Photothermal measurements with an infrared camera enable a fast and contactless part inspection. The main drawback of existing reconstruction methods is the degradation of the spatial resolution with increasing imaging depth, which results in blurred images for deeper lying structures. In this paper, we propose an efficient image reconstruction strategy that allows prior information to be included to overcome the diffusion-based information loss. Following the virtual wave concept, in a first step we reconstruct an acoustic wave field that satisfies the standard wave equation. Therefore, in the second step, stable and efficient reconstruction methods developed for photoacoustic tomography can be used. We compensate for the loss of information in thermal measurements by incorporating the prior information positivity and sparsity. Therefore, we combine circular projections with an iterative regularization scheme. Using simulated and experimental data, this work demonstrates that the quality of the reconstruction from photothermal measurements can be significantly enhanced.