What’s the most common question we are asked at SPOG? You guessed it, tis this one:
“I want to buy a telescope. Which one is the best?”
This is a very common question, and with good reason: most first-time buyers find the vast array of telescope types, models and price points daunting. Now let me flip it around: what if someone asked you:
“I want to buy a car. Which one is the best?”
You’d reply “That depends – what is your budget and what do you want to use it for?” It’s the same with telescopes – so this is our cut-out and keep guide to buying a first scope.
Step 1: Buy some binoculars
“I just told you, I want to buy a telescope: now you’re telling me to buy binoculars?” Bear with us here, there is logic at work.
As a novice stargazer, you are the equivalent of a learner driver. You need the astro equivalent of a friendly Toyota Yaris to help you learn clutch control and steering. When you have learned to drive you can get that Ferrari you’ve always dreamt about.
Most telescopes will present you with an inverted view of the sky: down is up, left is right. You will be viewing a very narrow portion of the sky which can make finding things a huge challenge. The mount may need to be polar aligned, and even computerised scopes need to be aligned to a known star, so you need to know your way around the sky. Using a telescope without a bit of ground work can be a frustrating experience, and for many people their stargazing interest grinds to a halt because they bought the wrong scope too soon.
By contrast, binoculars are cheap, light, intuitive to use, present a right-way-up-image and may already be in your house. What’s more, you can see loads of good stuff in them: Jupiter and its moons, the Orion Nebula, the craters on the Moon. No self-respecting stargazer would be without binoculars for those nights when using the scope is just too much faff.
So do yourself a favour and get some bins. 8x40s, 10x50s or 15x70s are popular choices, but any functioning bin will work well.
Step 2: Join an Astro club
“Fer chrissakes, now what? I want to buy a scope not join a club.”
Remember the original question? “I want to buy a telescope. Which one is the best?” The problem is there’s no simple answer. The best model for you depends on a number of things:
- Your budget – astronomy is one of those terrible hobbies with no upper limit on what you can spend. You can get a great scope for £200. You can get a great scope for £10,000. Or you can make a very expensive mistake.
- Your location – it is no good buying a large 16″ reflector if you live in a 5th floor flat in a city centre.
- What you want to look at – some scopes are good on planets, some on galaxies. A few are good all-rounders.
- How you want to observe – are you a thrill-of-the-chase person, happy to spend half an hour finding an elusive nebula? Or would you prefer to go straight to your target and maximise your viewing time?
- Are you a visual observer, or are you tempted by the Dark Side – aka astro imaging? These two sub-hobbies need wildly different equipment and budgets.
So the best way to answer these questions is to see and use a variety of equipment in the field, talk to other people like yourself about their choices, reasons and experiences, and form your own view. You can’t test-drive a car in the showroom and the same goes for a telescope.
There are a number of local groups you can hook up with – they’re all friendly types and will welcome your interest. Come for a session with SPOG, or one of the other local groups – we have listed them here.
Step 3: Buying the Telescope
“At last, we get to the point!”
So you borrowed some bins, had a chat to the local astro group, decided which type you think you want to buy: where should you go?
If it’s time for you to make a commitment, the first piece of advice we would give is avoid:
- Department stores
- Ordinary camera stores
- The internet
That’s right, the internet. We’ll come back to why in a moment.
Department stores and non-astro camera shops generally don’t have a clue what they’re selling, and you could well end up with an expensive disappointment. These shops are awash with telescopes around the tempting £100 mark, usually with poor optics on flimsy mounts. What does it matter what magnification it goes to if Jupiter won’t stay put in the eyepiece? Ebay is one of the worst offenders – there are bargains to be had but they are outnumbered 10 to 1 by cheap nasty scopes with no practical comeback. Best avoided.
As for the rest of internet, there are some great suppliers with great kit at great prices. But there’s also a lot of dross, and have you ever tried packaging fragile optics for return to a remote shipper? As a first time buyer you will benefit from one-to-one advice and the ability to return an item or get extra help. Later, when the inevitable aperture-fever kicks in, you can go shopping online for a bigger scope.
So for your first scope, go the old-fashioned route and visit a shop. There are three in the area I would recommend, and one in particular. See our shops guide here.
“OK, that’s all good stuff and I’m going to do all those things. But if you had to recommend me a scope what would it be?”
Well, if you really want an opinion on the one scope that we would recommend to a first time buyer, it would be this one.
Its a good all-rounder – key features are:
- no electronics which means all your money is going into the optics.
- alt-az mount – intuitive to use and will help you learn to navigate the sky.
- a great visual-only scope on both bright and faint objects.
- cheap and holds its value well.
Some of us own its bigger brother and the optics, useability and build quality are great.
Now admit it, you had a completely different scope in mind didn’t you? Hence the reason why you should follow the steps above before committing…