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If you are buying your first telescope you have to decide what are you going to use it for and how much money are you willing to spend on it.
In this article, I will explain in depth how to decide what telescope you should buy based on my personal experience. The main reason why I wanted to buy a telescope is that I love astronomy since childhood and I self-studied it, but I never had my own.
How much should I spend on my first telescope?
Many people think that they can start with a cheap telescope. And that’s true if you only want to do basic skywatching or spy on your neighbors. But. When you plan to pursue this hobby to future, and you are serious about it, buying a cheap telescope (under $100) is money thrown out of the window. Believe me; I made the same mistake.
That being said, you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars and actually, you shouldn’t because you can buy an excellent telescope in a price range around $400. Later on, you can decide if you want an upgrade and you can buy more expensive stuff or an entirely different type of telescope. You also have to keep in mind that except telescope you will need accessories too. So, my recommendation is to buy a telescope around $400 which is not cheap but also not expensive.
This price range is the sweet spot in telescope world for beginners, and you will be able to do many things with it.
What are you going to use it for?
I wanted to use my telescope to see the Moon, Planets but also deep sky objects which are invisible with a cheap scope. I was also planning that in the future I would like to start doing astrophotography and video astronomy.
If you want to use the telescope only for observing the sky, you have a lot of options. And basically, it doesn’t matter what you choose because the only thing you have to decide is between refractor and reflector which I explain later.
If you plan to use the telescope to photograph planets or deep sky objects like me you need the telescope with navigation on a tracking mount which is more expensive.
What is the difference between refracting and reflecting telescopes?
I am not going to explain it from a physics point of view, how these two work and what is the difference between them because you only need to know the main difference to decide for the purchase.
The refractor telescope uses lenses and reflector telescope uses mirrors. The reflector telescope is also called Newtonian. It is cheaper to make a big mirror. Making a big lens is more expensive. Because of that, you can buy big reflectors cheaper than refractors.
The advantage of a bigger aperture of a reflector telescope is that you can see more sky objects like nebulas because you are capturing more light. With a smaller aperture, you can’t see that- the objects are faint because you’re capturing less light.
That is why I recommend for beginners to buy bigger reflector because the sky watching will be more beautiful. There is a simple rule: the bigger is better:) Based on all this I bought the reflector telescope, and I definitely encourage all beginners to go for it, you won’t be disappointed.
The aperture vs. focal length
This is a big topic to cover, and it needs a separate article, but I try to explain the basics. What do you need to know as a beginner? The aperture is the diameter of the telescope, and the primary role of it is to capture the light- bigger the aperture is, fainter objects you can observe.
However, you don’t need to focus on getting a bigger aperture when observing the Moon or Planets because these objects are very bright. You can watch them with any telescope. If you want to see deep sky objects you need a big diameter telescope.
The length of the telescope determines the magnification, but it’s not so simple. Every telescope comes with few eyepieces in different sizes (focal length)- for example, you can be using 10mm eyepiece on 650mm long telescope which results in 65x magnification.
The magnification is calculated by dividing the length of the tube with the size of the eyepiece. Any telescope with magnification more than 300 is basically useless as there is a limitation on Earth because of our atmosphere.
The bigger is magnification you use to observe the object the more significant is the atmospheric distortion. The result is distortion so high that images are fuzzy. I suggest you get the bigger aperture because the magnification is not that important in telescopes.
What are Schmidt-Cassegrain and Maksutov-Cassegrain?
Essentially, this is the combination of both reflector and refractor design. It’s the best of both worlds. They are using catadioptric design to combine lens and mirrors, and the advantage of this is the portability. Thanks to catadioptric design those telescopes can be physically smaller and deliver the same results as big telescopes.
On the other hand, the Schmidt-Cassegrain and Maksutov-Cassegrain are expensive telescopes. To sum it up, if you have the budget that allows you to spend this much money, go for it and buy it- they are a fantastic piece of equipment even for beginners.
What is the best mount for beginners? Altazimuth vs. Equatorial vs. Dobson?
