Is Side Imaging Worth The Extra Money? (Here’s What You Need To Know)

PUBLISHED 31 JULY 2022

by Robert Ceran

Are you wondering whether you really need a fish finder with side imaging, and if side imaging is worth the extra cost?

When I first started using fish finders, side imaging wasn’t available yet, so I know what it’s like to use sonar without it.

But after I switched to using fish finders with side imaging, I never wanted to go back again, since I don’t want to miss out on the benefits of side imaging, and I’ll tell you why below. 

Is side imaging worth it

In this article I’ll walk you through the key benefits of side imaging, to help you understand what side imaging can do for you, and how much it will cost you.

Is side imaging really worth it?

Yes, side imaging is absolutely worth it, as it allows you to scan large areas of water in search of fish holding structure, bottom transitions, schools of fish, or even individual game fish.

And while side imaging isn’t absolutely essential to find good fishing spots, it really helps to speed up the process of finding them, and is therefore well worth the extra money required for a side imaging fish finder.

What is side imaging on a fish finder?

Side imaging is a sonar technology that scans large areas of water on both sides of a boat, by using a side imaging transducer designed to shoot two sonar cones sideways from each side of the transducer, with the sonar waves pointed downward at a shallow angle.

Different fish finder brands use slightly different terminology when referring to side imaging. For example, Humminbird calls it side imaging, Lowrance calls it side scan, and Garmin calls it sidevu, but in each case they’re talking about the same thing. 

What is side scan sonar used for?

Side scan sonar is most often used to scan large areas of lakes, rivers, or coastal waters for bottom structure that is likely to hold fish. In addition, it can also be used to find schools of baitfish, as well as game fish.

The great thing about side imaging is that it has a maximum range of up to 200 feet on either side of your boat, thus allowing you to scan a total of about 400 feet of bottom structure with your sonar.

How important is side imaging on a fish finder?

While side imaging is not essential on a fish finder, it’s extremely helpful to have, as it allows you to rapidly scan large areas of bottom in search of fish holding structure, and so is definitely worth the extra cost.

And although you can definitely also find these structures without side imaging, it’ll take you a lot longer, since you need to drive your boat right over the structure in order to see it with 2D sonar or down imaging. This fact alone makes side imaging well worth getting. 

Advantages of side imaging

The key advantage of side imaging is that it allows you to scan large areas of lake bottom in order to find fish holding structures such as rock piles, drop offs, brush piles, laydowns, standing timber, and so on. 

After you find promising structures with side imaging, you can then investigate them more closely with other types of sonar (such as 2D sonar and down imaging), in order to get a detailed view of the fish holding in these spots. 

Do you need a side imaging fish finder?

While you don’t absolutely need a side imaging fish finder, side imaging is extremely helpful for finding fish holding structures much faster than without it. If you only have traditional 2D sonar (or down imaging), you need to be right on top of the structure in order to see it on your fish finder. 

In other words, without side imaging it’s easy to miss fish holding structures that are just a few feet to either side of your boat, since these areas are not covered by the downward pointed sonar cones of your 2D or down imaging sonar.

And so, while you can definitely catch fish without side imaging, you’ll catch a lot more with it, which makes side imaging well worth it.

How much does a side imaging fish finder cost?

Currently, the cheapest side imaging fish finders will set you back about 500 dollars, and if you want additional features, such as mapping, fish reveal functionality, or live sonar, that can cost you a lot more. 

Here are the current prices of some of the most popular side imaging fish finders:

  • Garmin Striker Vivid 7sv: $500
  • Lowrance HOOK Reveal 7 TripleShot (GPS only): $460
  • Humminbird Helix 7 CHIRP SI GPS: $500
  • Lowrance HOOK Reveal 7 (with C-Maps): $680
  • Humminbird Helix 7 MEGA SI GPS G3: $900

The latter two units come with mapping functionality, which means you can make use of lake maps in addition to side imaging in order to find the best fishing spots.

Another thing to note is that all of the units listed above come with CHIRP sonar plus down imaging, which means you get a full array of the most important sonar technologies to help you find fish.

If you compare these prices to the cheapest fish finders without side imaging, you’ll see that the extra cost for side imaging functionality is about 200 to 300 dollars, depending on the specific model. And based on the benefits you’ll get from side imaging, I’d say the extra cost is well worth it.

Can you see fish on side imaging?

While it’s possible to see fish on side imaging, fish usually don’t show up very prominently when viewed with side imaging. Even relatively large fish over 1 foot long are quite easy to miss with side imaging, especially if you’re a beginner. 

