Astronomy is an exciting hobby! It ignites our curiosity of the fascinating universe around us. Unfortunately buying your first telescope can be an extremely complicated task. You can easily find yourself lost in technical jargon and endless options available. Beginner shoppers often jump into buying an unsuitable telescope, get frustrated trying to use it and eventually even give up on pursuing astronomy all together. The following guide explains everything you need to know before buying your first telescope. We’ve also short-listed our Top 3 Telescopes for beginners, enthusiasts and amateur astronomers.
Should I Buy a Telescope, Spotting Scope or Binoculars?
Some people want to buy a telescope for watching the stars as well as watching the neighbour next door. While this is a nice thought unfortunately it is not a practical one! Before deciding on what to buy, think about what you are interested in viewing the most:
Telescope – Telescopes are designed for night viewing. They have unique optics and light gathering capabilities that allow us to view objects in complete darkness. They lack the ability to properly view objects during daytime. If you are mainly interested in astronomy then buy a telescope otherwise buy a spotting scope or binoculars.
Spotting Scope – A spotting scope is a smaller telescope specifically designed for terrestrial viewing (land viewing). It is a powerful instrument yet portable and perfect for watching distant subjects on land or at sea. Spotting scopes are commonly used by birdwatchers, hunters and nature observers. If you are more interested in viewing objects on land or sea then you should consider a spotting scope. You can refer to our guide on how to choose a spotting scope.
Binoculars – A good pair of full-sized binoculars (10×50 and above) can be used for both daytime viewing as well as stargazing and amateur astronomy. Binoculars are an excellent option if you are just starting out with astronomy. In many cases they are better than telescopes. Binoculars are easier to carry out to the field and easier to use or share with others. They provide a wider field of view than telescopes and can also be used for a variety of outdoor activities. If this sounds like you then refer to our guide on how to choose astronomy binoculars.
What is the MOST Important Feature in a Telescope?
The #1 feature of any telescope is: Aperture. Aperture is the diameter of the telescope’s main optical component (consisting of either a lens or mirror). The larger the aperture is the more light comes in the telescope and the brighter your image will be. A telescope’s function is to simply enhance the light of the moon, stars and galaxies thus allowing us to see them in the dark. With a large aperture you will be able to see more stars and see them more clearly. When we look at the stars with our naked eye we can only see the brightest ones. This is because our pupil acts as a very small “lens” and can only gather very little light.
Is the Biggest Aperture the Best Choice for Me?
Not necessarily. While a bigger aperture will result in a brighter and better image it will also mean that your telescope will be larger, heavier and normally more expensive. Even more important than aperture is where you will be using your telescope the most.
Where Will I be Using My Telescope?
Effective astronomy requires viewing from a dark location. If your backyard, out on the farm, is completely dark with no artificial light around then you can choose a large and bulky telescope. If you need to travel to a darker location (which is the case for many of us) then you should consider the portability of your telescope. Many high-end telescopes can be extremely large and can require a-lot of time and experience to setup properly. If only the thought of setting up a huge telescope in the dark makes you shiver then buy a smaller, more user-friendly one to start with. You might find that you will use it much more often.
How Much Magnification Do I Need?
This is a common misconception when shopping for telescopes! In fact magnification should hardly be a consideration when buying a telescope. As we mentioned before aperture should be your main consideration. If you have a small aperture then you will see a darker image. More magnification will only make that dark image bigger. The same as if you were looking at a low quality computer screen. If you zoom into the screen you will only see a grainier picture.
High magnification also means you will see a narrow piece of the sky so unless you are watching deep space with a large commercial telescope magnification is NOT an important feature. Also note that a magnification of a telescope can be increased or decreased by switching eye pieces. Some vendors will try to promote a low quality telescope by stating that it has a high magnification. Beware of these type of offers! The telescope will usually have either a small aperture or a very poor optical quality.
What Type of Telescope Should I Choose?
There are 3 basic types of telescopes: Refractor, Reflector and Cassegrain. A Refractor telescope uses lenses, a Reflector uses mirrors and a Cassegrain uses both.
A Refractor telescope is what most people think of when imagining how a telescope looks like. It is a long, gleaming tube with a large lens at one end and an eyepiece at the other. This is the most common type of telescope. A Refractor telescope can provide the finest images attainable for a given aperture. It is also the most expensive option when considering price vs. aperture.
