used most often at night (when ambient temperatures are lower) but also may be used in daylight, especially in cold weather. IR-detectable clues include hot engines, campfires, and live subjects. IR imaging cannot detect a clue that is not above ambient temperature, due to lack of contrast between clue and background. Thus, IR imaging may be ineffective during early night in hot deserts, and when the subject is under cover, dressed in heavy winter clothes, or deceased.

Red light

Spectra of the three human photopsins (red, green, and blue) and of human rhodopsin (dashed)

In humans, the rod cells that provide normal night vision are not sensitive to red light. Thus, a source of red light (such as a flashlight with a red filter) can be used to provide sufficient light for the cone cells without "blinding" the rod cells.

Black light

Scorpion under black light

Scorpions appear black in daylight but under black light they glow blue. Black light flashlights are used to find scorpions in the wild.

Airman Battle Uniform

Humans normally do not glow under black light, but often our clothing does. Most laundry detergents contain optical brighteners[2], fluorescent dyes that absorb black light and emit blue light. These dyes make clothing appear brighter under daylight; under black light, they glow (fluoresce[3]) blue. Black light may be used at night to search for a subject's clothing. Because these dyes are in most laundry detergents, even in those labeled "no dyes", it may be not helpful to ask the subject's household members what brand of laundry detergent they use. Shining a black light on a sample of the subject's clothing may be helpful.

In 2007, the United States Air Force distributed laundry instructions for camouflage uniforms that included the instruction to use no detergents containing these dyes.[4] The Air Force later rescinded this instruction on the ground that research by the US Army found the effect was not important in the context of military combat.[5]

Because horses' eyes are highly receptive for blue light, the combination of black light flashlights and mounted SAR field teams may be particularly effective.

Seeing in the dark

Reception of limited available light can be enhanced by using advanced technology and/or ancient behaviors most widely used by trackers and hunters.

  • electronics
Scene viewed through an image intensifier
  • larger lenses: animals with very large eyes (eyeballs) tend to have very large lenses. Thus, horses have far better night vision than humans do. Humans can enhance their own night vision by using binoculars or scopes with lenses of very large diameter. All else being equal, due to the high cost of manufacturing large high quality lenses, these devices are far more expensive than others.
A night scope mounted on a military weapon
  • rods instead of cones
  • peripheral instead of central vision
Left eye field of view
Left eye scene on retina (simulation)

Human dog horse

Human vs dog

External links

  • Wikipedia: eye


  1. Why is the US military not concerned about dyes on camouflage uniforms? Because the effect of these dyes occurs only when illuminated with black light, and for combat use artificial illumination has limited tactical advantage and greater tactical disadvantage.
  1. Does this lack of concern mean black light is not useful for SAR? Why? No, because for SAR black light illumination has more tactical advantages than disadvantages.


  1. Wikipedia: Forward looking infrared
  2. Wikipedia: Optical brightener
  3. Wikipedia: Fluorescence
  4. Optical brightners make ABUs dangerously easy to see, Vandenberg Air Force Base, 24 August 2007
  5. Airmen can use regular detergent on ABUs, Air Force Link, 21 May 2008
The Night vision module is a stub. You can help Wikiversity by expanding it.

Simple English

Night vision is being able to see in the dark. Some animals, like cats, have natural night vision - they can see in the dark without any help. Humans do not have good night vision. If there is not enough light to see well, a human may need a night vision device such as night vision goggles to help them see.

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