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The best telescopes for astrophotography and stargazing in 2021

Included in this guide:

best telescopes for astrophotography
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Selecting one of the best telescopes for astrophotography can be tricky if you're just starting out in the hobby. Before making your choice, it's important to consider two very important things – what level of astrophotography you're looking to partake in and your budget.

If you're a beginner who has never dabbled in observing the night sky, let alone imaging, we recommend setting your sites on an "inclusive package" that allows you to try a bit of everything – from general observing to afocal astrophotography. These instruments often come with a tripod, mount, eyepieces, finderscope and, if you're lucky, a smartphone adapter.

If your needs are slightly more advanced, you should consider whether you're a deep-sky or Solar System imager. The aperture (or objective lens) of the telescope will be your guide on whether it's capable of capturing "faint fuzzies" or just enough to make the planets and lunar surface pop. The focal ratio is also an essential number to consider – fast telescopes with ratios of f/4 or f/5 are great for wide-field and deep-sky imaging, while slow instruments with ratios of f/11 to f/15 will offer dazzling high-power images of the Moon and planets. Meanwhile, the kind of mount you use will determine whether long-exposure astrophotography is possible.

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 the very best telescopes for astrophotography below.

First though, a primer on the type of telescopes you'll encounter in your search.

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

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: Red Dot Finder
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 – especially given that it comes with a CG-3 equatorial mount, which requires more practice and patience to use over the basic alt-azimuth.

The equatorial mount assists with tracking, which is essential for longer exposure astrophotography. Meanwhile its decent aperture will show a good amount of detail on solar system and deep-sky targets. However, in order to get the very best from the optical system – which is a Newtonian reflector –  you'll need to collimate the setup. This process can be tricky for beginners, but with practice it's easily achieved – especially given Celestron has supplied a manual that walks you through the process. The optical performance is very good, with no major visual defects visible and we enjoyed the stunning contrast and clarity in the field of view. 

The Celestron AstroMaster 130EQ comes fairly well equipped, and features two good quality eyepieces (20mm and 10mm), a StarPointer red dot finderscope and a free download of Starry Night Basic Software, allowing you to choose your targets and plan your observing session before heading outside. Be warned though: you won't be able to see all 36,000 objects in the software database using the 130mm aperture.  

Overall, the package is a sound choice as a first serious telescope for astrophotography. And, if you're a complete beginner, practice and patience will help you to yield some impressive images – more so, provided you accessorize the Celestron AstroMaster 130EQ with eyepieces that are respectful of the optical tube's useful magnifications. For example, it doesn't come with a Barlow lens, which will improve viewing and imaging further. 

Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ

(Image credit: Celestron)

2. Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ

An affordable all-rounder that allows for basic astrophotography

Optical design: Newtonian reflector
Aperture: 130mm
Focal length: 650mm
Focal ratio: f/5
Magnifications (with eyepieces supplied): x26, x65
Finderscope: Red Dot Finder
Mount: Alt-azimuth
Highest useful magnification: x307
Reasons to buy
+Excellent price+Very beginner friendly+Good-sized aperture+Portable
Reasons to avoid
-Undriven mount-Low-powered views only with supplied eyepieces-Only allows for basic astrophotography

The largest of Celestron's StarSense Explorer range, the Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ offers a very good aperture size and a selection of accessories – including two eyepieces (10mm and 20mm), star diagonal, StarPointer red-dot finder, alt-azimuth mount, tripod, smartphone dock and accessory tray – at a very reasonable cost. Set up is a simple process that takes no more than about 15 to 20 minutes.

The StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ is a fast telescope due to its focal ratio of f/5 and focal length of 650mm, that makes it better suited to low-power views of the night sky. We enjoyed a selection of planetary and deep-sky targets in the field of view. 

Before we began observing, we downloaded the StarSense App, which is supplied for free with the telescope. We encountered no problems installing it onto our iPhone 11 and found the interface to be extremely simple to navigate and use. The StarSense App is packed with planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies to explore – so if you don't know what to observe on your first night, there are plenty of recommendations. 

The app also makes short work of aligning the telescope, working accurately and offering plenty of guidance to ensure that the skywatcher is imaging and observing within minutes.

