Choosing the Best Astrophotography Telescope for Beginners
When most people hear the term "astrophotography," what immediately comes to mind is somebody aiming their DSLR camera (or their phone) up to the night sky and click! Beautiful, throw it on Instagram. Done.
Technically, that isn't wrong. That's wide-field astrophotography in its simplest form!
But you’re not going to get very far with single short exposures.
If you want to get a good grasp on the nitty-gritty of this hobby, we have an in-depth DSLR astrophotography blog to get you up to speed with wide-field imaging. The purpose of this guide is to get you well-equipped with the necessary basics of the hobby so you can comfortably move forward and seize the night. We’re fortunate enough to have been involved with this hobby for over 70 years now, so we’re excited to pass this knowledge on to you!
If you’re eager to quickly browse around for your first telescope and don’t need this information right now, that’s fine! We’ve compiled a list of the best telescope setups for astrophotography to suit whatever your goals are. With that said, let’s get started!
WHAT MAKES A GOOD TELESCOPE FOR ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY?
As you know, a favorite pastime in astronomy is to gaze upon the moon, planets, and more through the eyepiece of a telescope. Some scopes are better suited for that while others are specifically designed to be used with a camera. Here we’ll look at some of the most important aspects when starting out.
Simply: how long your telescope is. More advanced: the distance from your first lens to the focus point of your camera. A focal length of 1000 mm (40 inches) doesn’t necessarily mean your telescope is physically that long.
Your focal length is essentially the primary factor in determining what kind of astroimaging you’re doing and what celestial bodies you can reliably capture. A telescope’s focal length is effectively the magnification you’re getting with the scope.
This functions in the exact same manner as lenses on a standard DSLR camera. Increasing the focal length on your camera lens allows you to “zoom in” on your target.
Ultimately, that means the amount of night sky you’re able to see or to image at once is inherently limited by the focal length.
For reference, wide-field astrophotography setups generally stay at or below 70 mm focal length. Any longer and you’ll start finding some objects difficult to catch in one frame.
Focal length also influences another major factor in all of this, which is the focal ratio.
If you’ve ever looked at a photography ad or read an article on cameras, there’s a good chance that focal ratio was involved.
The focal ratio is primarily displayed as an f-number that looks like f/6.5, with the number portion varying wildly.
This is what determines whether a scope is “fast” or “slow.” Scopes with a low f-number gathers the light coming in more efficiently. So, your camera exposures with a lower number might be 10 seconds instead of the 20 seconds that a higher (slower) focal ratio would need to get the same amount of data (light).
Your focal ratio, like in standard photography, is determined by your telescope’s focal length and aperture.
For a moment, think of your telescope as a bucket sitting out in the rain.
A bucket with a wide rim inevitably fills faster than one with a small rim, a smaller diameter.
Now think of light particles as raindrops.
The wide bucket collects rain more quickly than a narrow bucket just as a larger aperture telescope collects light more efficiently than a smaller one.
In terms of fast and slow telescopes mentioned above, a telescope with a larger aperture will generally yield brighter images per shot because more light is coming in while the camera shutter is open. Simple enough, right? This whole concept can get rather complicated and dizzying with more accessories, but that’s the basic idea.
How portable a telescope system is often comes as an afterthought for beginners in the hobby.
Are you keeping this at home? Do you want to bring this out to the desert?
Will it fit in your car?
These are things you’ll need to consider when buying your first telescope.
One system might weigh 30 pounds in total while others might weigh over 100 pounds! Telescope manufacturers understand this, thankfully, and nearly every telescope system can be disassembled for easier transporting.
Are you one that likes to rush out and grab the flashiest thing involved in a new hobby when just getting started? Some of us are guilty of that, too, and the telescope tube itself is usually what gets people most excited.
Astrophotography has taught us to temper that urge, though. When it comes to this hobby, absolutely the most important piece of your setup is… your mount.
That may sound odd, but even if you have the best camera and the best telescope, your images will ultimately look awful with a cheap mount. The most beautiful building will eventually crumble with a faulty foundation, and the same logic applies here.
