Buying your first telescope can be a daunting task to say the least. In this article I’ll reveal 10 tips for buying your first telescope. Whether you’re new to the hobby or looking to to get back into it after a short sabbatical, this article has something for you.
There are many varieties of telescopes on the market with different optical designs. These include:
- Compound Instruments (Schmidt-Cassegrains and Maksutovs)
Each of these designs has strengths and weaknesses so which one should you choose? Before I tell you that you should buy this one, or that one, I think it’s prudent to go over some key tips for buying your first telescope. Irregardless of which “style” of telescope that you buy, there are some key decisions you need to make before doing so.
#1 – Learn The Night Sky
There is no time like right now to start navigating the night sky. Like most beginners looking to get into amateur astronomy, the first instinct is to go out and buy that shiny new telescope right away. I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to do that! In fact, I recommend that you don’t.
Instead, purchase yourself a couple of good amateur astronomy books and a good pair of binoculars first. I did a couple of in-depth articles on how to find the Best Binoculars For Astronomy Beginners and also how to buy the Best Binoculars For Astronomy Under $500. Be sure to give these articles a read after you’re done here!
As far as good books to get you started I have a few recommendations. First, consider subscribing to an amateur astronomy magazine. Three of my personal favorites are,
These magazine are terrific and will get you going with the latest news, gear and sites to see on any given month.
As for amateur astronomy books, I have three of those to recommend as well. If you want to become a “serious” amateur astronomer, then these three books must be in your library. They are,
- NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe
- The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide
- Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas
Both NightWatch and The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide will provide you with everything you’ll need to know to become proficient in amateur astronomy. The last book, Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas will provide you with comprehensive star charts that will become indispensable when in the field.
#2 – Go Clubbing!
One of the best ways to get motivated and into this exciting hobby is to join your local astronomy club. Here you will meet like-minded people who will have great experience and insight into astronomy. Most likely there is a club near you so do a quick Google search to find them.
Once you do, you will meet some great people who will be more than happy to share their expertise when it comes to buying a telescope. Also, it is more fun to share a dark sky with people who truly appreciate all that amateur astronomy has to offer. While your backyard is a perfect place to start, if you’re like me and live in an urban area where light pollution is an issue you’ll want to venture to those remote areas where it is clear and dark. Of course you can go-it alone, but I recommend having at least one other person with you.
#3 – Optical Design
As I mentioned above, telescopes come in several optical designs. Let’s breakdown the differences!
Reflector Telescope – is a telescope that uses a single or combination of curved mirrors that reflect the light to form an image. A classic example of a reflecting telescope is the infamous Dobsonian Reflector. This is my personal go-to telescope for beginners and I will list several of them in my next tip below. The big advantage of the Reflector Telescope is that it allows for very large diameter objectives. This means it has the potential to gather the most light of any other telescope and almost all telescopes used in astronomy research are reflectors.
Refractor Telescope – are the more traditional looking telescopes you see in magazines and on advertisements. It boasts the longer, narrower body affixed to a tri-pod. This type of telescope uses lenses throughout to present the image and is usually more expensive and has superior optics. It is a go-to choice for those interested in astro-photography and maximum portability.
Compound Telescope – are telescopes synonymous with the names Schmidt-Cassegrain and Maksutov-Cassegrain. These telescopes are best suited for observers who want both a generous aperature, with equatorial mounting in a small transportable package. Of course, these benefits come at a price, and like their reflector counter-parts they too use mirrors to form their image.
Below is an example of an Orion StarSeeker IV 150mm GoTo Maksutov-Cassegrain Telescope.
Of course your budget is largely going to determine which style, class and size of telescope you’re ultimately going to decide on. So let’s discuss “budget” as our next tip!
#4 – Know Your Budget
Budget is most likely going to determine what class of telescope you are going to be looking at. What I would recommend is don’t sink too much money into your first telescope. If you’re just getting started, you’ll want to make sure that this hobby is for you. Believe me, you can fall in love with all of the information, tech, gear, gadgets and then when it comes to actually getting outside and using it you conveniently find excuses not to. As you can probably tell, I’m speaking from experience!
For this reason, I generally don’t recommend you spend more than $1500 on your first telescope. And believe me, you can spend a LOT LESS than this! I just want to put an upper ceiling that will accommodate most people who are looking to get into this past-time.
