Choosing a telescope can be overwhelming with thousands of models to choose from in prices ranging from the affordable to five figures for consumer level telescopes. It can be difficult to know where to start.  If you have little to no experience with astronomy and are are curious, know that astronomers genuinely want to help.  They love sharing what they love to help spark that interest in astronomy.  Being part of a community, and checking out local astronomy club events will go a long way in helping you decide what you want to get out of owning a telescope.  It can also give you some kind of idea of what a telescope can do.  You'll find a wide range of telescope types at star parties and club meet ups.   Reach out to your local club and find out when they have open house nights, or if there are any outreach events you can attend.  

Before we start, ask yourself some questions.

Why do you want a telescope?

What would you like to see?

Is it a gift? Who is it for?  

Do you have a budget in mind?  

These questions may seem like an odd way to start your journey to exploring the cosmos, but the answers will help you find the right fit. 

While it is tempting to buy the telescope with the lowest price tag, it's important to keep realistic expectations. Sure, the thing can give you a 190x magnification (relative to what you might ask?), and yes you can see Saturn.  However in your mind's eye, the expectation may be that of an image taken by a NASA space probe while the delivery from an entry level telescope will be considerably different than that.   That isn't to say an entry level or "budget" telescope can't see planets, quite the contrary, but what your eye can see and what a research-grade imager floating through space can pick up can often be at odds with new astronomer expectations.  

The key is learning how to see a planet, and get the most out of the a telescope.  There are telescopes of all budget levels that can provide incredible views, so it's less a question of cost and more a question of what you're willing to put your money toward.  Optics are crucial, but users that want the ease of a computerized system may need to compromise on aperture for instance to stay within budget.

Let's start the dive and talk about why you should probably rethink the first impulsive telescope choice. Most likely you will come across what is commonly known as a big box store telescope, one that is sold off the shelf with little to no help from customer service reps who are often provided canned answers anyway.  They are more interested in selling a product than than helping a customer find the right fit.

So let's revisit those questions.  

Why are you buying a telescope? If the answer is "I want to see everything, planets, star clusters, wildlife - all of it." Or if you're hoping to catch a specific astronomy event, then understanding scale is vital to answering this question for yourself. If you are looking for something to view planets, a large aperture telescope is required. In fact the bigger it is, the better, because it will gather more light something the human eye is very reliant on to see any detail.  Of course your storage space and ability to assemble a telescope alone will put some limits on the size of the telescope that makes sense for you, but let's start simple.  


In the realm of large apertures and bang for buck, nothing beats a Dobsonian.  These simple but effective telescopes feature large mirrors with a very basic tube to house them in.  They often lack the bells and whistles of other telescope designs, but make up for it by being affordable and BIG.  At their price point, a Dob allows for good views of planets as well as other celestial objects.  Let’s take a look at the Celestron StarSense Explorer 8” Dobsonian.  One critical aspect of this telescope, and others like it, is that it is 100% manually controlled with little to no electronics or on-board computer systems. The StarSense Explorer 8” has the ability to attach your cellular device to act as a compass to help point you in the right direction of any particular object you wish to see.  This does help lower the learning curve in finding night sky objects, and the upside of no motors or computer systems is that you will not need additional power supply in the field or an outlet to plug into.  This also means that Dobsonians are quiet and can be operated by people of nearly all ages (with some oversight for younger children).  They make great family or first telescopes, and you’ll find experienced astronomers that are interested in visual astronomy have a soft spot for these optical giants.  Dobsonians do have their eyepieces located on the upper end of the telescope toward the smaller secondary mirror.  This is something to keep in mind as the larger the Dob, the taller it will be and it may require a stool to reach the eyepiece.    

But what if your issue is space saving, or you want to pack it along with all the other fun things you have planned for the outdoors or your camping trip? The biggest problem with a big telescope is that it takes up a lot of space. Even collapsible Dobsonians such as the Sky-Watcher Flextube 200P Collapsible Dobsonian, though surprisingly portable for their aperture, can take up a lot of space in the limited volume of a small car or apartment. 

This is where Sky-Watcher Skymax 127 AZ-GTi Maksutov-Cassegrain style telescopes shine. Don’t get hung up on the name. This is a small reflecting telescope that was designed in such a way to give as much punch in a compact size as possible.  “Wait a second, didn’t you just say that bigger is better?” Well, yes, but 5 inches for Mak-Cass optics is considered big thanks to the mirrors and lenses used in this optical design.   They have excellent contrast and provide bright views, doing the most with the available gathered light for their aperture.  The SkyMax system itself comes apart in smaller pieces and can easily be packed away for transportation too making these scopes easy to set up, and easy to transport to a dark sky spot whether that's your backyard or a road trip away. Importantly, there is zero maintenance on the telescope's optics. It is an outstanding choice for users that want great optics and a motorized system. 


