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Introduction to Telescope Mounts

Although most beginner telescopes come with some form of mount included already, buying a mount separately can open many doors for more observing or imaging possibilities. For visual observers, an altitude-azimuth mount is the way to go. For astrophotographers doing deep sky imaging, an equatorial mount will yield the best results. Hybrid mounts combine the best of both worlds at a higher price point, and star trackers are like mini equatorial mounts for the traveling imager or beginner.

For astrophotography, especially for deep sky imaging, the mount is arguably the most important component of any setup. Yes, you read that right — even more important than the telescope or camera! The reason for this is that it is the mount alone that determines how accurately your camera and telescope can track the sky, and therefore how long you can expose for without experiencing star trails. Gathering as much light as possible is critical in deep sky astrophotography, and without a quality equatorial mount, you'll be limited in how much light you can gather in each exposure. For this reason, besides the camera and telescope, we recommend spending around half of your total budget on the mount itself for deep sky imaging.

Another important consideration for deep sky imaging with an equatorial mount is payload capacity. Payload capacity, which is how much weight the mount can carry (excluding counterweights), is the most important specification for any equatorial mount. Something to keep in mind for best imaging performance on most mounts is that the total weight of your telescope, camera, and any other accessories riding on the mount should be about 1/2 of the mount's listed payload capacity. Go too far over this rule-of-thumb figure, and your mount's tracking performance may suffer. This in turn causes star trails to occur more often due to tracking issues, effectively limiting the length of your exposures.

For visual observers who have a telescope but no mount, standalone altitude-azimuth mounts are a great choice. Many of these come with the same computerized, go-to capability that most equatorial mounts have. After a simple alignment process, this computerized go-to capability allows the mount to not only find and point to objects automatically for you, but track them and keep them centered through the eyepiece. For binocular observers, a tripod with an altitude-azimuth head makes for a simple and enjoyable experience, and parallelogram-style mounts improve upon this by allowing for even more comfortable viewing angles.

Whether you're just hoping to add tracking and go-to capability to your existing visual telescope or you've got your sights set on photographing faint galaxies and nebulae, we offer a wide variety of mounts for any need. Continue reading below to learn more about each type of mount and find the best one for you.

Altitude-Azimuth Mounts

Best for visual observing and basic imaging

Altitude-azimuth mounts, or alt-az for short, are ideal for visual observing and are the easiest type of mount to use. They move in the altitude (up & down) and azimuth (left & right) directions, ensuring that the telescope always stays upright for comfortable eyepiece viewing. This makes alt-az mounts a perfect choice for any visual observer. As an added bonus, they can be used for some basic imaging of bright objects like the moon, sun, and planets.

For deep sky imaging, however, alt-az mounts are not an ideal choice. This is because the stars appear to spin in a curved motion throughout the night causing objects to slowly rotate through a telescope, which is an effect called field rotation. Alt-az mounts cannot fully account for field rotation with simple up, down, left, and right movements, and can only track the night sky for a few seconds at a time without star trailing occurring in images. Equatorial mounts, especially German equatorial mounts, will be a much better choice for those looking to do deep sky imaging as they can accurately track objects for much longer. However, alt-az mounts, including Dobsonian telescopes, are still the ideal choice for any visual observer.

Explore Altitude-Azimuth Mounts

Equatorial Mounts

Best for astrophotography, especially deep sky imaging

Equatorial mounts are ideal for astrophotography, and come in many different shapes and sizes. Equatorial mounts work by aligning to one of the celestial poles in line with the axis that Earth spins around. By aligning to the celestial pole, an equatorial mount can cancel out the apparent motion of the stars during the night caused by the rotation of the Earth. As a result, this allows equatorial mounts to stay locked onto targets for hours at a time, enabling the long exposures required for deep sky astrophotography. This is in stark contrast to alt-az mounts, which can still track objects but cannot account for field rotation, and are therefore limited to exposures only a few seconds long.

Equatorial mounts range from being lightweight and portable, such as star trackers, all the way up to large and heavy mounts designed to be permanently installed in an observatory. Here at OPT, we carry all of these varieties, and are happy to help you find which one works best for you. For true beginners in astrophotography, we recommend starting off with a portable star tracker and using a DSLR/Mirrorless camera and lens or lightweight telescope.

