Transforming Temperature Into Light with a Thermal Camera

Two images of the noonday sun above 47th Street, Oakland, CA. Left: Seek Thermal camera image. Right: iPhone. 2016
Two images of the noonday sun above 47th Street, Oakland, CA. Left: Seek Thermal camera image. Right: iPhone. 2016

The thermal camera is the fourth in my series of extra-sensory cameras (after underwater, micro, and trail cam), and it comes closest to actually extending the senses: you can literally see something that would otherwise require the sense of touch.

About Thermal Imaging

A thermal camera, also called a thermographic or thermal imaging camera, is a heat-sensing camera that picks up infrared radiation invisible to the eye.

The camera transforms the temperature data into a heat-mapped image. The colors displayed are all false: they serve as arbitrary codes for differing temperatures.

 For example, this temperature reading of the sun uses black as hot and white as cold. It shows the sun at 626 degrees Fahrenheit (actual temp 27 million degrees) in a sixteen-degree sky.

Only a few years ago, thermal images required a stand-alone industrial thermal imaging camera, which cost thousands of dollars.

Seek Thermal Camera

My father asked me what I wanted for Christmas a couple of years ago. I suggested we share a Seek Thermal camera as we have shared the Bushnell trail cam. He could use it to make the house more energy efficient (e.g., identifying leaky windows) and then send it to me.

The Seek Thermal Camera in its Carrying Case
The Seek Thermal Camera in its Carrying Case

The camera’s resolution is very low. Few things besides people, animals, and architecture are distinct. In the photo below, yellow is mapped to the hottest temperatures and blue–the cat’s nose–the coldest.

Brian and his Mom's cat Bella, Phoenix, AZ. Taken with Seek Thermal sensor, 2015.
Brian and Bella, Phoenix, AZ. Taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2015.

It takes a while to get used to looking at thermal images, and extreme temperature plus changes in body temperature are good places to start.

This animated GIF of three photos shows an empty hand before holding an ice cube, a hand holding an ice cube, and the cold, empty, ice-imprinted hand in the cube’s aftermath.

Animated GIF with the following three sequential images: Normal human hand, hand holding an ice cube, and hand that's still cold after the ice cube was removed.
Animated GIF with the following three sequential images: Normal human hand, hand holding an ice cube, and hand that’s still cold after the ice cube was removed. Taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2016

Like my experience with the micro lens, I’d had the camera for some time without pushing myself to find interesting subjects. I was excited to devote some energy to the effort.

Bathing Rituals through the Thermal Camera’s Lens

For shower and bath scenes, I set up the camera such that the neutral temperatures would be black and white and only extreme temperatures are shown.

The Bath

Through the lens of the thermal camera, the hot water glowed a beautiful gold.

A hot bath. Taken with Seek Thermal sensor, 2016.
A hot bath. Taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2016.

From inside the lava-like waters, I warmed one foot and kept the other cold.

Warming one foot while inside the bathtub. Taken with Seek Thermal sensor, 2016.
Warming one foot while inside the bathtub. Taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2016.

After a couple of hours, the bottom of the cast-iron tub had heated up too.

Me in a hot bath. Taken with Seek Thermal sensor, 2016. Photo by Brian Brooks.
Me in a hot bath. Taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2016. Photo by Brian Brooks.

In darkness, what I saw through the camera was reality, and that’s how I remember it: lying in a cauldron of liquid light.

The Shower

I start out with a red and yellow body (hot) and turn on the cold tap in attempt to get all of the color/heat off of my skin.

Animated GIF of cold shower removing heat from the body. Black and red are the hottest. Taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2016. Photos by Brian Brooks.
Cold removing heat from the body. Black and red are the hottest. Animated GIF taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2016. Photos by Brian Brooks.

I ended up cooled down except for my eye sockets. Then I turned on the hot water and the red returned.

Animated GIF of hot shower, where black and red are the hottest. Taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2016. Photos by Brian Brooks.
Hot shower, where black and red are the hottest. Animated GIF taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2016. Photos by Brian Brooks.

The hot water warmed up my hair and front, but my back was still cold.

Melting a Ball of Ice with my Bare Hands

I set up the camera on a tripod with a mirror so I could watched myself melt a ball of ice with my hands in real time. It took about twenty minutes for the ice to melt.

Animated GIF of me melting a ball of ice with my hands. Taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2016.
Melting a ball of ice with my hands. Animated GIF taken with Seek Thermal camera, 2016.

At first it was numbing, but it quickly became a ball of pain. Though I took breaks to prevent frostbite, I don’t think I would have been able to stand the ice if it hadn’t been for its beautiful purple color,  and how easy and fun it was to change the colors of my hands and arms.

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Another view of my hands melting the ice. Seek Thermal camera and iPhone record thermal images. Photo by Brian Brooks

When I’d look down at my real arms, they seemed fake. The stripes and prints of pain were invisible. The thermal camera told the truth about what was most important.

All Photos by Emily Wick unless otherwise noted