As part of our documentary “The Tigers of Scotland“, we’ve spent three weeks in the wild searching for the elusive Scottish Wildcat. Whilst we had found plenty of evidence of their existence in the area, we had yet to actually spot the creature itself. We quickly realised that to stand much chance of finding them, we needed some very special kit – a thermal camera.
You may have seen Gordon Buchanan’s section in Planet Earth 2 about the leopards in Mumbai, and the stunning thermal imagery he captured. Doing some research, it appears that the camera he utilised is not commercially available, but is actually military technology. Without the BBC’s untouchable budgets, we needed to find alternatives.
For our second expedition we investigated hiring a thermal camera, as this would of course be more affordable than simply buying one outright. Whilst there are plenty of industrial thermal cameras available – those that detect electrics, heating, plumbing, piping, insulation etc – these are typically very short range and are not suitable for tracking and filming wildlife for instance.
Fortunately, models exist that are designed for just this, and eventually we discovered a site that purportedly hired them out. Unfortunatley, their hire procedure was so convoluted and their communications were so poor that, despite attempting to book the camera a month in advance, we had already been on our expedition – and only two days before we were due to return did we get a response that we would be unable to hire the camera!
For our third expedition, we realised that if we were to stand any chance at getting our hands on a thermal camera, we simply needed to bite the bullet and get one ourselves. The Helion XP50 is the latest and greatest thermal camera available from Pulsar and is arguably the best thermal camera commercially available. Brand new, we were extremely fortunate to get hold of one from the first batch in the country from Scott Country – on the day our expedition began!
With a resolution of 640×480, the thermal sensor (called a microbolometer) is the highest resolution thermal camera available – Gordon’s military tech not withstanding (which, despite Planet Earth 2 being shot in 4K, his thermal camera was only HD). Furthermore, his camera was computer controlled and liquid cooled, meaning it isn’t particularly portable. The Helion on the other hand, weighs only 500g and fits in your pocket, ideal for scouting in the wilderness.
Having this camera at our disposal was simply invaluable. Capable of spotting a man sized target at 1800m distance, we were able to scan forests, fields and distant hills for any signs of wildlife, day or night. It’s quite incredible to watch the darkness descend and your eyes fail to see anything at all, and yet observe deer and rabbits emerge from seemingly nowhere to graze under the cover of night. The camera easily picks up small birds, mice and voles and, to our surprise, even bumblebees! We were able to spot the heat signature of a wildcat four times in less than twenty four hours – two of which were in daytime and all of which would have gone completely unnoticed and evaded detection without the camera.
The XP50 model sports a 50mm f/1.2 lens for the largest image magnification and furthest detection range. This has the equivalent field of view as a 166mm lens on a full frame DSLR or a 114mm lens on a Super 35 cinema camera or similar crop sensor/APS-C DSLR. And for the techies amongst you, paired with the fast f/1.2 lens, the sensor has absolutely huge pixels for maximum light detection: the incredibly popular low light camera, the Sony A7Sii has very large pixels at 8µm (microns/micrometers) in size. The Helion XP50’s pixels are more than double the size, at a whopping 17µm each!
The battery is the other standout impressive feature of this bit of kit. The standard battery pack lasts 8-10 hours which, for a specialist bit of kit such as this, is surprising. The camera has a very low power draw, even with Wi-Fi turned on. Whilst I’m sure it would use some additional power, it doesn’t noticeably drain the battery when live streaming to a phone for instance. Having this ability though is fantastic. Our setup was to mount the Helion on top of one of our regular cameras on a tripod; we could then pan around, scanning for activity – and if anything glows, the regular cameras are already pointing in the right direction. The other person can not only monitor the thermal image feed in realtime on their mobile phone, but control the camera and all it’s settings wirelessly too.
Charging the battery can be done directly whilst attached to the camera or separately with a mini battery plate charger – both of which are USB powered. One point to note though, is that it takes about as long to charge as it does discharge – namely, all day! The USB cable is also used for data transfer – the camera is capable of taking still images or recording video, something that in the past was only possible via an external recorder. Furthermore, the screen has a refresh rate of 50Hz meaning video recordings have a natural motion and are not or juddery in any way, plus prevents any eye fatigue unlike other cameras with a refresh rate of only 9Hz. Think of it as watching a video in 50fps and a video in 9fps, the former is clearly going to be smoother than the latter!
Using the USB cable for data transfer however is perhaps the biggest drawback of the camera. The USB port on the camera is recessed to prevent the cable being bent or snapped accidentally – the port is inside where the hand strap attaches. Whilst the connector itself is a standard micro USB, the head of the cable is a custom shape – and so only the cable that comes with the camera will fit. Data transfer is limited to USB 2.0 speeds which, in the year 2017 seems slow. One partial solution would be to have designed the camera with the USB port outside the hand strap, significantly reducing the risk of damaging the port or connected cable. The better design choice would simply have been to have included removable storage, namely an SD card. Readily and affordably available in all manner of speeds and capacities, it would solve all of the above issues. Perhaps we’ll see this in the next model, as unfortunately the current design isn’t something that can be fixed with a firmware upgrade. As a workaround, it is possible to download recorded files from the camera on to a wirelessly connected mobile phone.
Any shortcomings with the camera are few and far between, plus are only minor hinderances. If you don’t plan on powering the camera via USB whilst in use (such as from a powerbank) or are not needing the camera for filming but only scouting, you won’t be affected by theses issues. On balance, having such a small, high performance package that records internally and streams wirelessly clearly puts the Helion leagues above all other competition and is clearly the ideal choice for wildlife tracking and thermal filming.
After our attempt at trying to hire a thermal camera with no success and lots of frustration, we have decided to make ours available for hire, precluding others from suffering the same experience! For more information about hiring the camera, please take a look at the XP50 product page in the hire section of our site.