I am so excited about this article because I put a lot of research into it and a lot of trying over the years. When I started to use my first telescope, I was also struggling a little bit, but it’s normal. You have to find your own routine and search for hacks that work for you. That being said I cumulated 13 tips and hacks which I personally tried and find them helpful and I think you’ll appreciate them too. They’re mostly for beginners but hey, even if you’re intermediate or “amateur pro”:D many times you overlook something or don’t realize it can be useful unless someone else points it out.
1. Get a Red Flashlight
In astronomy, you have to learn to love darkness, but I don’t think this is new information for you. The best skywatching experience you can get is in the darkest environment. Your night vision will set in, and your eyes will adapt but still, you will need some source of light to move around. To get this without compromising your night vision you need a flashlight.
You need a flashlight which is suitable for astronomers. You can’t get a regular one because as I said above, you need your night vision at its best to have great skywatching.
More your iris will adapt to darkness more you can see, but it takes a while so don’t spoil it with use of a wrong light source. Actually, it can take up 30-45 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to darkness and with any light disruption, it’s gone in a second.
So here come more tips. Prepare everything you might need for your session beforehand. Proper clothes, water, snacks… Also, set up your computer if you plan to do astrophotography or video astronomy. Avoid going back inside the house but if you must, go with your red flashlight.
2. Dress Well
Pretty obvious tip but very often underestimated. Layer your clothing and be prepared for worse. It’s always better to shed some clothes off than not to have enough. Imagine a beautiful clear night, perfect for observation, and you’re forced to go home or to cancel the viewing because you or anyone with you is freezing. Especially if you travel on some great spot and came unprepared. Not good, huh? Be prepared even if you are close to your home or at home. It will save you time and trips inside won’t compromise your night vision.
3. Pick The Observation Sight Well
Before you start setting up your scope put some thought in where to do it. This can highly influence your viewing experience so make sure you choose the best spot that is available to you. Try not to set up on concrete as the concrete is cumulating the heat and then during the night you can see heat waves releasing which will compromise viewing. It is best to watch over the grass, away from the city lights, not over the buildings (they can release heat as well), with a 360 degrees view (the best case scenario).
Also, set up your telescope on the same spot every time.
This is how you can get accurate readings and keep the settings on your scope. Mark the place where the tripod stands with stickers or use marker, or stick something to the ground.
4. Make Sure You Take The Lens Cap Off
Yes, really! I’m not trying to insult you, but many people don’t know or forgot about it. Sometimes the lens cap on your scope is made of two pieces. If this is your case, take not only a small middle one out but also a large part of the cap. The only exception is when you’re observing the Moon. You keep the outside part of the lens cap on because you have to lower the brightness of the Moon. Especially during a full moon otherwise won’t be able to see details.
You can also fix this by using a moon filter or picking the observation time for a different phase of the moon than a full moon. The moon filter is a nice little gadget that will cut down the glare from the moon, and it’s like sunglasses for your telescope 😎 (You’ll benefit from it if your telescope has more than 75mm diameter which is about 3inches.)
5. Improve The Stability Of The Tripod
Usually, with scopes, all weight of an instrument is at the top. You can improve stability by attaching something heavy to a tripod- a lot of weight will go down, and center of gravity will go lower. If you do this, telescope feels much more substantial and secure, and it will minimize the effects of wind or shakes from walking around or any kind of vibration.
How to improve the stability? It’s an easy DIY project, just take a heavy object -whatever you can find at home, put it in the carrier bag and attach it with wire or rope to the tripod.
6. Give It a Chance To Acclimatize To The Outside Temperature
This tip really is for beginners. You always need some time before a telescope is ready for observation outside. It usually takes around 30minutes. This point is mainly intended for reflectors because they are open system instruments and the heat is coming out from them- from the tube, and it’s causing the heat turbulence in front of the mirror. The image is too fuzzy if you don’t wait. Wait until temperatures are even and of course, the bigger your telescope, the longer you have to wait.