A Reflector telescope uses mirrors instead of lenses. Because mirrors are cheaper to make than lenses it is a better option when considering price vs. aperture. When well made a reflector can provide sharp, contrasty images at a small fraction of the cost of an equal-aperture refractor. A Reflector will also be much smaller in length than a Refractor of the same aperture. So basically a more portable telescope and better value for money.
What is The Best Type of Telescope for Beginners?
A particular type of Reflector is known as the Dobsonian telescope. These extremely popular instruments are available in apertures from 20cm to more than 76cm. They represent the ultimate in observer convenience for casual viewing. We believe that a Dobsonian telescope is the most suitable for beginners for the following reasons:
- Relatively cheap compared to other types of telescope
- Totally manual and incredibly easy to use
- No setting up apart from moving it to your observing area
- Big light gathering ability, so you can view many different objects
- Fun and perfect for the beginner and advanced astronomer alike
The Celestron FirstScope for example is our most recommended model for a beginner astronomer. It is compact yet powerful, requires no setup and can easily be carried to any dark rural location by either foot or car. It features a bright, clear image which is remarkable for being an entry-level telescope. And at $189 it is also very affordable!
Do I Need to Setup, Adjust and Maintain My Telescope?
Some telescopes require more maintenance than others. When buying a telescope you should consider your experience level as well as how easy it is to setup, use and maintain it. Some people jump into buying an expensive telescope only to find out that they are unable to use it properly or can’t be bothered maintaining it. Remember, a good telescope is one that you will enjoy taking out and using regularly.
Both Refractor and Dobsonian telescopes for example are the easiest ones to use and do not need much adjusting. Always make sure that you read carefully through your telescope’s product description. Telescopes which are more suitable for beginners will typically state it on their product description.
Our Top 3 Telescopes for Beginners and Amateur Astronomers (2017)
Here at Procular we are always passionate about testing, studying and reviewing all of our telescopes and optics. Below are our top pick telescopes for beginners, hobbyist or amateur astronomers:
Celestron FirstScope 76mm Dobsonian Telescope
Current Price: $189
Celestron’s 76mm Dobsonian Telescope is in our opinion one of the best, if not the best beginners telescopes available. The massive benefit is that this telescope has basically no setup time apart from needing to cool down for several minutes when outside. It is very small and portable. A beginner can place it on a table, garden table, stand, chair, wall or any surface he chooses and start using it straight away. No messing around, aligning or setting up.
Once in use the Celestron 76mm Telescope provides superb optical quality. The Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Andromeda Galaxy, Orion Nebula and a host of other objects are easily visible to beginners with this telescope.
It is perfect for starting out with astronomy or for getting your kids into it. It comes fully assembled in the box and includes everything you need to get stargazing right away! The mount is compact yet very stable and easy to use. It also includes two additional eyepieces to help you get started.
Overall the Celestron FirstScope 76mm Telescope is a great choice as a first telescope as well as for more advanced users. Although its compact size and remarkably affordable price this Reflector telescope is very powerful and delivers an excellent image quality. Currently discounted and available for $189 inc. free delivery
National Geographic AZ 60/700 Refractor Telescope
Current Price: $349
An all time favourite telescope for amateur astronomy. The National Geographic AZ 60/700 is a simple Refractor telescope but proves to produce an excellent view of the moon and stars every time. This entry-level telescope by National Geographic is one of our best sellers because of its ease of use, good optical quality and affordable price.
The National Geographic AZ 60/700 telescope comes with its own tripod and bag as well as all the necessary add-ons to get you started right away (astronomy software, easy operating instructions, view finder, additional eye-pieces etc.). Overall this model is great value for money and a perfect choice if you are looking to buy your first telescope or a gift to someone.
Currently available for $349 inc. free delivery
National Geographic 114mm Reflector Telescope
Current Price: $499
For those who want a higher-end telescope but within a sensible price range we strongly recommend the National Geographic 114/900 Reflector Telescope. Its generous 114 mm aperture will allow you to clearly see planets within our solar system as well as far-off galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.
This telescopes features high quality optics and provides a sharp, crystal clear image of the night sky. The mount is solid and stable thus reducing vibrations to even further enhance the viewing experience. Its bright, high contrast images also make it the ideal telescope for viewing faint objects like the Andromeda galaxy, large open star clusters and vast emission nebulae in our own milky way.
Also included with the NG 114 Reflector Telescope are three additional eye-pieces, view finder, tripod and manual. Overall this is an excellent choice as both a 1st telescope or for someone who is serious about astronomy.
Currently available for $499 inc. free delivery