This section contains my own thoughts and advice on a good beginner’s telescope. There isn’t a single, consistent recommendation here, because I really believe the ideal telescope depends on the individual user. Perhaps these thoughts will help you with your own selection.
You might also want to read my thoughts on the traditional advice offered to beginners, in which I encourage you to think critically and consider how the advice applies to your situation.
An Analogy: Motorcycle Beginners
I have another hobby too: I’m a motorcyclist and used to be a motorcycle riding instructor (now retired).
What on earth does that have to do with Astronomy? Beginners often asked us for advice on a good starter bike, and I think the advice is very similar. Bikes tend to be very specialized, and a suitable bike for a beginner is not the same as a suitable bike for an experienced rider. We recommended a beginner start with something small and basic while they build up their skills, then trade up to their “dream bike” when they are ready. Students who followed this advice usually thanked us later. Many students didn’t follow this advice, and started with a large sophisticated bike. Many of them did fine too, but some of them had difficulties that turned them away from the hobby.
Now, on to my advice.
1. Don’t Buy Crap
You get what you pay for. That $79 telescope at the department store is a toy, not an astronomical instrument. It will not work satisfactorily, cannot be made to work satisfactorily, and will ruin your initial experience. Department store telescopes drive beginners away from what could be a rewarding hobby. The same goes for the unknown brand low-priced telescopes that are sold only on eBay.
Here is an excellent article by another writer, Jon Isaacs, in which he purchases a department store telescope (actually an eBay telescope) to see if it is good value at the low end, or even if it is fixable. Spoiler: it isn’t.
Jon gives an excellent analogy to bicycles, which I quote here:
Rather I suggest these telescopes are like a $50 department store bicycle, it looks like the real thing, in fact it is made to look like the real thing. One can hop on it and actually ride it up and down the street.
But if one happens to jump on a decent bicycle, one that has real brakes instead of imitation stamped steel brakes, one that fits the rider, one that has been properly put together and assembled, if one gets on a decent bike, then it is immediately apparent that one is but a toy, an imitation made to look like the real thing, the other is the real thing, a tool made to do a job in the best possible manner given the constraints of cost and size.
You can get decent beginner telescopes starting at under $300, but you find them in telescope stores. Spending almost that much to buy junk would be a tragedy — don’t do it. If you have a lot less than $300 to spend, buy a good book and a good pair of binoculars, and you’ll have an excellent start in the hobby that will be far more rewarding than the frustrations of a toy telescope. Or connect with your local astronomy club for advice on selecting a good-quality used instrument.
2. Balance is Key
Think of these factors as the legs on a stool. You need all three, and they need to be of equal size, or the stool falls over. If you put superb optics on an inferior mount, you end up with an inferior telescope. If you have superb optics and a superb mount but the result is too large and heavy for you to set up and use, you do not have an instrument that will work for you.
Toy store telescopes are usually quite portable, moderately poor optics on very poor mounts. In fact, even some telescopes offered for beginners by reputable manufacturers, in reputable stores, fail this balance equation. It’s quite common, for example, for upper-mid-sized telescopes to come with a mount that was designed for a smaller instrument but was pushed into service to keep the price of the larger instrument down. The result may be unstable and disappointing.
For example, my 235 mm Schmidt-Cassegrain has excellent optics, but came on a tripod designed for an 200 mm and was just barely stable enough for visual use. Amazingly, the manufacturer also offers an even larger 280 mm tube on this same tripod. Most amateur astronomers, as they become more serious and invest in larger instruments, end up buying their mount separately from their optics for this reason. I eventually moved the 235 mm to a heavier mount, purchased separately, and sold the original mount to someone who is now using it as a stable base for a small refractor.
On the other end of the scale, many beginners who are influenced by serious amateurs chanting “Aperture is Everything!” ignore the “portability” leg of the balance equation, buying excellent, but huge, telescopes that they can’t use without help. After the initial novelty wears off, such instruments often fall into disuse, denying the beginner the frequent practice that is needed to become familiar with equipment and sky and truly enjoy the hobby. While it’s true that a larger telescope gathers more light, a telescope in the basement gathers no light at all.
This is why mid-sized Dobsonian telescopes (e.g. 150 mm) are such a common recommendation for beginners. Good quality optics, a stable mount, and moderate portability, all for only a few hundred dollars. But they are not the only option, as long as you keep this balance test in mind.
