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If you are looking to buy the first telescope, you have to decide what type of mount you want for your telescope. The mount is the most important factor of the telescope assembly. There are two main types of telescope mounts: The Alt-Azimuth mount and the Equatorial mount.
The best type of telescope mount to start with is the Alt-Azimuth mount because it is easy to use and set up. Equatorial mounts are more advanced mounts that require polar alignment and are tricky to set up for a beginner. Alt-Azimuth mounts are also a cheaper option compare to Equatorial mounts. However, Equatorial mounts are necessary to do astrophotography.
But let’s take a closer look at Altazimuth and Equatorial mount to see where each of them excel and what are the advantages and disadvantages so you can decide for yourself.
What Is Telescope Mount
The Telescope mount is the most crucial part of the whole telescope setup. What type of telescope mount you choose will result in what you can do with your telescope.
The telescope mount sits on top of the tripod. Remember, the tripod is not the mount. But it is also important because it has to be sturdy to have the best stargazing experience, no matter if you use alt-azimuth mount or equatorial mount, so keep this in mind.
Avoid flimsy aluminum or wooden tripods and look for a sturdy steel legs tripod because it can ruin your experience even if you have the best telescope and mount on it. It needs to be stable to avoid vibrations and shakiness of the telescope.
There is also a telescope mount that doesn’t use a tripod called Dobsonian mount, but I will talk about it later.
What Is Alt-Azimuth Mount
The Alt-Azimuth(AZ) mount is the simplest mount for the telescope. Alt means altitude, and Azimuth is, of course, azimuth. The name is telling you how the mount moves.
It uses very simple movements following alt-azimuth grid coordinates; up/down is altitude, and left/right is azimuth. The center of this grid is called Zenith. The mount Azimuth axis is at a right angle to the ground. The Alt-Azimuth mount doesn’t need any polar alignment because of this simple design. You just point it wherever you want, and you can start observing the sky.
Alt-Azimuth mounts come in different shapes and sizes and are usually sold with cheap beginner scopes. But that doesn’t mean that they are made only for beginners. Almost all big telescopes in observatories are placed on the alt-azimuth mounts.
What Is Equatorial Mount
The equatorial mount also called the German Equatorial mount(GEM), follows the equatorial coordinates on the night sky. The sky is rotating around the star Polaris – North celestial pole, which is the center of the equatorial gird.
The equatorial mount works on two axises. RA – right ascension axis and DEC – declination axis. The RA axis has to be aligned and pointed to the North celestial pole, which is called polar alignment.
When the polar alignment is spot on, and you point the telescope to a certain object, all you need to do to track this object across the sky is to move the telescope only around the RA axis. Unlike with the Alt-Azimuth mount where you have to always adjust the telescope in both altitude and azimuth.
It sounds complicated, but it is not very hard to set up, and following the equatorial grid has many advantages over the alt-azimuth mount, which I will list in the next parts of this article.
More expensive equatorial mounts are equipped with a polar scope that is very helpful during the polar alignment. The polar alignment doesn’t have to be super spot on when you do visual astronomy.
But for astrophotography, it’s critical to get the best polar alignment possible to do long exposure images with no star trails.
Alt-Azimuth Mount Advantages
- great for beginners
- easy to set up
- easy to use
- cheaper than an equatorial mount
- can handle heavier telescopes(Dobsonian mount)
- sufficient for planetary and moon imaging
- doesn’t need to be polar aligned
Alt-Azimuth Mount Disadvantages
- can not be used for long exposure deep-sky astrophotography
- harder to keep the object in the field of view
- field rotation
Equatorial Mount Advantages
- long exposure astrophotography
- easy to track the object and keep it in the field of view
- professional look
Equatorial Mount Disadvantages
- needs to be polar aligned
- complicated setup
- needs to be balanced using counterweights
- can’t carry big heavy telescopes
Alt-Azimuth Mount Astrophotography
As I said before, the alt-azimuth mount can’t be used for long-exposure astrophotography. The main problem is field rotation. Because the skies are rotating around the North celestial pole, following the object with the alt-azimuth is causing the rotation of the object in the field of view.
This issue is noticeable after doing more than 15-30s exposures with alt-azimuth mount because you get star trails around the edges and blurry result object. However, it can be done if you limit the exposure to no more than 30s. I have done it, and you can read more about AZ astrophotography in my article Budget Astrophotography with DSLR camera.
On the other hand, you can do planetary or the moon astrophotography with no problem because you don’t need to do long exposures here. All you need to do is attach a simple webcam or the smartphone to your telescope and capture a short video or make images.
Equatorial Mount Astrophotography
The equatorial mount is basically made for astrophotography. If your main goal with the telescope is to do astrophotography, then you need to buy a german equatorial mount.
With the equatorial mount, you can do long exposures lasting for a few minutes with no field rotation or star trail when properly polar aligned. But I must say one important thing. You need a motorized equatorial mount to track the object and do long-exposure astrophotography.
There is no way you can do it with the manual mount. It also applies to alt-azimuth mounts. Any astrophotography needs a computerized mount, and in this case, you have to do not only a polar alignment but also star alignment with the mount.
Astrophotography is a complicated hobby and bottomless money pit, so you have been warned:) If you really think about astrophotography, I recommend checking Trevor on astrobackyard.com, where you can find everything you need to start and become a professional astrophotographer.
If we are talking here about alt-azimuth and equatorial mount, I also have to mention Dobsonian mount. Dobsonian mount is basically alt-azimuth mount without the tripod.
The mount is a base sitting on the ground capable of holding big Newtonian telescopes. Dobsonian telescopes are the number one telescopes recommended for beginners starting with astronomy.
The advantages are the ease of use because of the Alt-Azimut design and affordable price. You can buy quite a big aperture telescope on Dobsonian mount and not break the bank. An excellent example here is the Orion SkyQuest XT8 Dobsonian telescope(my review). With this telescope, you can see almost everything in the night sky for a great price.
Hybrid Telescope Mounts – All In One
And to make things more confusing for you, there are also telescope mounts that I call hybrid mounts. They are essentially a hybrid of the alt-azimuth and equatorial mount.
These mounts work primarily as alt-azimuth mounts, and you can add a special equatorial wedge to them and transform an alt-azimuth mount to a german equatorial mount anytime you want.
The well known hybrid mounts are the Celestron Nextar serries with Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes. The example here is Celestron Nexstar 8SE(my review), a great telescope.
This is a smart option for beginners because if you are not sure you want to start with long-exposure astrophotography, you can have an amazing Schmidt Cassegrain telescope on an easy-to-use Alt-Azimuth mount. Later, when you decide to try astrophotography, you can add an equatorial wedge to it—no need to buy a new telescope on a German equatorial mount.
To sum it up and make the decision easy for you, here is my recommendation.
If you are a complete beginner looking for the first telescope and your main interest is visual astronomy, then go for the Alt-Azimuth mount, either manual or computerized, depends on what your budget allows.
Possibly the best option here is to buy a Dobsonian telescope because it is the best telescope for the money.
On the other hand, if your primary focus and interest are in astrophotography, then you need a telescope on a computerized equatorial mount. To help you out here, check my articles, the best telescope for astrophotography, and the best telescope mount for astrophotography.
I hope that this article helps you between the alt-azimuth mount and equatorial mount to make a choice that suits your needs.