But when you do see fish on side imaging, they show up as dense bright spots that are accompanied by a dark shadow on the far side of the fish. Similarly, if there is a school of baitfish, this usually shows up as a group of small bright spots, plus a corresponding group of shadows behind them.

But keep in mind that the real strength of side imaging lies in its ability to scan for fish holding structure with a high degree of accuracy, and that it’s best to look for fish with other types of sonar after you’ve found the structure with side imaging. 

Does side imaging work sitting still?

No, side imaging doesn’t really work sitting still, since it requires movement in order to paint a sonar image of the bottom structure after you pass over it. If you sit still, the sonar beam will still shoot out and create a return that is displayed on your fish finder, but this will just look like a bunch of straight lines, since the boat is not moving. 

How far does side imaging work?

The maximum range of side imaging is about 240 feet on each side, but the highest quality images are generated at distances under 150 to 200 feet on each side. But since you get the same range on the other side of the boat, that gives you between 300 and 400 feet of water that you can scan with side imaging at the same time. 

Needless to say, this makes side imaging the most powerful type of sonar for identifying fish holding bottom structure that you would miss otherwise, even if you pass just a few feet to the side of it. 

Does side imaging work in shallow water?

Yes, side imaging actually works better in shallow water than in deep water. This is because side imaging generates a structure scan of the bottom to either side of your boat, and this is only possible in water that’s less than 100 feet deep, and works best in water less than 50 feet deep.

The reason for this is that side imaging sonar beams shoot out sideways at a shallow downward angle, and are unable to penetrate all the way to the bottom in deep water. So the best depth for side imaging is between 5 and 50 feet, which is ideal for most freshwater anglers, as well as many inshore saltwater anglers.

Another thing to keep in mind is that side imaging uses high frequency sonar wavelengths of 455, 800, or even 1200 kHz. And while these high frequencies are great for generating highly detailed sonar returns, they don’t penetrate very well into deep water, which contributes to the fact that side imaging works better in shallow water.

Should you get side imaging or down imaging?

In general, it’s best to have both side imaging and down imaging on your fish finder, as they perform complementary sonar functions, and work very well in combination. Also, since side imaging and down imaging do very different things, they can’t replace each other.

However, if you had to choose just one option out of the two, then I would suggest getting down imaging, since it gives you an extremely detailed view of what’s right underneath your boat, which is essential when you’re fishing on top of structure.

Side imaging, on the other hand, can help you to find potential fish holding structures very fast, but it doesn’t help you to get a detailed view of those structures when they’re right underneath your boat.

Who makes the best side imaging fish finder?

Most anglers agree that Humminbird units with MEGA side imaging are currently the best side imaging fish finders on the market. Humminbird MEGA imaging uses megahertz sonar in the 1200 kHz range to generate extremely high resolution images, making their MEGA side imaging among the most accurate and detailed you can get.

However, recently Garmin has been catching up with Humminbird, especially since the release of their Ultra High Definition (UHD) SideVu sonar, which also uses megahertz imaging, and is almost as good as Humminbird MEGA side imaging.

So if you’re looking for the best side imaging fish finder, then I would recommend a Humminbird unit with MEGA side imaging, or a Garmin unit with UHD SideVu functionality. 

What fish finders have side imaging and down imaging?

As a general rule, any fish finder with side imaging also has down imaging functionality, while the converse is not always true.

For example, the Lowrance HOOK Reveal TripleShot comes with 2D sonar, down imaging, and side imaging, while the HOOK Reveal SplitShot only has 2D sonar and down imaging, but not side imaging.

So if you want to get a fish finder with both side imaging and down imaging, look for a unit with side imaging.

An example of this would be any Humminbird Helix units that have “SI” in their name, which stands for side imaging (such as the Helix 7 CHIRP SI GPS), as all of these units also have down imaging.

In the case of  Garmin, look for units that have “sv” at the of their name, which stands for SideVu (such as the Garmin Striker 7sv), and in the case of Lowrance, look for HOOK2 or HOOK Reveal units with TripleShot, or any HDS or Elite units.

Finally, keep in mind that you’ll also need to get a transducer that has both side imaging and down imaging capabilities in order to use both of these sonar technologies on the same unit.

Alternatively, you may be able to run two transducers in parallel to achieve the same result, though it’s usually a lot easier to go with an all-in-one transducer option. 

Final remarks

This concludes our article on whether fish finder side imaging is worth it. Hopefully this will help you decide if side imaging is worth it for your specific fishing situation. Tight lines and see you on the water!