Without a doubt, I would almost always recommend that your first telescope be a Dobsonian Reflector. These types of telescopes will give you the best “bang-for-your-buck” by far. At the end of the day, how much you will see and how deep you will see with any telescope will depend on how much light you can collect. This means bigger is better! Dobsonian telescopes also go by the name “light buckets”, this is because you’ll get the largest aperture for the money you are paying.
Let me list some top Dobsonian performers at various price points around or below $1500.
Approx. $1500 – SkyQuest XX12i IntelliScope Truss Dobsonian Telescope
This is a big but easily transportable 12 inch aperture truss-tube Dobsonian reflector. If you have the money to spend, this Dobsonian comes with computerized location which will make traversing the night sky a snap. With over 14,000 celestial objects in its database you’ll have countless hours of enjoyment!
The other feature is the truss-tube design that makes the telescope light-weight for its size and easy to disassemble and transport. It boasts a 2 inch focuser (more on this later) allowing you to leverage wide-angle lenses.
An overall top performer and great choice if you have the money to spend!
Approx. $1000 – SkyWatcher 12″ Collapsible Dobsonian Telescope
The reason I like this telescope so much is not only do you get a huge 12 inch aperture, but it is also collapsible. Probably the biggest drawback you’ll find to any Dobsonian telescope is the bulkiness of it. They are BIG! Which means transportation is always a chore. However, with this guy the space required to transport is reduced because it easily collapses down.
I personally own this telescope and the optics are very good (more on this later) and you will be WOW’D by the stunning deep space visuals you will get. I still remember the first time I looked at M13 in the Hercules Cluster through the eyepiece of this telescope. It was truly amazing!
If you’ve got the money to spend, this is an excellent first telescope that will give you years of enjoyment!
Approx. $500 – SkyWatcher S11620 Traditional Dobsonian 10-Inch
At this price-point you will be stepping down in aperture. However, the SkyWatcher S11620 won’t make you sacrifice too much! This is by far the biggest aperture you will find in it’s price class and will still allow you to reach those deep space objects or up-close planetary views.
A great first telescope for the price!
Now that you have a few telescopes to ponder, let’s get back to our tips shall we!
#5 – What’s Your “Objective”
I know I’ve thrown a few telescope styles at your now and hopefully I’m not overwhelming you! Like I said above, the single most important feature of any telescope is going to be its ability to pull in light. This is why I’m such a big fan of the Dobsoniann telescope as an entry level scope!
When you hear the term “objective”, it is referring to the diameter of the telescope’s main light-collecting “lens”. I placed “lens” in quotations, because as we already described the Reflector (and compound telescope for that matter) don’t actually use a lens to render their image in the eyepiece, rather they use high precision mirrors. Irregardless, the term objective refers to both mirrors and lenses alike.
So unless portability is an overriding concern for you, I highly recommend you buy the biggest aperture you can afford. And while the Dobsonian telescopes I listed above are big fellas (10 inch-12 inch) I don’t recommend you go any smaller than a 6 inch diameter. Smaller instruments deliver less detail and have a tough time revealing faint targets. That said, the trade-off for the bigger telescopes is weight, size and ultimately portability.
#6 – Knowing Your Eyepieces
Telescope eyepieces are a lot like camera lenses. So if you have a photography background, making the leap to telescopes won’t be too challenging. Almost all of the telescopes I’ve listed here thus far will come with their own “kit” lenses. However, after time you will start to find this a little limiting as you progress in the hobby.
One of the first things I would recommend is to get yourself a good Barlow lens. Barlow lenses are negative lenses that increase the effective focal length of a telescope and multiply the power of any eyepiece.
Barlow lenses are available in magnifications from 1.8x to 5x with a 2x Barlow being the most common. This means that if your “kit” lenses are 20 mm and 25 mm. By adding a 2x Barlow you effectively double the number of eyepieces you have. Namely, a 20 mm will become a 10 mm, and a 25 mm will become a 12.5 mm, they Barlow cuts them in half or increase their magnification!
