The Best Telescope For Beginners
Buying a telescope is an important first step towards a new world of appreciation for the night sky, and the wonders found within it. I was once in this position myself, and I found the number of options and telescope types overwhelming.
On this page, I’ll give you my honest advice for the best telescope for beginners. Why should you listen to me?
Because the telescope I’m recommending for beginners is the one that propelled my interest in astronomy and the night sky into a life-altering addiction. (known as AstroBackyard)
I’ll warn you right now, this purchase may end up being a gateway into the world of astrophotography.
The most important aspect of choosing a telescope is to ensure that you buy an instrument that nurtures your desire to observe and enjoy the night sky. A poor user experience may hinder your enjoyment of the hobby overall, so be wary of the cheap telescopes that deliver underwhelming results. Stick to the advice I am about to give you.
The most important features of the telescope you need to understand are:
- optical design (reflector, refractor, catadioptric)
- aperture (size of the mirror/objective lens)
- focal length (native magnification)
- focal ratio (ability to gather light)
- user experience (collimation, weight, mount)
A Telescope for Beginners – Some Honest Advice
The first telescope I ever looked through was a cheap, wobbly department store telescope. I was offered to take a look at the moon and was completely underwhelmed. The view was so blurry and shaky, I made the assumption that this was the kind of experience I would get if I purchased my own telescope.
Unfortunately, this experience delayed my interest in astronomy for years. I aim to not let this experience repeat itself with anyone else.
The enjoyment I experience from observing the night sky and sharing it with others has changed my life. Astronomy has enriched my life by exposing me to another level of appreciation for the Universe and our place within it. A telescope can open this window.
There are more quality telescopes available than ever. It all comes down to your budget and your expectations and needs. For example, a modest Newtonian reflector (About $250) will provide incredible views of the Solar system, and even a number of galaxies and nebulae.
Chances are, the beginning stages of your quest for a new telescope have you searching the web for deals, and reading reviews. Buying your first telescope can be a pivotal moment that could enrich your life with a new hobby if you have a positive first experience! Reading actual reviews from telescope owners that have spent time with the equipment under various real-life conditions is the absolute best way to make your decision.
I remember when I went searching the internet for the “best telescope for beginners” back in 2010. There was a sea of information and technical specifications. I ended up making an excellent choice and had I not bought that Orion SkyQuest Dobsonian to start with, who knows if I would have developed the passion for astronomy I have today.
Since then, I have owned several telescopes of all kinds. Refractors, Newtonian Reflectors, Dobsonians, a Ritchey-Chrétien and more. With my primary focus lying in astrophotography these days, I enjoy a nice Apochromatic refractor such as the William Optics Z61.
However, if this is your first telescope, it’s important to first decide where your primary interests lie before making a final decision.
The above image shows my 8 Inch Orion Newtonian Reflector telescope on the Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Mount. An 8″ Reflector like this has enough light-gathering ability to show impressive details of planets, as well as many deep-sky galaxies and nebulae. A tracking mount like the HEQ5 is not necessary for visual use, a Dobsonian mount makes observing a pleasant experience.
Do you want to use the telescope visually, or to take pictures?
I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of astronomy newcomers are quite interested in doing BOTH! My thought process about this subject was, “These views are amazing, I need to show somebody!” But the truth is, there is nothing like seeing the ‘real thing’ through a telescope visually. I dare you to invoke the same emotion you get by viewing Saturn under clear viewing conditions and a high-powered eyepiece, from a photograph.
The truth is, I appreciate the wonders of our night sky on another level when viewing them in real-time through the eyepiece. Astrophotography is just another creative outlet for me to share my interests with others.
Start with Visual Astronomy!
Before you invest a lot of money in an expensive astrophotography telescope and a “goto” tracking mount, I would make sure that you are ready to experience all aspects of viewing the night sky outside. This means, setting up your equipment, traveling with your gear, aligning and tuning the optics, and understanding how the telescope works. Not to mention, spending time outside in the dark for an extended period of time.
If you have done your homework, buying your first telescope will be an enjoyable experience, with the added comfort of knowing that you made the right choice for your needs. A telescope you feel comfortable using will get the most use.
Choosing the right telescope for your needs
Buying your first telescope can stir up a lot of excitement. You may get “aperture fever” and convince yourself that only an extra large 16″ Dobsonian telescope will do. It’s time to take a step back and understand that a telescope that is very large will take longer to set up, be heavier to carry and cost a lot more money. You need to work your way up to that big light bucket.
I would suggest you start by enjoying visual astronomy through a simple to use, and well-built telescope. This way, you can learn the night sky on your own, and casually experience the joys of stargazing and spending time outside at night.
It is one thing to sit in your comfy computer chair during the day and order a fancy telescope with lots of advanced features, and it is another to actually comfortably use those features in the dark after midnight.
Set a budget for yourself that won’t break the bank. Your first telescope should be of good quality, but you don’t need a top of the line model right away. Make sure to account for extra expenses that come along with the purchase such as eyepieces and filters.