When I was buying my telescope, this was the critical question for me. I knew I wanted to do astrophotography and I knew the equatorial mount is better for it. What I found out is that not only I need an equatorial mount, but the mount also has to have an electronic tracking.
The problem was these mounts were quite expensive for me and, anyway I was looking for the package- tube, and mount together, not buying it separately.
Ok, so let’s break it down.
The Altazimuth mount is easy and fast to set up; it is perfect for a beginner. However, it is moving in two axis -Altitude and Azimuth. That means it’s a lot of work to keep the object in the view. Altazimuth mount is not suitable for big and heavy telescopes. Despite the fact it’s not amazing for astrophotography I choose this type of mount and I had excellent results. I will share it with you in another article.
The Equatorial mount is more complicated to set up than Altazimuth mount. It is moving in one axis (equatorial- according to the equator) so it’s easier to use for tracking the object. That is the main reason why Equatorial is the most suitable mount for astrophotography. It can handle big and more massive telescopes, but of course, this results in a higher price.
Basically, this is an altazimuth mount, but it can handle huge and heavy scopes. It’s the cheapest of all three, and usually, only Newtonian telescopes (reflectors) are carried by them. Dobsonian is a smart choice for beginners because of the low price and big aperture.
GoTo vs. Manual telescope
I bought, and I recommend you if you’re a beginner to buy a goto telescope. It’s because it’s easy to use and you will learn positions of the objects faster this way.
What do you think that manual means? Yes, you’re right! You have to move telescope manually 😀 You have to run the scope with knobs, and it’s a lot of work to keep the object in the view. The price of the manual is low, and the manual mount is enough for the basic sky watching. Keep in mind, if you don’t know the night sky and where objects are you will need a star map or software to help you. At the moment, there are many apps for your phone which can help you with that. I recommend Stellarium. Beware you can’t use it for astrophotography.
This is the mount which is semi-automatic. Firstly, you have to find an object in the sky manually, then turn on the motor on the mount which is compensating for the earth rotation. Motorised mounts are commonly seen with equatorial mounts because they’re rotating around one axis and it is easy to track the object and keep it in the center. It is suitable for astrophotography and video astronomy. I would also say that this type of mount is appropriate for enthusiasts and people who like to learn the star map themselves.
The fully automatic mount with GPS navigation and tracking. It’s a bit harder to set up than the previous scopes. However, once you set it all up, it’s effortless to use. You use the controller to put the name of the object, and then the telescope will automatically find it, point it and keep tracking it until you change another object. The database of the GoTo system contains more than 42000 objects so you definitely won’t be bored. This system is possible to use with any mount- Altazimuth, Equatorial or Dobson. The GoTo is a bit pricey, but it’s worth the money and is perfect for beginners.
Conclusion: What telescope should you buy?
After all the research I made, I decided to go with the Newtonian telescope on Altazimuth mount with GoTo system. It’s not perfect for the astrophotography but I worked around that problem, and I got decent results with it. I bought Celestron NexStar 130/650 GoTo (click to see it on Amazon). From this specification, you can see that the diameter of the mirror is 130mm and the focal length of the tube is 650mm. As an amateur astronomer, I was very happy with it as my first real telescope, and it’s worth every dollar.
To sum it up, if you love astronomy and you like to observe the sky you can do it with whatever equipment you have- telescope, binoculars or even with a naked eye. It doesn’t matter, enjoy your hobby. Although, if you mean it with skywatching and astronomy seriously, invest more money in your telescope and accessories and you won’t be disappointed.
Here are some of my favorite gear
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful as you learn more about telescopes. Here are some of the gear I use and recommend.
Beginner telescope: This is by far the best beginner telescope you can buy. The Orion SkyQuest XT6 is the perfect telescope to start with. The aperture is big enough to see almost every object in the night sky and on the other hand, the price is so low for what this telescope can do.
My astrophotography telescope: I use only a newtonian telescope to do astrophotography. I use an 8" newtonian astrograph telescope.
If you want more recommendations please check my recommended gear section.