Choosing an Astrophotography Telescope: My Top 5
My goal is for you to find an astrophotography telescope that allows you to capture sharp, colorful pictures of stars, galaxies, and nebulae in your own backyard. With that being said, here is my advice.
What’s the best astrophotography telescope for a beginner? I am often asked this question, and the answer is, the one that provides consistent results. If you plan on using a telescope for photography with your DSLR camera, the following list should help you make your decision. These are entry-level, high-quality telescopes with a proven track record of success.
Choosing your first astrophotography telescope
First things first. I am not an expert astrophotographer, I am just a guy who’s been able to capture some decent images with modest astrophotography equipment in my backyard. I have over 6 years worth of deep-sky astrophotography experience, with countless successful imaging sessions under the stars.
The proof is in the photos, not the specs
I like to see real results using astrophotography equipment, more so than the intricate details of optical performance graphs. The advanced technical traits of a telescope are only useful if the instrument is a pleasure to operate.
Keeping an expensive telescope polished and in the house is not my style. This is an overview of the instruments that I consider to be a contender for best beginner astrophotography telescope.
I don’t believe a beginner should jump into this hobby and buy an expensive telescope for astrophotography right away. Astrophotography requires a great deal of patience.
You need to love the process inside and out to push through the steep learning curve and inevitable frustrations along the way. There is a large emphasis on affordability and value on my list.
If you are looking for a reliable astrophotography telescope for under $500, I’ve got some bad news. Expect to pay a minimum of $1,000 US for a new model. The used marketplace may offer some savings, but be sure to request detailed information about the condition of the optics before purchasing.
If you compare prices of these telescopes to a telephoto camera lens, they are actually quite affordable.
I consider a small apochromatic refractor to be the absolute best choice for beginners, and that’s what I’ll recommend.
Proven winners for deep-sky imaging
When I was starting out, I searched reviews, testimonials, and product detail pages for hours before purchasing my first primary imaging instrument. Now, there are more astrophotography telescopes available than ever, making the search even more complex.
When you narrow your search down to entry-level telescopes with high performance, some clear winners in the category of best beginner astrophotography telescope rise to the surface.
Smart choices for those who want results with modest equipment and limited knowledge.
My choices are heavily geared towards the practicality and usability of the telescope in an astrophotography situation. After all, beginners have enough to learn early on and should have the best telescope possible to create avoid an agonizing experience in the dark.
These telescopes will grow your interest in the hobby, not ruin it!
I get several emails each day asking which telescope I recommend for beginner astrophotography setups.
This section of the website is long overdue, as it will be nice to have somewhere to direct beginners looking for more information about the telescopes I recommend in my e-mails and messages.
What you need to start imaging
Different vendors will offer various packages for the telescopes listed below. The inclusion of the accessories you need to get started may ultimately be the deciding factor of which telescope you choose.
There are certain accessories that may not come with the telescope you are looking to purchase. Often, this is the reason for fluctuations in price between models with similar specifications. As a rule of thumb, you will need:
- A diagonal for visual observation and mount alignment
- A finder scope with brackets for visual observation and autoguiding implementation
- Tube rings and a dovetail bar, or an integrated dovetail for mounting
- A carrying case to protect the telescope during travel and storage
- A field flattener/reducer to create a flat field for imaging
Make sure you add these additional items (if necessary) to your overall budget before deciding on a particular scope.
The power of an APO
The 5 telescopes on this list are all small Apochromatic Refractors. The main reason I am such a huge fan of this type of telescope is their ability to consistently capture high-quality images. With that being said, let’s take a look at the other benefits a small apochromatic telescope has:
- Good color correction
- Does not require regular collimation
- Adjusts to temperature fast
- Wide Field of View
- Easy to focus
- Less condensation/dew
The Benefits of Wide Field
A wider field of view is more forgiving when it comes to deep-sky astrophotography. This means that small errors in autoguiding are less noticeable than they would be through an SCT with a long focal length.
The tighter your field of view is, the more precise your focus and autoguiding must be. As an example, the Explore Scientific ED80 has a focal length of 480mm.
Many beginners are using crop-sensor DSLR cameras through the telescope. With an APS-C sized crop sensor like you find in the Canon T5i, the focal length becomes 768mm. (480mm x 1.6 Crop factor).
If you are using a 0.8X field flattener/reducer (Recommended), this brings your field of view to 614mm. (768mm X 0.8) This covers an area of sky wide enough to fit the entire Andromeda Galaxy, with a little room to spare.