Our first target was Mars, which shone brightly in the south east. Slewing to the Red Planet as instructed by the app, we noted the screen "zoom in", which prompted us to use the slow-motion controls (which work smoothly enough) to bring our target into focus. The fourth planet from the Sun is an impressive sight through the StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ, especially when we added a 2x Barlow lens. At a magnification of 150x, Mars appears as a sharp disk with the south polar cap visible. 

Testing the StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ's mettle on fainter deep-sky targets, we slewed to the Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31) and the Triangulum Galaxy (Messier 33). We weren't disappointed with the views; they were clear, contrasty and demonstrated the reflector's ability to collect enough light for bright observations.

It's not possible to take long-exposure astrophotography due to the undriven amount but were able to take decent afocal shot using a smartphone and the supplied dock – results are pleasing and sure to delight beginners. 

(Image credit: Explore Scientific )

3. Explore Scientific N208CF Astrograph

An astrograph that can be accessorized for optimum results

Optical design: Newtonian reflector
Aperture: 208mm
Focal length: 812mm
Focal ratio: f/3.9
Finderscope: Not included
Mount: Not included
Reasons to buy
+Perfect for imaging the planets, Moon and deep-sky targets+Lightweight carbon-fiber tube+Fast focal ratio for shorter exposures
Reasons to avoid
-No accessories included-Focuser quality doesn't match the rest of the tube

The Explore Scientific N208CF has been developed with the assistance of astrophotographers and after putting this astrograph to the test, we could certainly tell – it features a HR Variable Coma Corrector, which allows for perfectly round stars. Newtonian reflectors are predisposed to "coma", an optical aberration that causes targets to have a tail – or appear smudged – during observations. We are delighted to see that views are of a high quality, with no defects in sight.

The overall design – as reflected in the cost – is of a high quality. The focuser doesn't share the same standard, but it did the job when bringing targets into a sufficiently fine-tuned view. At 8.66kg the instrument is quite lightweight, making it simple to find a mount and tripod that can support its weight.

Despite the excellent high-definition views we achieved through the N208CF, which included exquisite views of the rugged surface of the Moon, the atmospheric layers of Jupiter's surface, the Orion Nebula (Messier 42), the Eskimo Nebula (NGC 2392) and the Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33), this astrograph is quite pricey given that it doesn't come with any accessories, a tripod or mount. 

That's not too much of a problem though, especially given that it allows you to choose your add-ons and create a set up that allows you to optimize your experience of imaging the night sky – and you can certainly get exceptional images through the N208CF. A must-have for the serious astrophotographer.

(Image credit: Celestron)

High-quality optics with a multitude of advanced features

Optical design: Schmidt Cassegrain
Aperture: 125mm
Focal length: 1250mm
Focal ratio: f/10
Magnifications (with eyepieces supplied): x50
Finderscope: Red Dot Finder
Mount: Alt-Azimuth, GoTo with object tracking
Resolving power: 0.93 arc seconds
Limiting stellar magnitude: 13
Highest useful magnification: x295
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

Very popular among amateur astronomers worldwide, the Celestron NexStar 5SE is an extremely user-friendly option for those who are not just starting out in observing, but who are also keen to try their hand at astrophotography. 

It features a computerized mount, which enables the astronomer to spend more time imaging and observing instead of spending huge amounts of time tracking down targets in the night sky: at the simple touch of a button on the included hand control, you can lock onto your chosen object and get stargazing right away. What's more, the SkyAlign technology is a breeze to use and, in our experience, aligned the instrument within minutes.  

The telescope's design is exquisite given the cost and we are impressed with the optical performance. Given its focal ratio of f/10, the NexStar 5SE is a fast telescope, meaning it's best suited to lunar and planetary astrophotography.  We found that views and resulting images are clear and crisp through this Schmidt-Cassegrain, craters along the Moon's terminator (where night meets day), are particularly impressive. Beginners and seasoned astrophotographers will also enjoy picking out detail on the surface of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – we highly recommend accessorizing this telescope with a range of filters for optimum results.    

The Celeston NexStar 5SE is quite portable, and since it's comprised of three different components – the optical tube, mount and steel tripod – assembly takes no more than about 10 minutes.

5. 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 hugely portable instrument to use for astrophotography.