A realistic budget for a quality telescope that will last for years is about $300-400+. You may find cheaper options available online, but I wouldn’t recommend cutting corners on the budget when looking to purchase an optical instrument such as an astronomical telescope.
The good news is, the telescope I recommend for beginners a little further down the post is not much more than that!
Telescopes come in many different optical formats such as reflectors, refractors, and compound telescopes. Each type of telescope has its own strengths and weaknesses. Although I personally favor refractors from an astrophotography perspective, they may not be an ideal choice for a beginner. Newtonian Reflectors offer a much larger aperture at a lower price point.
The telescope’s main light collecting element is known as the objective. In Newtonian reflectors, this is the mirror, and in a refractor, this is the objective lens. A larger objective means more detail and the ability to reveal dimmer targets. The reflector design allows for a larger telescope objective at an affordable price. A refractor of the same size would increase the price dramatically!
Many types of telescope mounts are available, including computerized models that track the movement of the sky. For visual use, a sturdy altazimuth or Dobsonian mount will make stargazing an enjoyable process. Telescopes that are not on a computerized mount shouldn’t move on their own or when adjusting focus.
For astrophotography, an equatorial tracking mount is required. When properly polar aligned, the telescope will track objects in the night sky as the Earth turns. This will essential “freeze” the object in space so that a long exposure photograph can be captured.
The variety of eyepieces available is staggering. They come in a wide variety of magnifications and fields of view. Having a set of telescope eyepieces that allow you to observe large swaths of the night sky as well as high magnification views of planets is ideal. A quality telescope eyepiece can last a lifetime if cared for properly.
Portability and Weight
I would highly suggest a telescope that can be easily transported and set up in a reasonable amount of time. If the setup process is a taxing ordeal, you are less likely to have the motivation to get outside and use it when the clouds finally part at 10 pm on a Saturday night.
When the temperature drops in the winter, you’ll be even less motivated to carry a large, cumbersome telescope out into the backyard. For this reason, advanced amateur astronomers often build home observatories so that they can keep their large telescope set up at all times.
If you have any health issues or cannot lift heavy objects, an extra large telescope and mount is out of the question. You are better off with something smaller and more portable. You will get much more use out of it.
Which telescope offers the best value and experience?
Based on my personal experiences, I can very comfortably suggest an Orion Dobsonian Reflector. This was my first telescope, and it totally knocked my socks off. This window to the heavens provided me with my first views of Jupiter, Saturn, the Orion Nebula and more.
I still remember the summer I bought that first “dob”. I spent every clear night in the backyard studying the moon’s craters, the cloud bands of Jupiter, or trying to find another Messier object. These were some of the most memorable nights of astronomy in my life.
My Top Choice:
If you decide to advance to an astrophotography telescope on a tracking mount down the road, you will still find plenty of uses for a visual performer like this in your inventory. The reason I have chosen the 8-inch model is that it has enough aperture to show more objects and detail in the night sky than smaller instruments.
An 8-inch mirror is the “sweet spot” between aperture and portability. This telescope is large enough for jaw-dropping views, yet small enough to fit in your trunk or back seat. As I mentioned earlier, there are larger versions available as well if you handle the extra weight and size.
What can you see with an 8″ Dobsonian Reflector?
- The Moon
- The Orion Nebula
- The Andromeda Galaxy
- The Great Hercules Cluster
- The Pleiades
- The Eagle Nebula
- The Omega Nebula
- The Lagoon Nebula
- The Dumbbell Nebula
- The Ring Nebula
- Bode’s Galaxy
Just to name a few. The fun part is, you get to actually find these objects in the night sky on your own. Just wait until you see Messier 13 through a telescope for the first time…
Dobsonian mounts make the telescope easy to point at the deep-sky object or planet of your choice. They are strong and sturdy so you can offer views through the eyepiece to family and friends without worry about them damaging your equipment.
The manual control gives you a real sense of being “lost in space”, and makes “star-hopping” under a moonless sky an unforgettable experience. Through your observations sessions, you will begin to learn the constellations and the locations of some of the most impressive deep-sky treasures.
Orion SkyQuest XT8 Dobsonian Specs:
- Optical Design: Reflector
- Focal Length: 1200mm
- Aperture: 203mm
- Focal Ratio: F/5.9
This telescope is best for viewing brighter deep sky objects and the planets. You can take photos through this telescope (astrophotography) by using the eyepiece projection method, where you aim your camera or smartphone into the eyepiece.
The Orion XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope Kit is available on the Orion Website and includes a 25mm eyepiece and finder scope.
Advancing to Astrophotography
As I stated earlier, even if you’re plans include deep sky astrophotography down the road, I’d still recommend a Dobsonian telescope for beginners. This is the road I personally took, and the visual observations I made helped me not only learn the night sky, be appreciate it.
Deep sky astrophotography is an involved and challenging process. The budget increases ten-fold when you start to incorporate cameras, filters, autoguiders and more. Have a look at this deep sky imaging setup for an idea of what’s involved.
When you are ready to purchase a telescope for the purposes of astrophotography, the following post is what I recommend: The best beginner astrophotography telescopes (top 5).