Buying Your First Telescope – A Beginners Guide
Look deep into a galaxy from your backyard…
If you have caught the astronomy bug, an important first step is buying your first telescope.
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.
Buying your first telescope: A beginners guide
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.
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 feel like the vast majority of newcomers in astronomy these days are quite interested in doing BOTH! My thought process about this subject was, “These views are amazing, I need to show somebody!” 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 more by 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 telescopes 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.
Quick Start Guide: The Basics
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.
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, a german equatorial 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 setup 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 10pm on a Saturday night. 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, Jupiter’s moons or trying to find another Messier object. It was star-hopping at it’s finest.
My Top Choice:
Even if you advance to astrophotography telescopes on a tracking mount, 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 because that is aperture needed to show more detail in the night sky objects you are viewing. 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.
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 of 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.
Recommended Telescope: Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian
Okay, I am ready to take pictures of galaxies and nebulae!
If you don’t need any more advice on buying your first telescope and are ready to start taking images of all of the amazing deep-sky objects in our night sky, you are going to need some new equipment! Here is a quick video of my current setup that should help, or you can visit the equipment page.