The other advantage of a Barlow is they produce high power with longer focal-lengths. This means they will provide better “eye-relief” (the distance the eye must be from the eyepiece in order to view the whole field of view) and will be easier to look through for extended periods. So definitely for just starting out, use the kit lenses that come with your telescope but purchase a good Barlow such as the Meade Instruments 126 1.25-Inch 2x Short-Focus Barlow Lens
If you just don’t want to wait and are looking to expand your collection to some premium eyepieces. Then let me recommend a few eyepieces that will provide superior optics and performance. For achieving crystal clear and exquisite planetary images I recommend you have focal lengths in the 15mm-to-26mm range with a 2x-to-5x Barlow to go with it.
I highly recommend the Meade Instruments 07736 Series 5000 HD-60 Eyepiece Set, 6-Piece (Black). This set comes complete with 4.5, 6.5, 9, 12, 18 and 25-millimeter focal lengths. This is a premium set of lenses that coupled with a 2x Barlow will give you everything you’ll need to view the planets and any deep-space targets!
One word of caution! When deciding to purchase a Barlow or any eyepiece for that matter, be sure that it matches your focuser diameter. So if the telescope you purchase has a 2 inch focuser…great! Just be sure to grab yourself an inexpensive adapter such as the Astromania 1.25″ / 2″ Twist-lock Adapter.
#7 – Keep Your Focus!
Make sure whatever telescope you ultimately purchase, it has a standard focuser dimension. This is typically 1.25 inch or 2 inches in diameter. One sure way to know if a telescope is of inferior build quality is to check if the focuser is offered in one of these standard sizes. If not…steer clear of that telescope!
I always recommend you go with a 2 inch focuser whenever possible because it provides better “eye-relief” and will allow you to expand your eyepiece collection to wide-field and long-eye-relief lenses more readily. Of course you don’t need to be too concerned with these lens types when first starting out, in fact I’ll likely do an article dedicated to this topic.
Also, 2 inch-to-1.25 inch adapters are inexpensive and easily inserted into your 2 inch focuser. You can check this one out on Amazon, Astromania 1.25″ / 2″ Twist-lock Adapter. This means you’ll be able to use any 1.25 inch or 2 inch eye-pieces in a telescope that boasts a 2 inch focuser.
Many focusers, such as the Crayford focusers you’ll find on the Dobsonian telescopes I’ve list here, feature roller-bearing designs to provide zero image-shift through their focusing range. This significantly improves performance compared to rack and pinion focusers and allows for exceptionally smooth focusing eliminating any backlash.
#8 – Knowing Different Mounts
There are numerous types of mounts available depending on the type of telescope you ultimately decide on. This includes computerized type self-tracking mounts.
That said, for the beginner I always say simpler is best! If you’re anything like me it will be hard to resist the temptation of the multi-servo, self-positioning, self-tracking type mounts available out there. But, I urge you to resist, at least initially.
Instead, the Dobsonians listed here (I know I keep going back to them) will provide a simple mount, known as an Azimuth Mount that will allow you to easily point the telescope in any direction needed. Azimuth mounts are simple two-axis mounts that allow you to move in the horizontal and vertical directions.
The major drawback to this type of mount is that self-tracking astronomical objects across the night sky becomes difficult with any accuracy. This is where Equatorial Mounts come in. Equatorial mounts compensate for the Earth’s orbit by having one rotational axis parallel to the Earth’s axis of rotation.
An example of an equatorial mount is the Celestron CG-4 German Equatorial Mount and Tripod. These types of mounts offer superior astronomical tracking, perfect for astro-photography.
Again, I don’t recommend you go down this path initially…DOBS my friend!
#9 – What Are Finderscopes?
Most telescopes will come with what’s called a “finderscope”. A finder scope is a lower power magnification scope that will be essential in your ability to find celestial objects. Truth be told, the better the telescopes finderscope, the easier and better your experience will be.
With finderscopes, better usually means bigger! Unfortunately, this is where most telescope manufacturers will cheap out. The reason is because most beginners don’t realize the importance of a good “finder”. That said, you’ll want to check that the finder that comes with your telescope is at the 50mm aperture mark with a true 7x to 9x magnification.
Another popular type of finderscope are the “Reflex” or “Red-dot” variety. These types of finders present a “red-dot” or “bulls-eye” in the field of view that will allow you to locate your telescope with near pin-point accuracy. One of the most popular models out there is the Telrad Finder Sight.
