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The best telescopes for astrophotography and stargazing in 2021

best telescopes for astrophotography
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Choosing the best telescopes for astrophotography can be tricky if you're just starting out, but you've come to the right place! A good telescope is able to bring the mysteries of the night sky closer, enabling you to explore distant galaxies from the comfort of your own garden. However, if you love viewing the night sky, but you also want to capture some astrophotography, then figuring out which tools you need for the job can be a little trickier. 

Luckily, there are so many great options for the best telescope for astrophotography that users are often spoilt for choice. This means that you can figure out exactly which product will work best for you and your needs. Whether you're a beginner searching for a budget telescope to help explore your new hobby, or you're an experienced astrophotographer looking to upgrade your kit, we've listed our favorite telescopes for astrophotography down below.

Best telescopes: refracting or reflecting?

If you're new to the world of astronomical telescopes, some of the telescopes below might look a little odd. We're all used to 'refracting' telescopes, which are not unlike telephoto lenses, using a series of optical glass elements to focus an image captured at the front end into an eyepiece at the back.

But most astronomical telescopes use a 'reflecting' design. Instead of a large, glass objective lens at the front, they are essentially hollow tubes with a large parabolic reflecting mirror right at the back which does the same job. This mirror reflects the image back up to the front of the tube where a secondary mirror reflects it into an eyepiece in the side of the telescope (a 'Newtonian' reflector) or straight back down the tube and through a hole in the main mirror to an eyepiece in the conventional position at the back (a 'Schmidt Cassegrain' reflector). There are also 'Maksutov reflectors' which are a kind of hybrid, using a glass lens at the front to help focus the light for a mirror – just like 'catadioptric' mirror lenses for cameras, in fact!

Neither design has any specific optical advantages, but refracting telescopes tend to be longer and heavier, and those with large objective lenses to match reflecting telescopes tend to be pretty expensive. Reflecting telescopes tend to give you more light gathering power for your money, and because they 'fold' the light path within the barrel, they are a lot shorter.

Best telescope camera mounts

Astronomical telescopes may be designed primarily for naked eye viewing, so while all the telescopes in our list can be used for astrophotography too, you will usually need an adaptor to mount a camera on the telescope. Here are a couple of links to help:

Telescope adapters at B&H   • Telescope adapters at Wex

Now without any further ado, we invite you to boldly go where no man has gone before and discover the best telescope for you…

The best telescopes for astrophotography in 2021

Best reflecting telescopes

1. Celestron Astromaster 130EQ

Great all-round choice for the amateur astronomer

Optical design: Newtonian Reflector
Aperture: 130mm
Focal length: 650mm
Focal ratio: F/5
Magnifications (with eyepieces supplied): x33 & x65
Finderscope: Built in Star-Pointer
Mount: Equatorial with R/A motor drive for object tracking
Resolving power: 0.88 arc seconds
Limiting stellar magnitude: 14.2
Highest useful magnification: x250
Reasons to buy
+Larger aperture+Motor-driven equatorial mount+Good for long exposure astrophotography
Reasons to avoid
-Quite complex to set up

If you're after the best telescope for astrophotography and serious stargazing, we recommend the Celestron Astromaster 130EQ, which offers a great package for the slightly more experienced amateur astronomer. It comes with a tracking equatorial mount which allows the user to try their hand at longer exposure astrophotography, and its larger aperture will start to show more detail in all manner of different objects. Its optical system – a Newtonian reflector – will require collimating to perform to its potential. This process can be tricky for beginners, but with practice it's easily achieved. The overall package here would make a sound choice as a first serious telescope for astrophotography, and with practice and patience offers potential to produce some impressive images.

2. Celestron Nexstar 5SE

High-quality optics with a multitude of advanced features

Optical design: Schmidt Cassegrain
Aperture: 130mm
Focal length: 1250mm
Focal ratio: F/10
Magnifications (with eyepieces supplied): x50
Finderscope: Star Pointer
Mount: Alt-Az goto with object tracking
Resolving power: 0.88 arc seconds
Limiting stellar magnitude: 13.8
Highest useful magnification: x300
Reasons to buy
+Superb user friendly design+Enough aperture to show plenty of detail+Full GoTo system with easy alignment routine
Reasons to avoid
-Not ideal for longer exposure astrophotography

The Schmidt Cassegrain telescope is a very popular among amateur astronomers worldwide, thanks to its user-friendly design. The Celestron Nexstar 5SE is an entry-level system into this type of telescope. This well-designed telescope is suitable for most types of astrophotography, although perhaps best suited to lunar and planetary astrophotography as opposed to nebulae and galaxies, due to its longer focal length. There are also a wide range of accessories available, such as a device to allow automatic alignment with the night sky. 

3. Sky-Watcher Heritage-114P Virtuoso

Great choice for Canon DSLR users

Optical design: Newtonian Reflector
Aperture: 114mm
Focal length: 500mm
Focal ratio: F/4.38
Magnifications (with eyepieces supplied): x20 & x50
Finderscope: Red Dot Finder
Mount: Computerised Multi-Function Alt-Az Tracking Mount
Resolving power: 1.0 arc second
Limiting stellar magnitude: 13.9
Highest useful magnification: x250
Power requirement: 12v DC 1 Amp Power Supply (Tip Positive)
Reasons to buy
+Advanced features for a budget price+GoTo upgradeable
Reasons to avoid
-No tripod
GoTo handset sold separately
-Collimation required

The Sky-Watcher Heritage 114P telescope, though a small package, offers some great features for those wanting a small telescope to use for astrophotography. The mount provides a stable observing platform and will also track night-sky objects once located. The telescope can be slewed automatically in both axes, at five different speeds, via the mount's electronic keypad. Another cool feature is the Freedom-Find dual-encoder technology, which enables the telescope to be moved manually in either axis without losing its alignment or positional information. This is enormously convenient and offers great flexibility during observing sessions. The telescope also includes a Canon-D electronic shutter release cable, enabling automatic DSLR control at up to six preset positions. The smaller 90mm Sky-Watcher Heritage 90P is also worth considering. 