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Hybrid Mounts

Best for both visual and imaging, but at a higher price point

Hybrid mounts utilize the best of both worlds and can be used in both alt-az mode and equatorial mode — usually shortened to AZ/EQ. This makes them great tools for both visual observing and imaging, which is ideal for those who enjoy swapping back and forth between the two such as for public outreach events. Unlike converting an alt-az mount to an equatorial mount by using a wedge, these hybrid mounts have a true counterweight system like German Equatorial Mounts do, and can therefore be used with excellent results for astrophotography. When used in alt-az mode, some hybrid mounts can even carry two telescopes of similar weight at once. This can give an added benefit of observing at multiple focal lengths without swapping eyepieces. Of course, the added functionality of both AZ and EQ modes mean that hybrid mounts cost more than alt-az or equatorial mounts on their own, but hybrid mounts are a fitting choice for those who frequently do both.

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Star Trackers

Best for beginning astrophotographers and those who want ultimate portability

Star trackers are a perfect choice for those looking to enter the hobby of astrophotography, especially those who already own a DSLR/Mirrorless camera. Most star trackers carrying a DSLR/Mirrorless camera and a lens can track the night sky with ease, which allows for exposures many times longer than just a normal tripod. These mounts are best for imaging widefield targets like the Milky Way Galaxy and some larger deep sky objects like the Orion Nebula when paired with a longer focal length lens or telescope.

Unlike their close German Equatorial Mount cousins, star trackers are designed to carry a light payload, are much more portable, and aren't as expensive. Another key difference from German Equatorial Mounts is that most star trackers don't have go-to capability, meaning you'll have to point them manually. Some heavier-duty star trackers, like the Star Adventurer Pro or SkyGuider Pro, can carry enough weight to hold a telephoto lens or even a small and ultralight refractor telescope such as the Radian Raptor 61. Although these star trackers can't track as accurately as larger German Equatorial Mounts and often only track in one axis (RA) instead of two, they are usually still a great choice for anyone just starting out in astrophotography.

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FAQs

Still have questions? We have answers.

Which mount should I buy?

In as simple of an answer as possible, here is which mount type we recommend based on your skill level and what you're trying to do:

Beginner Intermediate & Advanced
Visual Observing Usually comes with telescope Alt-Az
Deep Sky Astrophotography Star Tracker German Equatorial Mount
Planetary Astrophotography Alt-Az German Equatorial Mount
Both Visual & Imaging Alt-Az Hybrid Mount


Though the chart above can be used as a guide, we recommend doing more research to find the mount you want based on your budget and what you want to do. Once you've got it narrowed down to a few choices, contact our Sales team to help finalize your decision.

Can I use a motorized alt-az mount for astrophotography?

The short answer: yes, you can! The long answer: using an alt-az mount for astrophotography can have its limitations. If you're just looking to take images of bright objects within the solar system, such as the moon and planets, then an alt-az mount will be a good choice.

If you're hoping to take images of deep sky objects, this is where alt-az mounts reach their limits. Depending on your camera and your telescope's focal length, an alt-az mount can track the night sky for up to 30 seconds or so before star trails start to occur. This is long enough to capture some of the brightest deep sky objects like the Orion Nebula, but is not long enough to capture most deep sky objects, which are very faint.

How do you attach a telescope to the mount?

Telescope mounts have a part called the saddle, which is where the telescope connects to the mount. The part of the telescope that connects to the mount is called the dovetail. The telescope attaches to the mount via the dovetail being clamped down by the saddle, which has knob tightening screws to hold the telescope securely in place. Dovetails and saddles come in two common shapes:

  • Vixen / V-style): found on almost all beginner equipment, used to carry smaller & lighter telescopes
  • Losmandy / D-style: found on higher end telescope equipment, used to carry larger & heavier telescopes

Some modern mounts feature saddles that can carry both types of dovetails. This is convenient as it lets you swap between smaller and larger telescopes easily without having to remove dovetails.

Glossary

Tracking
This is the process of tracking an object as it moves throughout the night sky. If a mount has tracking, it likely means it has motors to keep an object centered in view when looking through the telescope.

Computerized
This means that the mount not only features motors for tracking the night sky, but it also has a built-in computer that can automatically point the mount (and telescope) to an object of your choice and track it. Computerized mounts come with an accessory called a hand controller, which is a wired remote control used to control the mount.

GoTo
Similar to computerized, this specifically means that the mount can "go to" an object of your choosing when you select one on the hand controller. You'll often see "computerized go-to" used together.

Motor Drive / Clock Drive
This usually implies that the mount is not computerized, but still has motors that can track the night sky. You need to manually point the telescope at the object, but it will keep it centered and not drift out of the eyepiece.