Updated: Nov 29, 2020
Christmas is just around the corner, and once again, hundreds of people are looking to buy a telescope for the first time, either for themselves, their partner, or a family child. Sadly, the world of telescopes is a very confusing one, there are thousands of options, and most telescopes will not function properly without the correct mount, accessories or adapters.
Most people who decide to gift a telescope for Christmas assume it will make them fall in love with the stars and astronomy. Often times, buying a terrible telescope will have the opposite effect and will be a "hobby killer". Let's make sure that doesn't happen to you.
In this post, I am going to recommend a few telescopes that are perfect for complete beginners and are great fo long-term use. I will not list dozens of products but instead will go straight to the point and tell you why I suggest getting one of four variations of a telescope. Although this post will mostly focus on telescopes for visual astronomy, I'll also quickly talk about astrophotography-dedicated telescopes in case this is what you are looking for.
Rule #1 - Never buy a cheap telescope from a large retailer
Before we begin, I wanted to remind you to not fall into the trap of buying a cheap telescope from retailers like Walmart or Target. These are often inside colorful boxes that show the moon, galaxies and nebulae as if you could see these objects through the eyepiece. Wrong. These telescopes (at least 99% of them) are absolutely terrible. They are mass produced and sold by thousands each year around Christmas time because parents believe it will allow their kids to observe deep sky objects and fall in love with astronomy.
These are made of plastic, will break easily, and will suffer from terrible chromatic aberration (meaning you will see strange greenish or purple colors through it that shouldn't be there).
For the fun of it, we actually reviewed one of these cheap telescopes on our channel last year, which you can watch below.
Best telescopes for Christmas time - Visual
Telescopes are made for two main activities: Visual and Astrophotography.
Most people looking to buy their first telescope, especially around Christmas time, will want to be able to look through the eyepiece and observe planets, galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. If this is your case, you will want to get a telescope for visual! You will still be able to do some really basic astrophotography with it, using your smart phone and taking pictures of the planets and the moon through the eyepiece, but do not expect to be able to attach a camera and get incredible images of deep sky objects with one of the telescopes below.
The four telescopes below are from Orion Telescopes & Binoculars. The most affordable one starts at $399.99. Yes, it is pricy, but know that this is a great long term investment! We are not affiliated with Orion Telescopes & Binoculars in any way, but our absolute favorite telescope line for visual is Orion's Dobsonian "XT" series.
Orion XT8 & XT8i:
The Orion XT8 is in my opinion the perfect telescope for a complete beginner. It is affordable, just compact enough to be portable, and simple to assemble. The XT8 is fully manual, while the XT8i comes with encoders and a controller, it will tell you exactly where to slew the telescope upon entering a target from its tens of thousands of listed objects. This is a fantastic option if you plan on really getting into the hobby and want to observe thousands of deep sky objects without having to struggle too much, but it has one drawback. If you choose the XT8i version, you will need to also purchase a battery (unless you observe from your backyard then you can plug it in directly into a wall outlet) as it will need power.
Instrument type: Reflector
Focal Length: 1200mm
Focal Ratio: f/5.9
Telescope Length: 46.5 in.
Telescope weight: 20.7 lbs
Mount Type: Dobsonian
Mount weight: 20.7 lbs for XT8, 21.3 lbs for XT8i
Orion XT10 & XT10i:
The Orion XT10 and XT10i are pretty much the same as the XT8 and XT8i, but they have a higher aperture and a faster focal ratio.
This means the telescope will gather more light and so you will be able to resolve fainter objects through the eyepiece. They will also appear crisper and more detailed. Note that the XT10 and XT10i are of course a little bit heavier, larger, and pricier.
Instrument type: Reflector
Focal Length: 1200mm
Focal Ratio: f/4.7
Telescope Length: 47.8 in.
Telescope weight: 30.8 lbs
Mount Type: Dobsonian
Mount weight: 20.7 lbs for XT10, 21.3 lbs for XT10i
Eyepieces for your new telescope
One thing that is often overlooked is eyepieces. You will need at least one eyepiece to observe the night sky through the telescope. Eyepieces come in many sizes and can be both very affordable or extremely pricy.
For beginners, we suggest to get two affordable eyepieces, one for a "wide" field of view, meaning you'll be able to look through the telescope without any of the field cropped out, and one planetary eyepiece. Planetary eyepieces will magnify your view to really get a close up on your target, which is perfect for planets and even the craters of the moon!
Great overall eyepiece: Orion Plossl 32mm
Great planetary eyepiece: Omegon 5mm Planetary
For an extra bonus, you could also get a 2x or 3x barlow that attached between the eyepiece and the telescope and will double or triple your magnification!
A note about doing visual astronomy
Many people will often be very excited when receiving their first telescope. They will set it up in their backyard and expect to see incredibly bright and colorful objects. Please do not expect that.
There are two issues when it comes to observing space:
Almost all deep sky objects (which does not include planets, the moon, and comets) will appear blurry and gray. The amount of detail you will see (for example within the gases of a nebula or the arms of a galaxy) will depend on your telescope's aperture. When you see pictures of bright and colorful objects, like the ones in our gallery, know that these were taken by stacking many long exposure photos, which our eyes cannot do. The magic of visual astronomy is that you are looking at galaxies, nebula and more the same way the first astronomers did hundreds of years ago.
Observing from your backyard is fine… for just a few objects. Planets and the moon can easily be observed from anywhere because they are so bright! Galaxies, nebulae and some clusters on the other hand, are very faint and can be completely washed out by light pollution. If you live in a light polluted area (pretty much any city) then you might feel disappointed when looking at space through the eyepiece.
We have a post explaining how light pollution affects this hobby and how to escape it, so make sure to read it! If you can, try to drive to a darker zone (for us, we usually drive about an hour away from Las Vegas), then look through your eyepiece again. Chances are, your jaw will drop!
Beginner telescopes for Astrophotography
If you plan on starting astrophotography, you will want to get a telescope dedicated to that. The main difference between visual and astrophotography telescopes is their focal ratio (or "speed"). The speed of a telescope tells how much light it can gather in a specific amount of time, as astrophotography is done with long exposure shots.
If you are looking for a telescope for astrophotography, please refer to the guides below. Know that you will also need a great motorized equatorial mount, adapters, and more.
The Orion XT8 Dobsonian telescope was the very first telescope I looked through when I was just getting started. I fell in love immediately. The XT10 version is a great upgrade, as long as you are willing to carry the extra weight and make it fit in your trunk if you plan on observing away from home.
Both the XT8i and XT10i are fantastic for people who do not want to struggle finding each target, and is a very simple feature to use as long as it is connected to a power source.
Make sure to get at least one eyepiece to add to your gift, and have fun observing the wonders of the night sky!
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Description: Discover 60 Deep Sky Objects that will considerably improve your Imaging and Processing skills! Whether you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced astrophotographer, this detailed book of the best deep sky objects will serve as a personal guide for years to come! Discover which star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies are the easiest and most impressive to photograph for each season. Learn how to find each object in the night sky, and read our recommendations on imaging them in a quick and comprehensive way. Each target in this guide contains our advice on imaging, photos of expected results, and a useful information table. We've also included a few cool facts about each target, a map to find it in the night sky, and more!
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