The Apochromatic Advantage
Apochromatic refractors use ED extra-low-dispersion glass to enhance resolution and reduce chromatic aberration. All of the telescopes on this list are air-spaced doublets or triplets.
The manufacturers of these refractors refer to APO’s as ultra-high contrast. They all include light baffles inside of the lens cell to reject stray light.
A field-flattener and/or reducer may be required for a completely flat field of view to the edge of the frame. For each of the models below, I will list the recommended field flattener/reducer to go along with it.
The Best Astrophotography Telescope for a Beginner
5 hassle-free telescopes capable of jaw-dropping deep-sky images using a DSLR camera and a tracking EQ mount.
Let’s get right to it. The compact and reliable refractors below have all proven themselves worthy of a night under the stars. The first telescope on the list is responsible for my than half of the images in my photo gallery.
Focal Length: 480mm
Focal Ratio: f/6
Weight: 5.95 lbs
Glass: FDC1 (Hoya)
Recommended Field Flattener/Reducer: StarField 0.8X Reducer/Flattener
The Explore Scientific ED80 is a superb telescope for astrophotography. This was the telescope that allowed me to capture my first long-exposure deep-sky images including the Orion Nebula, North America Nebula, and the great Andromeda Galaxy.
If you would like to read my Explore Scientific ED80 review, please visit that section of my website for a complete analysis of this telescope’s astrophotography performance.
The ES ED80 is an affordable option for beginners, with a high-value return. The package I purchased back in 2011 included a hard shell carry case, diagonal and an illuminated finder scope.
This scopes small size and weight means that it will get plenty of use both visually and photographically. Entry-level mounts such as the Celestron AVX or the Sky-Watcher HEQ5 have no problem carrying this telescope and all necessary astrophotography gear.
Here is a video featuring the Explore Scientific ED80 and other astrophotography equipment needed for Deep-Sky Imaging:
“The astrophotos I have been able to capture with this telescope have opened my eyes to a higher level of image quality. I have not been able to achieve images of this quality using a Newtonian telescope.” – AstroBackyard
Explore Scientific also offers a carbon fiber version of the ED80. The CF version has identical specs other than the fact that it is lighter and better at adapting to temperature.
Focal Length: 480mm
Focal Ratio: f/6
Weight: 5.5 lbs
Recommended Field Flattener/Reducer: Orion FF for short refractors
The Orion ED80T CF is very similar to the Explore Scientific 80mm Apo. They share the same focal length, size, and weight, yet use different ED glass. The Orion ED80 is an extremely popular choice for beginners as it offers high-quality imaging performance at a reasonable price.
Both the Orion and Explore Scientific 80mm models included a built-in dew shield and 2″ dual-speed Crayford style focusers. The biggest deciding factor between the Explore Scientific ED80 and the Orion 80EDT will likely come down to the accessories included, and customer service from each company.
I have had great experiences with both Orion Telescopes and Binoculars and Explore Scientific.
“Fell in love with the feel and looks of this incredible little scope.. First light was just days ago…my target was the lunar surface…the image was razor sharp..the contrast of craters, rills. scarpes, mountains, were breathtaking…” – Orion ED80T CF Review on OPT
Images using the Orion ED80T CF with a ZWO ASI1600MM-Cool Camera
The images above were taken by Chuck Ayoub using the Orion 80EDT Carbon Fiber APO with a cooled CMOS camera. The images were shot using narrowband filters to create false color images of the Rosette Nebula and Heart Nebula. As you can see, this refractor produces crisp images with a wide field of view.
Focal Length: 360mm
Focal Ratio: f/5.9
Weight: 3.2 lbs
Recommended Field Flattener/Reducer: William Optics FLAT61
I am proud to say that the William Optics Zenithstar 61 APO has now become a permanent resident of the AstroBackyard. If you watched my video review of the Z61, you’ll know that I genuinely love using this tiny doublet from the backyard and beyond. There are many impressive qualities of this premium APO from William Optics, but here are the ones that really stand out.
Because the Z61 is so small, it is likely the best telescope for a portable astrophotography setup. At just 3 lbs., and 230mm in length (retracted) this little telescope can easily fit in a backpack when traveling to a dark sky site. This portability does not sacrifice any image quality, just a little aperture.
Speaking of aperture, this 61mm telescope clocks in at F/5.9 – which means that it collects light fast. Add in the recommended Flat61 field flattener, and your deep sky images will have round, pinpoint stars to the edge of your image in an APS-C or full-frame DSLR camera.
