Buying Your First Telescope, A Guide for Beginner Astrophotographers

Photography is an expensive hobby as it is, but if you’re interested in astrophotography, you’re looking at adding at least one more item to your camera bag. Well, actually, it won’t fit in your camera bag, because that item is a telescope.

And when it comes to selecting your first astrophotography-worthy telescope, the tips offered in the above video by Mr. Forrest Tanaka are invaluable and very well presented.

The detailed advice offered in the video is well worth the 32 minutes of your time it would take to watch it, but if you’re strapped for time, here’s a TL;DR (or DW?) version:

Your telescope selection will depend largely on a delicate balance between the type of astrophotography you intend to do, and the amount of money you’re willing to spend. Of the three types of telescopes — Newtonian, Schmidt–Cassegrain and Refractor — the first is most often your cheapest, and third your most expensive.

As far as specs are concerned, for planetary photography, concern yourself with focal length rather than aperture — planets are bright but small. Also, increasing your aperture will most quickly increase your price and blow your budget.

For deep space photography, make sure you select a quality mount, because you’re going to need to track objects that are (very) far away as you take longer-exposure shots. You’ll also likely spend more as you’ll have to focus on an increased aperture rather than focal length — nebula and galaxies are dim but huge.

Of course, the above few paragraphs barely scratch the surface of what Tanaka has to say, so if you’re interested in astrophotography, carve out half an hour and get educated. Selecting the right telescope (and mount) is crucial to snapping quality photos of everything from neighboring planets to galaxies far far away.

(via Reddit)

  • Tommy Sar

    I actually watched the whole thing and I enjoyed it. Very informative.

  • Flunn

    Make sure the telescope will work with a dslr. I spent $200 on a telescope, $30 on a motor drive, and $20 on a camera mount and it doesn’t work. Also live view on a 3″ screen would help because focusing in a tiny viewfinder is nearly impossible.

  • iowapipe

    getting advice from telescope makers, dealers and local clubs is very important. The guy in the video didn’t discuss other options and adapters that are available. I have always used Newtonians (first with film, then with CCD) and have yet to use a scope I have to modify. Astrographs aren’t necessary. My current scope is a schmidt-newtonian. It’s nice because the system is closed and stays cleaner. Just like lenses, buy a scope with well made optics and quality multi-coatings.
    The other half of the system is the mount and drive. If you plan to get into deep space work, you will need a drive that is designed for smoother tracking and better error correction. Like everything else, if you go cheap you won’t get the end result you wish for. Talk to people in your local astronomy clubs. They will typically help you decide on a base system that you can add to and/or modify down the road as your desire and skill increase.
    Refractors are your best bet for solar system work, and reflectors are best for deep space. (in a nutshell) Starting with solar system objects is easier because exposures are shorter and tracking errors (and errors in mount alignment) are easier to deal with. It’s a great way to cut your teeth. (be patient, if you are new to astro work you might feel like your skill has suddenly disappeared as you deal with a whole new set of gadgets and concerns)

  • forresttanaka

    Many thanks for publishing this! I’ll be doing a video on mounts in April, and a third on technique, accessories, and software in May. My newt didn’t work with a camera, and I got help with that from a lot of people who had the same problem, so I think it’s dangerous to buy a newt without knowing if it works, and astrographs guarantee they’ll work. iowapipe, I haven’t even seen a Schmidt-Newtonian, so that’s pretty cool. Keeping the system closed is nice, as my mirror gets noticeable dust on it within hours.

  • iowapipe

    True – always seek advice from those in the know. To be honest; if you are using a DSLR for astro work, you are likely not doing deep space or looooooong exposure work. For that, you will buy a specialized sensor that is cooled and doesn’t have filters that block useful wavelengths. Which also eliminates the prime focus issues usually. For planetary, solar and lunar work a T-adaper and eyepiece projection will often get you better results. If you are taking photos of star clusters (or a few of the largest galaxies, using a field flattening device will also help with the focusing distance. With a newtonian and solar astrophotography work; an off-axis solar filter that stops down your scope’s aperture is preferable to a full aperture filter (and much less expensive).
    Schmidt-Newtonians are much easier to find in the last 15 years and competitively priced.

  • Mike Smith

    I knew I shouldn’t have watched this. Now I want to buy a telescope…

  • forresttanaka

    I tell you, that Orion StarShoot Pro cooled CCD camera looks like an awfully tasty piece of equipment. Been looking to rent one of those, but haven’t seen a rental place that offers it. I’m planning on doing a video on building an off-axis solar filter for my Mak-Cass. Will have to do that before the end of solar max.

  • iowapipe

    yep – it is very hard to find places that rent. I’m always amazed at planetary work people do with stacking images from a webcam duct taped to the scope. ;)

  • wilmark johnatty

    Thanks Mr Tanaka. Do you have examples of what one can expect for the various levels of expenditure say for example with the Newtonian or the Cassegrain? Where can we see examples of your work? Do you have any videos that talk about the cameras – say using a full frame vs a cropped sensor – what about the 60D with the filter esp for astrophotography? How important is the camera? FF Cams are quite expensive, but most users would already have their camera. Do you have any content on workflows? We see great pictures out there but we dont realize that they are long exposures taken by trial and error and then combined etc. Would like to know more about these things. Thanks again.

  • Stephen

    Wilmark, same question from my side too. I’m using a 60D without any modification of the filters and no sensor cooling systems attached (instead, have no plans to do so as I use this cam for my normal photography too).