4. Skywatcher Skymax 127 SynScan AZ GoTo

A great starter scope for planetary photography

Optical design: Maksutov Reflector
Aperture: 127mm
Focal length: 1500mm
Focal ratio: F/11.8
Magnifications (with eyepieces supplied): x60, x120, x150 & x300
Finderscope: 6x30 optical finder
Mount: Alt-Az GoTo with object tracking
Resolving power: 0.9 arc seconds
Limiting stellar magnitude: 14.0
Highest useful magnification: x300
Reasons to buy
+GoTo tracking mount+Long focal length
Reasons to avoid
-Not well suited to long exposure photography

This telescope is a good example of one that is well suited to a particular area of astrophotography: due to its long focal length (1500mm), it is best for observing and photographing the Moon and planets. The telescope also comes with a Barlow lens to increase the focal length for higher power photography and observing. The whole package would be a great choice for those interested in specifically observing the Moon and planets, and its aperture is large enough to easily reveal features such as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot or clear views of Saturn’s ring system. However, it's not well suited to long-exposure photography of nebulae or galaxies. Can be found sold with and without its Go-To mount.

Refracting telescopes

(Image credit: Celestron)

5. Celestron Inspire 100AZ Refractor

A perfect first choice for beginners, whatever camera you use!

Optical design: Refractor
Aperture: 100mm
Focal length: 660mm
Focal ratio: f/6.5
Magnifications (with eyepieces supplied): 33x, 66x
Finderscope: StarPointer Pro
Mount: Manual Alt-Az with tripod
Resolving power: 1.45 arc seconds
Limiting stellar magnitude: 12.5
Highest useful magnification: 214x
Power requirement: N/A
Reasons to buy
+Simple to use+Low cost+Would be a good choice for kids
Reasons to avoid
-Limited to basic, short exposure photography

The Celestron Inspire Refractor is the best telescope for astrophotography for those just getting started out, or if you're on a on a limited budget. Though its mount is a basic un-driven alt-azimuth design, it will still enable you to get some impressive images of the lunar surface – which is by far the best initial target to try photographing. This telescope comes with an integrated smartphone adapter, which means you can mount your phone to the eyepiece to take photos. You could also easily mount a digital SLR to the telescope with a low cost adapter (available separately.)

(Image credit: Skywatcher )

6. Skywatcher Startravel-120 AZ-3

This telescope offers many advanced features for the price

Optical design: Refractor
Aperture: 120mm
Focal length: 600mm
Focal ratio: f/5
Magnifications (with eyepieces supplied): x24, x48, x60, x120
Finderscope: Red Dot Finder
Mount: EQ3-2 Equatorial Mount
Resolving power: 1.0 arc seconds
Limiting stellar magnitude: 12.7
Highest useful magnification: x240
Reasons to buy
+Tracking mount with IOS/Android WiFi control+Large aperture for great flexibility
Reasons to avoid
-Alt-AZ mount limits potential for long exposure work

The Skywatcher Startravel-120 is a great telescope for the price. Not only do you get a decent-sized refracting telescope at 120mm aperture, but it comes with a highly-respected EQ3-2 equatorial mount. It is easy to set up and use, giving you speedy access to a wide range of targets. The mount also has a DSLR shutter release port for camera control. The telescope itself is well suited to general observation and photography, but perhaps best for lunar and planetary photography.

Astrophotography jargon and features

• Motorized mount: This will track the motion of the sky over time. The Earth’s rotation means celestial objects appear to slowly progress across the sky from east to west, at roughly the apparent diameter of the full moon, every two minutes. If you use a telescopes that doesn't have a motorized mount, objects will appear to drift out of the field of view of the telescope, and you'll constantly have to manually re-centre the target object. This means you’ll be limited to shooting short-exposure photos of the Sun, Moon and planets. A telescope with a motorized mount that tracks the sky means you'll also be able to try your hand at long-exposure astrophotography.

• Equatorial mount: These are like regular pan and tilt tripods, but with the pan axis tilted to match the tilt of the earth. This means that you can follow stars and planets across the sky by moving your telescope on a single axis, motorized or otherwise.

• Focal length: This means the same in astrophotography as it does in regular photography. The longer the focal length, the narrower the angle of view and the greater the magnification. You should choose the focal length according to the size of the objects you are interested in.

• Aperture or lens size: The aperture of the telescope, or the size of its objective lens if it's a refracting type, is important. The larger a telescope's aperture, the more light it collects and the finer detail it can resolve. In general it is not worth considering a refracting telescope with a lens smaller than 75mm. 'Aperture' here does not mean the same as 'aperture' in photography. In astrophotography, what photographers call 'aperture' would be called the 'focal ratio'.

• Refracting telescope: This is the design familiar to most people, using optical lenses to focus on celestial objects. They are essentially like supertelephoto lenses, but designed for stargazing. These are the simplest type to set up and use.

• Newtonian reflector: These are shorter and fatter and use a parabolic mirror to reflect the image back up the tube to an angled mirror near the front. Mirror designs are more compact and often more affordable, but may require calibration or 'collimation'.

• Maksutov-Cassegrain reflector: These use mirrors too, but the secondary mirror at the front bounces the image back down the tube and through a hole in the main mirror at the rear to an eyepiece or a camera adaptor at the back. These are like the 'mirror lenses' once popular (and still made) for cameras.

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