The precision dual-speed focuser is ultra smooth and stable. The focuser includes a thermometer to monitor the temperature while imaging. This is useful when the temperature drops at night, and you need to re-focus your target slightly.
The wide focal length (360mm) comes in handy when imaging large targets such as the Andromeda Galaxy. Even a crop-sensor (APS-C) sized DSLR like my Canon 600D produces a nice wide 576mm field of view for large deep sky imaging projects.
The built-in dew-shield, high-quality glass (Synthetic flourite) and the deep sky imaging performance of this little doublet make it more than worthy of making this list. Wrap everything up with a modest price tag, and you’ve got a real winner in the Z61.
Don’t forget to factor in extras such as the color matched dovetail bar, Flat61 field flattener, or tube mounting rings for an autoguiding system. Overall, the Zenithstar 61 Doublet is an excellent value and the perfect wide-field astrophotography telescope.
The images of the Heart Nebula and Andromeda Galaxy below display the large field of view provided by this telescope.
Images using the William Optics Zenithstar 61 Doublet APO with a DSLR camera
Focal Length: 555mm
Focal Ratio: f/7
Weight: 5.73 lbs
Glass: Ohara S-FPL53
Recommended Field Flattener/Reducer: Altair Planostar 0.8x Flattener/Reducer
The Starwave 80ED-R is the second edition of this model produced by Altair Astro in UK. ED-R version is more compact than the original 80ED, with improved optics. Astrophotographers that appreciate good glass will notice that Ohara S-FL53 is used in this Starwave telescope.
The beefy 2.5″ Rack ‘n Pinion focuser built into the 80ED-R is designed to handle heavy loads such as your modern DLSR and large eyepieces. The telescope has a doublet objective lens for accurate color correction and high imaging performance. See some example astrophotography images on their website.
Altair Astro is known for their incredible customer support and dedication to astrophotographers. Based on my own personal experiences with the team at Altair – I highly recommend looking into their line-up of telescopes while doing your research.
Here’s what others have to say about the Starwave 80ED-R:
“Very good build quality – built like a tank compared to other 80mm scopes I’ve owned with a much better focuser. Got this for visual and astrophotographic use with my Canon 450D and it performs very well. Very good for solar observing with a very sharp image. (SW80 V1)” – Mark Fuller
Focal Length: 250mm
Focal Ratio: f/4.9
Weight: 3.2 lbs
Recommended Flattener/Reducer: None (Petzval Lens Design)
The William Optics RedCat 51 is not only an incredibly useful apochromatic telescope/lens for astrophotography, it is also one of the most beautiful optical instruments in the market. This is the only telescope on my list that features a helical focuser, like the ones you would find on an expensive telephoto camera lens.
The RedCat 51 is very small and lightweight, just 3.2 pounds. This means that you do not require a robust equatorial telescope mount to take long exposure images. A small camera tracker such as the iOptron SkyGuider Pro is more than enough.
At 250mm, you may be wondering whether the RedCat has enough reach to photograph deep sky objects in space in detail. Larger nebulae are best, especially when utilizing the full potential of the large 44mm image circle with a full frame camera.
My favorite aspects of the RedCat are the tension ring for the helical focuser, and the internal threaded slot for 48mm filters. I like to keep the tension ring very tight when focusing, to get razor sharp stars in my image from edge to edge.
The RedCat is capable of capturing unforgettable wide-field images with your DSLR or dedicated astronomy camera. Here are a few of my favorite pictures taken using the William Optics RedCat 51:
The best telescope for astrophotography is the one you use the most.
Since this article was originally written, I have had the pleasure of testing a number of new refractor telescopes for astrophotography. The William Optics Zenithstar 73, and the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 are stand-out choices, but are more expensive than many of the options available on this page.
Without being able to use each and every telescope on this list first hand, it is impossible for me to provide a complete review of each model. However, I have plenty of experience using wide-field apochromatic refractors like the ones on this list.
The William Optics Zenithstar 73 APO Doublet.
One of the best ways to gauge the astrophotography capabilities of a particular telescope is to search through the images on Astrobin or Reddit. Most amateur astrophotographers are good at posting their equipment details along with each photo.
I hope that this overview has helped you on your journey. I can only direct you towards a path that has worked for me personally, and lead to years of enjoyment with this hobby. To learn about the current equipment I use for deep-sky astrophotography, please visit the equipment page.