3. Start Medium-Small
Taking the above “balance equation” into account, I recommend you start with a small-to-medium sized scope, with special attention to these:
- 150 mm reflector on Dobsonian mount;
- 150 mm reflector on good-quality Equatorial mount;
- 130 mm to 200 mm Schmidt-Cassegrain on good-quality Equatorial or Fork mount;
- Good quality 80 mm or 100 mm refractor, on good-quality Equatorial or Alt-Azimuth mount.
These are all selections that will give you optics good enough for a beginner, stable mounts, and portability enough to store, transport, and set up the equipment by yourself. Prices will range from $300 to $1500 (Canadian). These will show you the moon, bright planets, and bright deep space objects such as globular clusters and some nebulae. They aren’t big enough for observing dim galaxies: that’s difficult and requires a larger instrument and dark skies.
4. Start Simple
Reading Internet support groups for Astronomy beginners, it seems that most beginners’ problems are not with their telescope’s optics, but with its electronics. Questions abound on getting the drive to work, getting the go-to system to work, getting the GPS to work, setting the time zone, getting the computer drivers to work in the latest version of the operating system on your laptop, figuring out what language the computer voice synthesizer is speaking, etc.
All these convenience features are nice to have and can be entertaining, but every convenience feature is also a source of additional complexity that can fail or be configured incorrectly. I recommend you start simple:
- If you live under dark skies (in the country), avoid go-to for a first scope. You can see enough stars to learn to find your way around manually. Or buy a go-to scope because it’s really cool (and it is!), but spend some time using the scope manually for your first few months.
- If you live in light pollution, or just can’t avoid the temptation of the gadgets, buy a go-to system, but get a telescope that can be used without it, so you have the option to work manually if the go-to fails or if you have trouble aligning it. Likewise, avoid computer interfaces, or at least choose a telescope where connecting to a computer is optional.
- When doing public demonstrations, I like motor drives because I like having objects held in the field of view. However, I like systems I can use manually in case the electronics are acting up or fail. (Power connectors on inexpensive mounts are notoriously unreliable. They’re easy to repair, but not at midnight in a field.) For these reasons, I prefer Equatorial mounts to computer-controlled Fork mounts. These mounts can be used manually, at least to some extent, while Forks require the computer control.
- On the other hand, I do have manual alt-az mounts, which I love for their intended purpose, and think are also excellent choices if they are high-enough quality to be smooth and stable. If your available observing time tends to come in small segments (an hour or less, not several hours), the rapid setup of an Alt-Az mount will enable you to do more observing. I probably use my alt-az mount more frequently than my equatorial, although not for longer periods of time.
- Omit, or ignore, GPS accessories at first. You can look up the time and location yourself and avoid that complexity.
- Avoid all forms of astrophotography at first — it’s hard. If you do want to explore astrophotography, this article provides an overview from a beginner’s perspective.
5. Plan to Upgrade
As I used to tell my motorcycle students, start with something small and simple, not with the ultimate device you’d eventually like to have. Spend your first year or two perfecting your technique, and upgrade your equipment only when you have reached the limits of the basic gear you started with. You will outgrow your beginner equipment — don’t consider that a failure of the equipment, consider it part of the plan. Sell your beginner equipment to another beginner (or keep it as secondary equipment for travel or cottage) and then upgrade to what you really want.
Since you’re planning to outgrow your initial equipment, avoid purchasing specialized accessories for it that can’t be used with other gear. Standards-based accessories like eyepieces, on the other hand, can be transferred to your new gear, and so are a safe buy.
To maintain the resale value of your initial equipment, keep the instructions and all the packaging material, and avoid modifying the equipment.
6. Don’t Let Either Mount Scare You
Equatorial or Alt-Az/Fork mount? Both are good quality mount types that will serve you well. You should try both at a star party before you make this decision. Don’t be swayed by urban myths.
I have both Equatorial and Alt-Az mounts. Personally I prefer the Equatorial when I have the time to set up. It’s historically important and helps you understand the movement of the sky. Although there is a bit of a learning curve to set up and align, it’s not complex and you’ll master it in an hour or two with some help or a good book. It makes tracking objects much easier, can be motorized, and does not depend on sophisticated electronics.