This reflector comes equipped with a couple of fair-quality eyepieces (10mm and 25mm), but we do recommend adding a Barlow lens to the kit to ramp up the magnification. What we can see through in the field of view, though, is sure to delight those just starting out in astronomy and astrophotography: there is a decent amount of contrast and clarity when capturing bright deep-sky targets, the planets and cratered lunar surface, especially given the reasonable price tag.

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 standout 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. If you're shopping around, or have a smaller budget, the 90mm Sky-Watcher Heritage 90P is also worth considering. 

6. Sky-Watcher Skymax 127 SynScan AZ GoTo

A great starter scope for planetary photography

Optical design: Maksutov-Cassegrain
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. So, if you know you'll be studying the rings of Saturn, imaging the Moon's mountains, craters and mare or chasing Jupiter's Great Red Spot, then the Sky-Watcher Skymax 127 could be the instrument for you. 

As we have mentioned previously, a Barlow lens will serve you well for astrophotography – this Maksutov-Cassegrain is supplied with one, pushing your magnification up by 2x and increasing your focal length for better observing and photography.  

In terms of build, the overall package is of a very good quality. The optical tube assembly is a particular highlight, and we appreciated the excellent finish. The optics offered pin-sharp views of a selection of solar system targets with no coma, or other optical defects, hugely visible.  

The Sky-Watcher Skymax 127 is a great choice for those who are planetary and lunar enthusiasts. However, it's not well suited to long-exposure photography of deep-sky objects such as nebulae or galaxies. It's possible to purchase this telescope with or without a GoTo mount, depending on your kit preferences – whatever you decide though, a Vixen dovetail fixture means that the tube can be fitted to a variety of mounts, offering a great deal of flexibility for the astrophotographer. 

Refracting telescopes

(Image credit: Celestron)

7. Celestron Inspire 100AZ

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
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 100AZ is our recommended telescope for the ultimate beginner, or for those on a tight budget. Given the complete package, which features a 10mm and 20mm eyepiece, erect image star diagonal, accessory tray, smartphone adapter, Starry Night Software, red LED flashlight for preserving night vision and a StarPointer Pro red dot finderscope, you truly get more bang for your buck with the Inspire series of telescopes.

Though its mount is a basic undriven 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. As with the majority of instruments, the Inspire 100AZ's optics are multicoated providing good clarity for the low price tag. Color fringing is visible in images, but this is to be expected through the optical system of a budget telescope.

The integrated smartphone adapter means you can mount your phone to the eyepiece to take photos. You can also easily mount a digital SLR to the telescope with a low cost adapter (this is available separately), although be mindful of the loading weight of this instrument when attaching additional pieces of kit.

(Image credit: Sky-Watcher)

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
-Some chromatic aberration

The Sky-Watcher Startravel 120 is a great telescope, given the price. Not only do you get a decent-sized 120mm aperture, it also comes with a highly-respected EQ3-2 equatorial mount to make tracking a breeze. Two eyepieces and a Barlow lens are supplied in the package, along with a fair quality tripod – although we did find the accessory tray to be fiddly to attach.

On the whole, the instrument is easy to set up and use, giving you speedy access to a wide range of targets. The mount features a DSLR shutter release port for camera control, but after our experience with it, the telescope itself is well suited to general observation and photography. 

The optics offer very impressive views of the night sky, with only a slight degree of color fringing that can easily be edited out with the right image editing software. We feel that the Sky-Watcher Startravel is best for lunar and planetary photography, but it's definitely worth dabbling in deep-sky imaging, particularly the shooting of bright deep-sky targets such as the Orion Nebula (Messier 42) and the Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31).

(Image credit: Sky-Watcher)

Provides excellent images, with next to no color fringing

Optical design: Maksutov-Cassegrain
Apeture: 180mm
Focal length: 2700mm
Focal ratio: f/15
Magnifications (with eyepieces supplied): x96
Finderscope: 9x50
Mount: Not included
Highest usable magnification: x360
Reasons to buy
+Excellent sharp focus+Very little color fringing +Produces top-of-the-range planetary images 
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive, especially since no mount or tripod are supplied

The Sky-Watcher SkyMax-180 PRO features a long focal length, which makes it ideal for those who like to image the members of the solar system. Its Maksutov-Cassegrain design offers excellent, high-clarity views of the cratered surface of the Moon, very good contrast of Jupiter's atmospheric bands and belts, spectacular views of the dust storms that rage across the face of red planet Mars, and enables astrophotographers to pick out the Cassini Division in Saturn's rings. 