7. Safety!! When Observing The Sun
Do you remember how we were thought as kids never to look at the sun with a naked eye? And this counts 1000x more for observing the sun with a telescope. Never ever watch the sun through a telescope or any other optical instrument (binoculars, etc.) without a solar filter! In a fraction of second, it would severely damage your eye.
Be particularly careful with kids! I can’t stress this enough. Make sure they know, and the parents know what are they doing, and it would be probably the best not to leave them without supervision.
Don’t forget the telescope has a pretty narrow field of view so it might not be so obvious that you might have trouble finding the sun. Instead of using a finder or anything like that you can find the sun by using a simple physics of the shadow. Steer the telescope until you get the smallest possible profile of the scope. Very easy, very clear when it’s pointing pretty well at the sun and when it’s not.
8. Collimation Is Your Friend
When you get your telescope, you need to get to this as soon as possible. If you own a reflector scope of course. It’s not important for refractors because they work as a closed system with lenses where collimation is a nonexisting issue. Collimation is an alignment of mirrors in the telescope. Aligning your mirrors regularly can improve the image by 30-40%. you can do that easily with simple collimation eyepiece.
9. How To Get The Best Focus
When atmospheric conditions are not great you know you’ll have trouble to determine whether the image you see is in focus. It can be frustrating, but it has a surprisingly easy solution.
You can use a gadget that many scopes already come with to help achieve the focus. Many scopes come with a tube cover with two holes- a focusing mask, and maybe you were wondering why is it there or what is it for…The idea is to turn everything you’re looking at into two images instead of one.
This works to achieve the focus because, for the human eye, it’s easier to determine whether images are moving and judging distances than figuring out whether the image is fuzzy or not so fuzzy. So, when you pop the focus mask on, and you look into the eyepiece, when it’s out of focus you will see two images, when it’s bang on focus, you’ll see only one image.
If you don’t have the focus mask included with your telescope, you can easily make your own from a cardboard or you can buy Bahtinov Focus Mask. But be sure to buy the right size for your telescope.
10. A Simple Way To Use a Filter
Naturally, your eyepieces, if they’re good ones will be equipped with a filter thread where manufacturer intend you to fit the filter or other accessories.
But there is also an easy way how to use them, and that’s by simply dropping the filter into the eyecap, and you’ll get all the benefits of using them as you need. There is also another way of using the filter if you are using a refractor telescope. Screw it in into diagonal (if it has a filter thread) and that way you can change eyepieces without removing the filter all the time.
11. Find Deep Space Objects Easily
You know how sometimes, you are fishing around trying to find deep sky objects? Yes, it’s annoying, I’ve been there. You might feel that it’s a good idea to enlarge the field of view which seems logical but actually is wrong. Do quite the opposite- increase the power of an eyepiece and narrow the field of view.
The reason for it is that it will make the background darker and colors and objects to pop out, and they will be easily found.
12. Make a Shade When Observing The Sun
When you’re looking at the sun (with a solar filter of course) the area around the eyepiece will be extremely illuminated. It’s uncomfortable and hard to enjoy the experience with light shining on your face and not being able to see into an eyepiece properly. You can use a simple hack which will help with viewing.
You can make it from cardboard. Use a square piece of cardboard, cut the hole with a diameter of your telescope and just sling it on the tube. Don’t forget to put the solar filter back on. That’s it! It doesn’t look awesome, but it does the job 😀
13. Keep an Observing Log
Writing an astro journal is something that I really enjoy for a while now. The only thing you need is a notebook plus you can also download observation record sheets from the internet.
You can be brutally honest because you’re writing it for yourself. It’s a fun way to keep track of what you saw or attempted to saw, but you didn’t, but also how you felt and any fun stuff that happened (the weir noise from near forest made you pack early, etc.🙂) You’ll be surprised how it will sharpen your observation skills too.