Alt-Az mounts are high-quality and reliable, would not be a mistake, and their fast set-up might make them a better choice than equatorial mounts if your free time comes in small segments. In particular, they are intuitive and you will immediately understand how to point them, and they are generally more compact and portable than similarly-sized Equatorial mounts. I don’t personally prefer motorized alt-az mounts (fork mounts), because motorization requires computer assist and alignment, they have difficulty looking straight up, and they are less suitable for photography without additional accessories. However, I love my high-quality manual alt-az mount for its simplicity and ease of use.
7. What About Go-To?
What about getting a “go-to” system or an “object locator” system on a beginner’s telescope? Opinions vary on this, but the traditional advice is “no, you should learn to find things manually first”.
I think it’s more complex than that. Like many other hobbies, you need to decide if you want learning how to use the equipment to be part of your educational experience, or if you just want the results of using the equipment. Think of Personal Computers, for example. You might enjoy building and repairing your own PC, as it’s educational and satisfying. But if you are mainly interesting in using, not building, the PC, you’ll prefer a name brand turnkey system.
Don’t forget, you can always choose not to use the go-to system. I now have go-to or digital setting circles on my major mounts, and I use the electronics when I’m in a hurry, and I look for things manually when I’m in the mood. I particularly like using the electronics when I’m at a public demonstration and looking for an object that I can’t find in seconds by memory. (In my experience, visitors at a star party want to look at objects, not to look for objects.) On the other hand, on an evening of private observing in poor conditions I will often ignore the go-to and spend a quiet evening practicing finding things manually. This has saved me a few times when I was in the field and the go-to failed (for example, by the all-too-common failure of a power or control cable).
Should you be interested in go-to, consider these points:
- The advertising is often misleading. Most systems, for example, advertise “40,000 astronomical objects in the built-in database”. While this is true, you won’t be able to actually see these 40,000 objects. Many of them will be dim galaxies that are beyond the capabilities of your scope. And many of them are just stars, not interesting by themselves even if you could see them.
- It’s not magic. If you are imagining you’ll take the telescope out of the box, punch in the name of an object, and moments later you’ll be observing it, you will be disappointed. Go-to systems require careful alignment and then will bring objects into, or close to, your field of view most of the time.
- All go-to systems require alignment each time you set them up. This means you need to be able to see and identify some of the major stars and constellations.
- A good go-to system requires precise mechanics, precision motors, and a computer. You won’t find this for less than many hundreds of dollars. The go-to option that costs an extra $49 on that department store telescope is junk that will disappoint you.
8. Forget Photography for Now
Astrophotography is difficult, expensive, and requires a lot of time to master. And I mean years not hours. It’s a rewarding hobby in itself, but is too complex to try to include in the hobby as a beginner to Astronomy. After department store telescopes, failed attempts at astrophotography are probably the next greatest cause of beginners leaving the hobby in frustration.
In fact, most telescopes will allow you to hold a consumer digital camera to the eyepiece and take a snapshot of the moon. It won’t be high-quality but it will still be quite satisfying. And you can image the bright planets with a low-priced webcam and some special software. However, should you become interested in deep-sky, long-exposure astrophotography, you will need to consider the following points:
- The single most important piece of equipment will be your mount. You will need to upgrade it, and will almost certainly end up spending more on the mount than on the telescope.
- Astrophotography takes time to learn and master, and each photograph takes a lot of time to produce. You will spend many hours, possibly many evenings, on each photograph.
- You will also need a good quality computer and moderate computer skills to digitally process the images into a finished product.
- Plan to spend many hundreds to many thousands of dollars. You can do hobby-level astrophotography for a few hundred dollars, but the amazing high-quality photos you see attributed to amateur astrophotographers in astronomy magazines would typically involve a setup along these lines:
Telescope $1,000 to $10,000 Mount $2,000 to $20,000 Camera $1,000 to $10,000 (For dedicated astronomy CCD camera. Can be under $1000 by using a DSLR.) Computer, Software $1,000 or more
Remember the balance equation: optics, mount, and portability.
Start small and simple, with good quality equipment from a specialty store. Plan to upgrade after your skills develop. Visit star parties or other amateurs and try a variety of equipment types before you decide what best suits you.