One of the major drawbacks of the traditional magnified finderscope’s is that the image is reflected and upside-down. This can be disorienting for beginners. However, with the Red-dot finders the image is exactly as you would see it just looking up. The drawback though is that the image is not magnified. Which means it will be more difficult to locate those deep-space objects.
Despite the drawback of Red-dot finderscopes, beginners tend to find them simpler to use and are a one of the first upgrades made to their telescope. Personally, I prefer the magnified type finders, however, I’m a minority at my club!
#10 – Accessories Are A Must!
My list wouldn’t be complete without listing a few must have accessories to make your first stargazing experience a lot of fun.
At the top of my list is a good, reliable red flashlight. Yes, you read that write, a red flashlight.
Why red you ask? Well, I’m not going to get into the science of why red is the preferred color choice, heck I’m not even sure I know! What I do know is that red light will best preserve your night vision an absolute must when you’re under dark skies.
Now there is no need to go out and buy a red flashlight, if you have an old hand-held one laying around you can paint the lamp using red nail-polish. If you do want to buy one, Amazon has many to choose from. I recommend a multi-mode (dimmable) type such as the WAYLLSHINE Scalable Red LED 3 Mode Red Light Flashlight.
A good quality Barlow is a must have addition to your new telescope. This will add multiple focal lengths to your already existing lenses. As I already mentioned the Meade Instruments 126 1.25-Inch 2x Short-Focus Barlow Lens is a very good entry level Barlow.
You may want to consider upgrading you finderscope from the stock finder that came with your telescope. Like I said, a popular choice is the red-dot type finders, namely the Telrad Finder Sight. If you’re like me you may want to consider the more traditional magnified finder so that traversing celestial objects is a little easier. If you’re not happy with the one the came with you scope you can upgrade this for usually less than $100. The Orion 07212 9×50 Right-Angle Correct-Image Finder is one example.
I probably should’ve mentioned this previously. If you are considering a reflector or compound telescope then a collimation tool is another accessory you are going to want to have. This tool will will slide into your focuser and will make the task of aligning the primary and secondary mirror much easier.
A collimation eyepiece can be picked up on Amazon and is relatively inexpensive. You can check out the Celestron Collimation Eyepiece 1.25″.
I don’t recommend you go and buy an expensive gas generator to bring with you. However, I do recommend a good portable battery powered generator for those long (and sometimes cold) nights of stargazing.
The Celestron Power Tank is the perfect companion! Whether you have a computerized telescope or operate your telescope using motors, Celestron specially designed this product with the amateur astronomer in mind – this model is packed with useful features.
Not only useful for setting up and powering your scope, this model can also be useful as an emergency roadside accessory as it includes an emergency light, and booster terminals in place to start weak car batteries.
One sure way to end a night of stargazing is when the dew sets in. Unfortunately, dew is an inevitable fact of the hobby and one that most beginners are not equipped to deal with. One word of caution, DON’T WIPE THE DEW OFF. Now there are lots of devices on the market that help mitigate the effects of dew, such as dew guns, dew heaters and the like.
While these devices are useful and will prolong your viewing experience in most cases, let’s keep it simply. I do recommend that you consider a dew shield to wrap around the the front of your telescope. The Astromania Flexible Dew Shield for Outer Diameter from 100-123mm diameter is an inexpensive and flexible shield that will accommodate a range of telescopes.
The list of accessories can go on and on, however, these are what I would require as essential “must haves”.
Tips For Buying Your First Telescope – Final Words
Well there you have it, 10 tips for buying your first telescope! I hope you’ve found this article useful and you are now a little more informed before making your first telescope purchase.
If you enjoyed this article, consider checking out some of my other great articles as well!
- Astronomy Telescope Types
- Does The Sun Rotate?
- Does Saturn Have Clouds?
- How Far is Mars from Earth? Facts About Mars
- How To Find The North Star?
- What Is The Dark Side Of The Moon?
- Top 10 Small Telescope and Binocular Objects
- Best Kids Telescope for Viewing Planets
- What Causes the Northern Lights?
- 10 Tips For Buying Your First Telescope
- Best Binoculars For Astronomy Beginners
- Best Binoculars For Astronomy Under $500