Moving on to wanting to see something specific.  Astronomical events always spur an interest in astronomy and many will find themselves rushing to buy a telescope excited to catch a glimpse of a comet, eclipse (be sure to get the right filter or solar scope to view the Sun) or some other event.  However, astronomy can be a lifelong hobby and any telescope, regardless of your budget, can last decades if chosen wisely.  That telescope will be a window to the night sky that has a treasure trove of other things to discover.  Choosing a telescope that has some versatility will help you get the best out of your first purchase. Enter the 80mm refractor.  

There are truly tons of telescopes to pick from in this aperture, but the key take-away is something inexpensive and quick. More importantly, it has to actually work. Behold, the Celestron StarSense Explorer LT 80AZ with the built in Smartphone holder. Where does this telescope excel? Do not go for high magnification. This is not what it is for!  The beauty behind an 80mm refractor (a telescope that uses only lenses rather than mirrors) is that it’s not affected by atmospheric issues as much as large telescopes. This appears as a rippling when you view through the eyepiece. The higher the magnification and aperture, the worse this effect gets. A small aperture telescope used at a medium magnification can provide some great views and be used for visual, imaging, land and sky observing with the right set of accessories. The Celestron StarSense telescope also has the ability to find objects using the smartphone app, thus fulfilling the need for that quick fix and wanting to look. 

Here’s a curve ball you might not see coming: if your interest in astronomy is just to quickly see something, a telescope may not be the right fit at all!  Consider a pair of astronomy binoculars.  They are nothing more than two small telescopes attached together. You will need a way to hold them steady since they’re larger and heavier than your typical birding binoculars, but will have the same bang for buck with similar apertures. They have the added versatility of being extremely portable, and able to be used for other usual binocular applications such as wildlife observing. The Celestron - SkyMaster 15x70 Binoculars is a must-have when it comes to size and portability. Coupled with a tripod adapter and tripod, you have yourself a comet finding porthole that can scan the skies.

Now this boils down to “Who’s it for?” We ask this question very specifically. Why? You might ask. The short answer is that we want to know who is using it. If we know it’s for your kids, we need to identify if you are the one setting up and operating it or if they will and what their ability to do so is. How this changes things is mainly about how the telescope will be used and if it will be under supervision.   A curious 3rd grader might be ready for a telescope for instance, but you’d be wise to avoid something with a complex set-up or that requires a good deal of set up or is high maintenance.  Optical glass can quickly become heavy.  If it’s for the kids but would be used with adult supervision, you’ll want something that is low maintainence but can take advantage of more complex systems that have more features or larger apertures that may need adult strength to lift and assemble.  

So what does work for a young astronomer without needing much adult supervision during their observing sessions?  You need a telescope that doesn’t break the bank, is small, lightweight, very low maintanence, easy to control, and can withstand use at the hands of a child.   The Celestron 70mm Travelscope is a perfect fit.  Complete with a table top tripod and backpack.  It comes with all of the accessories you need to start observing right out of the box. 

You may be looking for a telescope that everyone can enjoy, but that the adults in the house can also be satisfied with using alone.  One of the best selling telescopes, the Celestron NexStar 8SE is popular mainly because it meets all the criteria for a wide range of users. The ability to supervise kids when using the telescope means that the adult can control the telescope and then allow them to look in turns. There is nothing to touch, other than the hand controller, and will not be easily knocked out of alignment.  The optics are a sealed optical tube so the maintenance is low, and the 8 inch aperture allows for some great views without being overly large or difficult for a single adult to set up.  There is reason this is one of the most popular telescopes and has been for years.  The Nexstar 8SE would be considered a mid-range telescope, not inexpensive but also not out of reach for many that are serious about investing in astronomy as a hobby.  The trade-off for that mid-range price is the large aperture to view planets and the light gathering power to be able to pick out those faint fuzzies, as we are fond of calling them. A fully computerized base that will find objects accurately for you means less time finding objects and more time viewing.  

But what if this was actually a gift and not for you?  Consider their experience level, possible expectations and general ability. Let’s assume that the recipient is under the age of 15 or so and wants to get into astronomy. Sky-Watcher has a brilliant little table-top telescope known as the Virtuoso GTi 130P. A small lightweight mini Dobsonian that can be controlled with a tablet/smartphone device. Don’t be fooled by its small compactness. Remember, you are buying a gift that will open up their interest into the world of astronomy. You want something that they can learn while exploring. Couple this with a good book as a learning aid, download a good astronomy app, and they will be well on their way to becoming the next Carl Sagan!

How about a nice retirement gift, a gift for an intermediate astronomer, or science curious adult? You have to be careful here, as there is a major difference between a decorative telescope (even if it can be used to view the night sky) and a practical one. Either way, this has always been a notorious mine field. Often times the best choice is to go shopping together and talk to us!  We're here to help make the right choice and find a system that works best for the person using the telescope.  In the meantime, how about a Gift Certificate to start them on their way? 


You can call us Monday through Saturday at 818.347.2270 or email us at [email protected].

Woodland Hills Camera & Telescopes is located at 5348 Topanga Canyon Woodland Hills, CA 91364. Our store is open Monday through Saturday and our friendly and knowledable staff is here to help! 

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