While it's famed for planetary and lunar imaging, the Sky-Watcher SkyMax-180 PRO is also capable of giving fair views of a selection of bright nebulae and galaxies, particularly those that take up a larger section of the sky – the Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31) and the Orion Nebula (Messier 42) in particular are worthwhile astrophotography targets through this telescope. 

Sky-Watcher prides itself in creating an instrument that stops chromatic aberration – also known as color fringing – from ruining views and images taken through the SkyMax-180 PRO. We were pleased to find that no purple-blue tints are visible along the limb of luminous targets such as the Moon and Jupiter, which both dazzle at magnitudes -12.6 and -2.7.

A downside of the Sky-Watcher SkyMax-180 PRO is that it doesn't come with a mount, tripod or a great deal of eyepieces, despite the hefty price tag. With any instrument, the more you accessorize, the better the views get provided the astrophotographer is respectful of the optical tube assembly's highest useful magnification. With the tube exuding a high-quality finish and manufactured using robust materials, the SkyMax-180 PRO weighs in at 7.8kg – we recommend purchasing a heavy-duty mount such as the Sky-Watcher HEQ5 to support the heft, especially given that accessories and a camera will add to the weight. 

(Image credit: Vaonis)

A smart telescope for good solo or group imaging

Optical design: Refractor
Aperture: 80mm
Focal length: 400mm
Focal ratio: f/5
Magnification: x50 and up to x100 with digital zoom
Finderscope: Not included
Mount: Motorized GoTo Alt-Azimuth
Reasons to buy
+Makes astrophotography easy+No need to purchase accessories such as eyepieces, filters and finderscopes+Can connect up to ten smartphones or tablets for group imaging+Compact and portable
Reasons to avoid
-Very expensive-Database features no more than 100 deep-sky targets

The Vaonis Stellina Observation Station and Hybrid Telescope is quite unlike any other telescope you may have come across. Conventionally, these instruments make use of a finderscope and eyepieces – the futuristic Stellina has no need for these, with all of its optical and imaging prowess packed inside a futuristic design. 

That means no more hunting for your accessories in the dark, although this smart piece of kit will ruin your night vision given that a smartphone with the downloadable Stellina app is used to control navigation of the night sky as well as serving as your field of view. Granted, this is a minor trade off given that the wireless functionality means that you can observe from the comfort of your home and with up to ten other astronomers (the telescope is able to connect to multiple devices simultaneously). 

The Vaonis Stellina Observation Station and Hybrid Telescope features a Sony CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) sensor, making it capable of producing 6.4MP images with a resolution of 3096 x 2080. Image formats are in JPEG and Raw, with the former readily shareable on social media.

Deep-sky objects are a joy to image through the 80mm aperture – standout candidates are the Hercules Cluster (Messier 13), the Ring Nebula (Messier 57) and the Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31): all targets are visible in decent clarity. With an in-built light pollution filter and stacking engine, creating good images of the night sky is nothing short of a breeze.

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. 

Read more:

Astrophotography: How-to guides, tips and videos
Astrophotography tools: the best camera, lenses and gear
The best lenses for astrophotography
The best star tracker camera mounts
The best light pollution filters
The best CCD cameras for astrophotography
The best spotting scopes in 2021
The best binoculars
The best microscopes

Gemma Lavender

Gemma is content director of science and space magazines How It Works and All About Space, history magazines All About History and History of War as well as Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) kids education brand Future Genius. She is the author of several books including "Quantum Physics in Minutes", "Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual to the Large Hadron Collider" and "Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual to the Milky Way". She holds a degree in physical sciences, a Master’s in astrophysics and a PhD in computational astrophysics. She was elected as a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2011. Previously, she worked for Nature's journal, Scientific Reports, and created scientific industry reports for the Institute of Physics and the British Antarctic Survey. She has covered stories and features for publications such as Physics World, Astronomy Now and Astrobiology Magazine.