Your mount is responsible for more than just holding everything together. Telescope mounts are tasked with tracking the objects we choose in the night sky, among other things, and if the mount has poor tracking or cheap materials, these faults will show in your images and potentially put the rest of your equipment in danger.
What you’ll need is a computerized—or at least motorized—equatorial mount able to hold your telescope and camera with no issue. Equatorial mounts are the standard when it comes to astrophotography because, unlike altitude-azimuth mounts that track in a stair-stepping manner, these rotate on a single axis for smooth tracking.
WHICH IS THE BEST TYPE OF TELESCOPE FOR ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY?
REFRACTING VS REFLECTING TELESCOPES
At the most basic level, every telescope in the world is some adapted form of either a refracting or reflecting telescope.
Refracting telescopes are most likely what comes to mind when you think of what a telescope “looks like.” These are the classic tube design that use specialized and extremely precise glass lenses to refract and focus incoming light to a perfect point.
Reflecting telescopes have, over the years, varied wildly in style. The most iconic variation of the reflecting telescope is the Dobsonian, which looks like a cannon from old cartoons. Reflectors have 2 or more mirrors that literally reflect light off one another, bringing a focused beam into the eyepiece or camera.
WHICH IS BETTER?
This is essentially a trick question. Neither is necessarily “better," but rather each has its own set of bonuses and challenges, its own personality.
Refractor Telescopes are historically more widely used for astrophotography than reflectors, but these are also prone to chromatic aberration unless we dip into the higher-end “triplet” refractors. The aberration occurs when incoming, varied wavelengths of light reach the focus point at slightly different angles, leading to color fringing that looks like this:
Nonetheless, these are an excellent choice when opting for something more portable, and chromatic aberration will not really be an issue for most beginning astronomers.
Reflector Telescopes have become increasingly popular and seen much innovation over the years with some of the best astrophotography telescopes around being reflectors. While reflectors cannot suffer from chromatic aberration, these are inherently a bit more tedious to maintain and are almost always larger than refractors. But don’t let that deter you!
Each telescope type is wonderful in its own way, but if you want to dive deep into how each works we have some resources for you! Check out our blog on the basic telescope types or our video below for all the information you could ever want.
WHAT TYPE OF ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY IS FOR YOU?
We’ve got two styles of astrophotography to choose from, and they’re both the right choice: wide-field and deep-sky.
Each is challenging in its own way and requires different equipment, but either is an incredible experience and you’ll more than likely try both at some point.
Wide-field astrophotography is the most common style you’ll see on Instagram or anywhere else. These are the images where the Milky Way is bursting into shot, streaking across the photo in a glorious display. Most beginners start with this style because it’s “easier” and less gear-intensive.
Photo Credit: Travis Burke
One immediate benefit of wide-field astrophotography is that it’s extremely forgiving. Your mount doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect and neither does your technique (but that’s no reason to slack off!).
You can simply grab a camera, camera mount, and a tripod, and you’re ready to go!
This is where things can get tricky (call us if you need help!). You’ve likely seen some deep-sky images around the internet as well, but certainly less than the Milky Way. Deep-sky shots are generally nebulas and galaxies, with two of the most prominent targets being the Orion Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy. Capturing these images is inherently more difficult when starting out.
Some people want to make their imaging system as complex as possible for the sake of the challenge. Some want a perfectly optimized system for the greatest possible photos or for research data that cannot tolerate errors. Most people just want to put a system together that works well and start taking pictures as soon as possible. Most of us at OPT land in that last category, and we think you’ll enjoy being there too.
GET YOUR OWN TELESCOPE SYSTEM STARTED TODAY
Whether you’re totally new to astrophotography or you’re an expert in standard photography, we’ll help you get started in this new venture!
For more information on all of this, check out our Astronomy for Beginners page that’s got all the information you’ll need. We’ve also made an interactive guide for you to simply choose what you want to do and what you’ll need for it!
Never hesitate to call us with any questions you have about all of this.
Stay safe out there, and keep looking up!